The word "scandal" here is important to understand in its technical sense. Robert George and Gerard Bradley explain it as follows:
"Scandal": that is, weakening the faith and moral resolution of others by one’s bad example.
Scandal is not a peculiarly Catholic or even religious concern. Business executives who wink at accounting shenanigans or racist humor permit a corrupt or racist corporate culture to flourish. We have all heard of cases where male employees’ sexual bantering was tolerated, despite a firm’s pretense of wholesomeness and sexual equality. Actions speak louder than words. Where leaders do not act to uphold stated principles, everyone concludes that the principles are nothing more than cynical propaganda. No one need take them too seriously.
"Scandal occurs in religious communities in the same way, and has the same effect. When Catholic Church officials did nothing about priests who abused children, those who knew the facts had to wonder: Do church authorities not really mean it when they say these acts are immoral? Are such acts really wrong, if nothing happens to those known to perform them? If they are wrong, wouldn’t the bishops act decisively against those who commit them?
"The same concern underlies the discussion of what Church leaders did and failed to do during the Holocaust. No serious person suggests that the German bishops or Vatican officials actively supported the Nazis’ murderous policies. The suggestion, rather, is that by their (alleged) failure to denounce those policies and to excommunicate those Nazi leaders who had Catholic backgrounds, Church officials signaled that Catholics could legitimately support Nazi policies without peril to their souls or to their standing in the Church. … If the Church is to be in solidarity with victims of injustice, bishops must not permit those Catholics who commit or abet the injustices to pretend to be Catholics in good standing with the Church."
(Robert P. George & Gerard V. Bradley National Review Online January 29, 2004)
This paragraph addresses the common situation in which public officials cannot bring about complete protection for human life but can make some progress in that direction by supporting "imperfect legislation." For example, if a nation gives unborn children no protection at all from abortion -- as is the case in the United States -- and if the legislative support for a ban on all abortions is not yet present, then the public official may support a proposal that brings some protection.
Why is this not a moral compromise? First of all, the public official is not voting to legalize abortion. It is already legal, through the act of someone else (in this case, Supreme Court Justices). So the current defect in the law is not the fault of the public official.
Secondly, the public official is not saying that any abortion is justified. In fact, in voting for an "imperfect law," the public official has to be careful to avoid scandal and should make it clear his/her opposition to all abortions, including those that will remain legal under the proposed legislation.
Finally, the public official must aim for the maximum progress possible under the current circumstances.
[Read a full explanation of these principles]
An analogous dilemma faces voters when they evaluate the candidates. One of the reasons that some Christians don't vote is that the slate of candidates isn't that great. They feel compromised, dirty, or even sinful by casting a ballot for someone with whom they disagree.
Now it is true that to vote for someone who will advance un-Christian policies, precisely because you want them to, while rejecting a better, viable alternative, is indeed sinful. But when you are faced with two candidates, neither of whom is perfect (which should not be a surprise!), but one of whom is clearly closer in his/her convictions to the Gospel than the other, it is perfectly legitimate to vote for the better one.
Some mistakenly call this "the lesser of two evils." It is not. In this example, one is not choosing evil at all. Rather, one is choosing a good. The good is the reduction, as much as possible, of an existing evil.
A clear example arises with abortion. All abortions are currently legal. If one candidate wants to eliminate more abortions than the other one, my vote for the one who wants to eliminate more can be seen as an effort to reduce the evil of legal abortion, and a choice to reduce evil is precisely a good.
Now some Christians, not finding a candidate who is willing to eliminate all abortions, do not vote at all. It is a mistake, however, for these Christians to think they will be "tainted" by voting for an imperfect candidate. The vote is not a vote for canonization, nor is it a declaration that one agrees with every position the candidate takes. (The only way to do that is to vote for yourself!)
What then, is the vote? It is a practical exercise in leadership, by which we do our part to put people into office who can make some improvement in our country's policies. Both we and the elected official are obliged to make the maximum improvement possible at the moment. At the same time, nobody is morally bound to what is impossible, and it is perfectly legitimate to recognize the limits of what is possible.
Every abortion is wrong, and somebody else's sinful choice made them legal, not ours. No vote can end them all today. But a vote that can help reduce the evil is, in fact, a good.
Click here for more on what to do when none of the candidates seem acceptable.
The law of the land can change…
Some politicians who support abortion take refuge in the slogan that it is, after all, "the Law of the land." But "the law of the land" allows us to change the law of the land -- and that has happened many times in our history. Fr. Clifford Stevens, Founder of the National Organization for Embryonic Law has put together a wealth of research that provides a perspective on how, with time and evidence, injustices have been uprooted and Constitutional rights expanded. A summary follows; for the full body of research, see www.priestsforlife.org/government/intro.htm.
America has, on various occasions, recovered the recognition of the equal dignity of those who were deprived of their rights and suffered violence which was given legal cover under a different name. This legal cover was often mistakenly recognized by the Supreme Court for a while, but then such decisions were overturned.
Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856) is the most commonly cited instance. The slaveholder's right to property eclipsed and subsumed the slave's right to freedom. But the Constitution was eventually amended to correct the error.
Decisions like Lochner v. New York (1905) show us another error: employers' right to contract eclipsed and subsumed the workers' rights to humane conditions and hours. These abuses were corrected by subsequent Supreme Court decisions like Muller v. Oregon and Bunting v. Oregon.
The "Separate but equal" doctrine of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) sanctioning segregation was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education some 58 years later.
Erroneous decisions like Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918) institutionalized child labor. But this was overturned 23 years later by United States v. Darby. A new development -- a "pedagogical moment" -- occurred here in Constitutional law. The question was whether constitutional rights applied to children too. The answer was yes.
Many reversals of Supreme Court cases came about when new evidence was brought forward that made it clear that someone's rights, not previously recognized, were being violated. Thus, Louis Brandeis brought forward the facts about how workers were being harmed.
Now, with some 200 embryological sciences, and massive evidence of the harm abortion does to women, such evidence, combined with new legal concepts, can challenge Roe vs. Wade in the same way its erroneous ancestral decisions were challenged.
What are some examples of how "scandal," in its technical sense, affects our lives?
How can we give people hope, from history, that Roe vs. Wade can be overturned?