Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Partisanship and the faith

I saw this image on Facebook today. It seemed to me to be the epitome of what happens when we let our political partisanship trump our Catholic faith.

After all, what does the sign mean when it says that Democrats are "soft on terrorists?" The ill-advised War on Terror continues, after all. People--our own countrymen and women among them--are still being killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. The present administration, for all of its pre-election promises of speedy withdrawal from these conflicts, has not delivered on these promises, and our young men and women remain in harm's way.

No, what the sign means, I think, is that Democrats are less enthusiastic about "enhanced interrogation" than Republicans, who will presumably appoint Jack Bauer as the Torture Czar if they win the White House in 2012.

Catholics, of course, should be enthusiasts for neither torture nor abortion. We should be able to say to both the Democrats and the Republicans, "No, sorry. We don't like abortion, and we also don't like torture. In fact, we think both of them are evil. We'd rather not vote for people who support these things at all."

But in our two-party system, saying such a thing means, of course, that the Baby-Killers and Terrorists Win. The fact that there are few Republicans willing to oppose ESCR, for example, is just a distraction--hey, at least Republicans are only supporting the death of the unborn if there's money to be made in medical research as a result of it, right?

I think we need to remember something, something that's going to be on a lot of people's minds as we approach election season:

Voting for the
lesser of two evils…
is still voting for evil.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Subsidiarity: a misunderstood principle of Catholic social morality

Apparently, Louisiana has passed a law which allows those with permits to carry concealed guns to carry them in churches as well.

The law also permits churches to place a restriction where the law does not. From the AP article:
The law allows concealed handguns in churches, synagogues or mosques for those with a valid permit and training. It also says those with authority over a church have the final say in their church.

This actually strikes me as exactly the right balance for a government with no ecclesiastical ties. Why? The principle of subsidiarity.

Here is how the Catechism describes subsidiarity:
The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co-ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."(Centissimus Annus, 48)
...
The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.

In other words, the State (in this case, Louisiana and the United States of America,) has no right to intervene beyond its own limits; for example, under the roof of a church. So, while adjudicating the civil right to keep and bear arms does indeed fall under the authority of the State, this authority holds only for the public sphere.

I would expect a court to uphold my right, for example, to forbid concealed weapons within my own residence, for example.

But setting "limits for state intervention" is merely one of the effects of subsidiarity; it is not its purpose. The purpose of subsidiarity is to keep different kinds of authority, and different levels of authority within those different kinds, in good order. Subsidiarity applies to families and corporations just as much as it does to governments.

(This, by the way, is what Deal Hudson gets wrong in his article at InsideCatholic. He seems to conflate subsidiarity and privatization. A private collectivism is just as inhumane as a public one. Not that I want to critique Gov. Christie - I don't know the man from Adam, so I'm in no place to judge. But Hudson's argument, at best, lacks sufficient proof.)

Keeping the different kinds of authority distinct and in orderly relationship with each other is a trick. It's true that a person owes very different kinds of allegiance to (for example) his parents, his boss, and his government. Sometimes, these authorities come into conflict, and sometimes they seem to overlap. (Another example: parents and government both have legitimate reasons to set educational standards.) And this is where subsidiarity helps out: the "lower" and more local authorities are the ones with direct authority; "higher" and more general authorities exist in order to support the work of the lower authorities.

So, in the example of education, the government's proper role is to support the parents, who are the ones who have primary and final authority over the education of their children.

And this brings me ever so tangentially to the purpose of this blog: the promotion of human dignity. There have been many arguments over capital punishment in the comments here. But it is subsidiarity the allows us to see clearly the Church's teaching.

The Church, after all, is a most general authority: she speaks to the nature of human life in the light of God's revelation. Her authority extends to those things that we all hold in common as creatures of God, saved through the blood of his Son, and called to perfect union with him. Therefore, the way she usually exercises her authority is through teaching and admonition.

The State has a very practical and concrete authority: it is charged with the preservation and promotion of the common good of a particular society (for example, Utah or Louisiana). It exercises its authority by promulgating laws and then enforcing those laws.

The Church has no authority over the State with regard to the on-the-ground decisions of how to enforce law and order. But the Church does have authority to teach and admonish the State (and it's legislators and agents) on the nature of human society and the nature of law and order.

So, the Church identifies capital punishment as a way that the State has legitimately exercised its authority in the past; but she also recognizes that (as with everything in this world shattered by original sin) capital punishment is not the ideal way to achieve order and good in human society. Therefore, she admonishes the State to be wary in using capital punishment - perhaps even to forgo it altogether - lest the cure become worse than the original illness. She shines the light of God's divinely revealed mercy on a justice that is so easily tempted by vengeance.

And yet, she does not declare that capital punishment is a sin. She notes that it is not irredeemably evil (as, for example, torture is). Rather, she exercises her own authority, in teaching and admonishing, in support of the State's exercise of it's proper authority.

Sorry about the long-windedness, but sometimes that's the only way for me to work through the muddiness to clarity.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Most Americans supported "enhanced interrogation"?

Apparently not. Not at any point in Bush's presidency. Not in the Republican Party. Not in the military. Not in the red states or the flyover zone.

Gee, maybe us Yanks aren't as morally stupid as we seemed!

Here's the study, published in Cambridge University's Political Science and Politics

Here's the blog posting where I heard about it.

Ironically, shortly after Barack Obama became president, a majority of Americans (in some categories at least) did come to believe that torture or "enhanced interrogation" was permissible. There are many possible explanations for that, but it's clear to me that this is not merely a partisan game.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Paradoxical Patriotism

Cross-posted from my personal blog, Virtue Quest:

I always feel awkward around the Independence Day holiday. I'm not by inclination a patriot, just as I'm not by inclination a church-goer. I am both these things because I've come to see that my own inclinations, or desires, or vices, have led me astray from reality.

So I recognize the honor that is due to the nation of my birth, and my own responsibility to be as good a citizen as I am able. I just have a hard time bringing any emotional *umph* to the celebration.

I also recognize that, while I'm inclined to focus on the naughtiness of my nation and my speculations on how it ought to change, there is a real need to celebrate what is good and true and virtuous in the United States of America. Perhaps it is especially important for someone like myself to participate in the celebration, exactly as a corrective to my own erroneous inclinations.

The virtue of patriotism


Thomas Aquinas does not list "patriotism" among the virtues, but he does note that all people are both subject to law and responsible for the good of society, and that Justice requires respect for authority and Charity requires action for the good of one's fellows. As he puts it,
Consequently, this very act of loving someone because he is akin or connected with us, or because he is a fellow-countryman or for any like reason that is referable to the end of charity, can be commanded by charity, so that, out of charity both eliciting and commanding, we love in more ways those who are more nearly connected with us. (ST II-II q26 a7)

These are what make up the essence of patriotism: loving one's country and fellow citizens exactly because they are one's fellows. It is closely related to the love of family, whom we do not choose but whom we must love anyway, whether we like it or not. Family and country are, in a sense, a school of charity; they teach us how to love even when loving is difficult.

Ironically (given the whoop-de-do about Church and State in this particular country), it is the Catechism of the Catholic Church that, I think, states most clearly what patriotism is all about:
It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one's country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. (CCC 2239; emphasis in the original.)

What is critical, to me at least, about this approach is the balance it strikes: one's country is to be loved, but not because it is better or stronger or more worthy than any other nation; rather, exactly because it is one's own. I did not choose to be born an American; but I was, and it is as an American that I love the U.S.A. A Canadian or a Chinese might love the U.S.A. for some other reason. Perhaps they admire the American ideal, or perhaps they enjoy economic benefits from America, or any number of other reasons. But my own love of my country is founded simply on the fact that it is mine, or rather, that I belong to my country in a similar way that I belong to my family.

(I'm tempted to add a video of one of my favorite patriotic satires here, but instead I'll just provide a link.)

American virtues


So, given that it's not at all to my credit that I am American, what is it that I'll celebrate with grilling and fireworks and other forms of pyromania today?

First off, I'll celebrate the very good things I have myself received from the United States: a certain economic opportunity, even in difficult times such as these, to make ends meet without resorting to undignified or immoral work; a definite social opportunity to meet and converse with people from all walks of life and all regions of the country (and even the world), and to learn from their experiences; the English language which, thanks to American dominance following WW2 (augmenting the impact of English colonialism), has become a global language, giving me the advantage of communication with those I would otherwise have no connection; a political system that provides real opportunity (even if limited and corrupted by "special interests") to contribute to and impact the governance of the society I live in.

I'll also celebrate the genuine good that the United States has done in the world: through the citizens' works of charity, of scholarship, of invention; and through the occasionally wise governmental policies, such as developing our highway system or contributing to the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after WW2.

Celebrating the good does not mean I stop critiquing the bad; it simply means I acknowledge that there is virtue to be found even among rampant vice. It means I extend to my country the same charity I extend to my neighbors and myself. I will celebrate my brother's birthday, even if my brother is a criminal; I will celebrate my friend's success, even if my friend is often a fool. So, although I am highly critical of many aspects of American politics and culture, I will celebrate America's birthday with both gratitude and joy. In other words, I will practice the virtue of patriotism, trusting that both I and my country will grow toward greater virtue through practice.

And besides, who can pass up an opportunity for grilled meat?