Monday, December 27, 2010

Health care and the lack thereof

I'm a regular reader of Get Religion, a blog by and for journalists who cover religious issues. It's often the place I find out about news I would otherwise have missed, as in this article which led me to the New York Times article that reveals Obama's plan to reinstate "'voluntary advance care planning' to discuss end-of-life treatment," which was famously (whether accurately or not) called "death panels."

Now, let's be honest. Economics is part of life and part of health care decisions. It doesn't matter how much I need a particular medicine or treatment; if it's not available, I'm not going to get it. If it's outrageously expensive, then the only way I'll get it is by sacrificing some other good.

Moreover, our obligation is not to prolong life at any cost whatsoever. Our obligation is to make every reasonable effort to provide healing and care.

But economics is far from the only issue involved. And I very much distrust any advice that reduces "Quality of Life" to a merely economic factor in a purely economic decision.

So, while I don't mind talking with my doctor about the pros and cons of various options for treating a terminal disease or for treatment of my advancing age, I do mind the government butting in to give its own advice. I particularly object to the government providing financial incentive for my doctor to follow their advice.

So, by all means, make plans for future contingencies. Medical advance directives and durable powers of attorney are important tools, especially in a climate where doctors are pressured to ignore both their own moral compass and that of their patients. But make sure your legal documents genuinely protect your freedom and your faith.

As an addendum, here is the Catechism on end-of-life issues:
2276 Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect. Sick or handicapped persons should be helped to lead lives as normal as possible.

2277 Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.

Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

2278 Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of "over-zealous" treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.

2279 Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted. The use of painkillers to alleviate the sufferings of the dying, even at the risk of shortening their days, can be morally in conformity with human dignity if death is not willed as either an end or a means, but only foreseen and tolerated as inevitable Palliative care is a special form of disinterested charity. As such it should be encouraged.

[... snip ...]

2288 Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good.

Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance.

2289 If morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects a neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the body, to sacrifice everything for it's sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports. By its selective preference of the strong over the weak, such a conception can lead to the perversion of human relationships.

2290 The virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine. Those incur grave guilt who, by drunkenness or a love of speed, endanger their own and others' safety on the road, at sea, or in the air.

2291 The use of drugs inflicts very grave damage on human health and life. Their use, except on strictly therapeutic grounds, is a grave offense. Clandestine production of and trafficking in drugs are scandalous practices. They constitute direct co-operation in evil, since they encourage people to practices gravely contrary to the moral law.

2292 Scientific, medical, or psychological experiments on human individuals or groups can contribute to healing the sick and the advancement of public health.

2293 Basic scientific research, as well as applied research, is a significant expression of man's dominion over creation. Science and technology are precious resources when placed at the service of man and promote his integral development for the benefit of all. By themselves however they cannot disclose the meaning of existence and of human progress. Science and technology are ordered to man, from whom they take their origin and development; hence they find in the person and in his moral values both evidence of their purpose and awareness of their limits.

2294 It is an illusion to claim moral neutrality in scientific research and its applications. On the other hand, guiding principles cannot be inferred from simple technical efficiency, or from the usefulness accruing to some at the expense of others or, even worse, from prevailing ideologies. Science and technology by their very nature require unconditional respect for fundamental moral criteria. They must be at the service of the human person, of his inalienable rights, of his true and integral good, in conformity with the plan and the will of God.

2295 Research or experimentation on the human being cannot legitimate acts that are in themselves contrary to the dignity of persons and to the moral law. The subjects' potential consent does not justify such acts. Experimentation on human beings is not morally legitimate if it exposes the subject's life or physical and psychological integrity to disproportionate or avoidable risks. Experimentation on human beings does not conform to the dignity of the person if it takes place without the informed consent of the subject or those who legitimately speak for him.

2296 Organ transplants are in conformity with the moral law if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient. Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a expression of generous solidarity. It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent. Moreover, it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Punishing children for their parents' immigration?

Mark Shea, writing about the DREAM act, says the following:
This seems to me to be simple justice. Sure, secure the borders. Do what you can to stop more illegal immigration. Fine by me. But, in the meantime, while "failure to fill out paperwork" is certainly a problem, depriving workers of their wages is a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance in our tradition. Since we have long ago agreed to integrate these people into our nation in order to exploit them, we owe it in justice to, at the very least, not screw their kids. One might even hope that a time will come that we won't screw the parents either.
This seems very sane and sensible to me. In some instances we are debating sending home the adult children of those who came here illegally, when those children have been here since the ages of one, two, or three years old, don't remember their home country, speak English as well or better as their parents' native tongue, and have no roots anywhere but here. To punish them for the illegal entry of their parents seems like an injustice, and one we can easily remedy.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Crossposted from my personal blog:

I had been hearing about the Christmas Tree bomber in Portland all weekend, and was very glad to finally hear somebody mention the word "entrapment." But it's not just Mohamed Osman Mohamud I'm concerned about.

I'm worried about an FBI team who contacts an isolated individual who's failing to make contact with jihadist radicals, teaches him how to make a bomb, helps him to plan and carry out an attack, and chooses a large and public venue to arrest him.

I'm worried about an Attorney General who claims "that if Mohamud hadn't come in contact with the FBI, he 'would have made his plans tragically real.'"

And I'm worried about mass media outlets that just repeat the line that this is a plot that has been "thwarted" or "foiled."

For the record, it sounds to me like this Mohamud fellow may actually have become a threat on his own someday. He very well may have warranted observation by the FBI. But the way the Bureau pursued this investigation sounds very much like entrapment for Mohamud and fear-mongering for the rest of us.

"Look!" says the FBI & co., "here's a home-grown terrorist you should be afraid of! It could be anybody! What's a little inappropriate pat-down compared to the risk of being bombed while lighting a Christmas Tree? What's a little warrantless wiretapping or email surveillance next to, you know, a west coast 9-11?"

What would have been wrong with just watching this kid, and seeing what he does on his own? At least then, he might have actually led investigators to a real terrorist cell, and could have led to some genuine intelligence of real plots to commit terrorist acts. And, when arrested, he might have been guilty of a real crime.

As it is, he's just become the solitary target of an FBI plot to ... to what? boost their own ratings? I hope not. To foil and thwart terrorist attacks? Not very effectively.

I want good security and I want active intelligence gathering on terrorist activities. But that's not what this was. At best, this was a colossal mistake. If anyone in the FBI is reading this, please, don't make the same mistake again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Theologian appointed to CCHD

This is a step in the right direction: a theologian well grounded in the fullness of Catholic Social Teaching and solidly in support of its pro-life implications "will provide ongoing consultation on the moral and ethical dimensions of campaign's work."

Now, some already are saying, "Too little too late." I agree that this step is a far cry from the kind of butt-kicking and name-taking that some people favor. But it is in keeping with the wait-until-harvest attitude our Lord recommends. It's a step toward insuring greater conformity to Catholic morality without seeking a target for condemnation. In other words, it's a step toward solving the problem rather than blaming the problem.

I'm not saying it's time to rush out and give all your worldly goods to CCHD. I think it's important to hold them accountable, and to ask for evidence that Fr. Mindling is effective in his mission.

But I am saying, it's good to see a step in the right direction, even if it looks like a small step.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

George W. Bush and waterboarding

In his new book, former President George W. Bush shows his pro-waterboarding side (Hat tip: a reader who shared this from the site):

In a memoir due out Tuesday, Bush makes clear that he personally approved the use of that coercive technique against alleged Sept. 11 plotter Khalid Sheik Mohammed, an admission the human rights experts say could one day have legal consequences for him.

In his book, titled "Decision Points," Bush recounts being asked by the CIA whether it could proceed with waterboarding Mohammed, who Bush said was suspected of knowing about still-pending terrorist plots against the United States. Bush writes that his reply was "Damn right" and states that he would make the same decision again to save lives, according to a someone close to Bush who has read the book. [...]

The Justice Department later repudiated some of the underlying legal analysis for the CIA effort. But Bush told an interviewer a week before leaving the White House that "I firmly reject the word 'torture,' " and he reiterates that view in the book. Reuters and the New York Times first published accounts of the book's contents Tuesday evening.

Would that he had firmly rejected the use of torture, not merely the word.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Well, this was inevitable

Police have arrested a man for waterboarding his girlfriend:
OCTOBER 28--After accusing his girlfriend of cheating on him, a Nebraska man allegedly tied the woman to a couch in their apartment and waterboarded her, according to police.

Trevor Case, 22, has been charged with domestic assault, false imprisonment, and making terroristic threats in connection with the bizarre incident early Saturday morning at the Lincoln home he shared with the 22-year-old victim.

Police allege that Case stuffed "hospital socks" into Danielle Stallworth's mouth and bound her wrists with belts and hair ties before placing a shirt over her head and dousing it with water, according to a Lincoln Police Department report. “He poured a pitcher of water on her head, and she started freaking out and thought she wasn’t able to breathe,” cops noted.

The waterboarding practice, of course, leaves victims with the sensation that they are drowning. [Link in original...E.M.].

Well, thank goodness he didn't torture her. (Sarcasm alert.)

One of the commenters under the article appears to blame...the liberal media. 'Cause, you know, if they'd kept their mouths shut about all that Enhanced Interrogation so vital and necessary to national security, then only professionals would be doing it, and we wouldn't have these "back alley enhanced interrogation" situations (a phrase which, alas, didn't occur to the commenter, though it does to me).

Maybe they can charge this man with impersonating a federal agent.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

One big (happy?) family

Yesterday, Pope Benedict announced the "theme" for next year's World Day of Migrants and Refugees, January 16, 2011: One Human Family.

Essentially, he notes that our nature as human persons, created in God's image and likeness, is foundational to all our ethical and (therefore) political decisions. A migrant or a refugee is, first and foremost, a brother or sister in Christ.

Here's the heart of it:
Venerable John Paul II, on the occasion of this same Day celebrated in 2001, emphasized that "[the universal common good] includes the whole family of peoples, beyond every nationalistic egoism. The right to emigrate must be considered in this context. The Church recognizes this right in every human person, in its dual aspect of the possibility to leave one's country and the possibility to enter another country to look for better conditions of life" (Message for World Day of Migration 2001, 3; cf. John XXIII, Encyclical Mater et Magistra, 30; Paul VI, Encyclical Octogesima adveniens, 17). At the same time, States have the right to regulate migration flows and to defend their own frontiers, always guaranteeing the respect due to the dignity of each and every human person. Immigrants, moreover, have the duty to integrate into the host Country, respecting its laws and its national identity. "The challenge is to combine the welcome due to every human being, especially when in need, with a reckoning of what is necessary for both the local inhabitants and the new arrivals to live a dignified and peaceful life" (World Day of Peace 2001, 13).

Yes, he said that migration is a human right. It is not a privilege or a civil right bestowed by human government.

At the same time, that right (like all rights) comes with responsibilities. A migrant is responsible to respect the laws and customs of their host country. That includes the immigration laws. At minimum, this is simple courtesy. Taken to an extreme, it's recognizing the difference between a guest and an invader.

Refugees are a challenge, but in most cases I'm aware of they are covered by national and international law. If someone is fleeing a threat in their home country, then the human community as a whole has a responsibility to provide a safe haven for them.

Now, all this said, it doesn't directly address the issue prominent in our own country: that of large numbers of illegal economic migrants.

I'm in no place to suggest a particular policy, but I would note that there are some basic principles that we must insist upon:
  • Migrants are human persons, and must be treated with dignity and with respect for their basic human rights

  • A just solution includes, not only enforcement of our border security, but also enforcement of workers' rights, penalties for employers who put profit above their legal obligations

  • A just solution must also include some kind of provision for the millions of migrant families here illegally - especially the children

This last is probably the stickiest sticking point for some, but it follows directly from the first.

We already make provision for law-breakers; in many cases, it's called prison.

I'm not suggesting that we imprison illegal immigrants; but I am suggesting that their humanity precedes their criminality, and that it may not be possible to punish the crime without committing a greater crime against their families.

In other words, immigration reform really must be comprehensive: it must shift the whole legal and economic structure toward greater justice, and it must provide a practical way to do so without committing further injustice.

It's a tall order. If I find a solution, I'll let you know. In the meantime, let's pray, and let's keep our arguments clean and focused on finding a solution.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

What are we going to do?

Our loyal reader who goes by the handle lovethegirls asks:
How do you take usury out of a market grounded on usury? How do you take materialism out a market grounded in materialism?

That's the $64M question, now, isn't it?

The good news is, we're free to establish a market grounded on another foundation than usury, say, a foundation of justice or of the common good. Nobody's going to stop us. America is indeed a free country.

The bad news is, at this point in history, in twenty-first century America, it will require a great deal of sacrifice to do so.

But the sacrifice is not life and limb; the sacrifice is comfort, and "standard of living."

There are some products we just won't be able to get without patronizing those who exploit their workers for profit, or without partnering with usurious banks or other institutions. We'll have to do without them.

There are some services that will be closed to us. For example, I'm not sure it's possible to find internet access that isn't dependent on usury or some other form of injustice. (I'm at a public library right now; even this is a mixed blessing.)

In terms of contributing to society, we'll face an uphill battle: government regulations are written assuming the current inhumane standards for economics; massive corporations founded on this materialistic economic theory control most of the resources available for producing goods and getting them to market.

And yet, I'm convinced that God never asks the impossible of us. lovethegirls continues to say:
In other words, I don't think there are any solutions which can be imposed, but that the solution is to wait for a "A Catholic approach" to evolve organically"

I hope he doesn't mean to suggest we just wait on our duffs for something new to miraculously appear. It seems to me that we can and must look for whatever good changes we can make to our own economic habits, and look for ways to spread the gospel of human dignity, in whatever way we can. If we offer our best efforts, if we make real sacrifices and offer them to our Lord, we can trust his Holy Spirit to guide us in seeking a solution. The solution will probably bear little resemblance to whatever systems or notions we have in mind now; but so long as we are seeking God, we will eventually arrive at the solution he provides.

Catholic college, pro-torture professor?

In my internet meanderings, I came across a video about a protest of torture memo author John Yoo speaking at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis/St. Paul. I discovered that Yoo's co-author on those memos, Robert J. Delahunty, is on the faculty there, and the advertised lecture was billed as a kind of reunion for these Bush-era advisers.

Now, I'm under no illusions that Catholic higher education actually holds and teaches according to the Catholic faith these days. I thought it was idiotic of Notre Dame to bring President Obama to speak, and I think it's scandalous how many Catholic campuses roll out the red carpet for the propagandizers of abortion and sexual license.

But this is no less scandalous: that a Catholic university, listing "We respect the dignity of each person" as a "Conviction" and as a component of their mission, should choose Delahunty as a formator of their law students, and should invite Yoo to address their community, without answer or contradiction.

I had thought that torture, at least, was one area that Catholic academics could get it right.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Is government the best way?

I don't agree with everything Pat Buchanan says here, but it's still an interesting read:

What a changed country we have become in our expectations of ourselves. A less affluent America survived a Depression and world war without anything like the 99 weeks of unemployment insurance, welfare payments, earned income tax credits, food stamps, rent supplements, day care, school lunches and Medicaid we have today.

Public or private charity were thought necessary, but were almost always to be temporary until a breadwinner could find work or a family could get back on its feet. The expectation was that almost everyone, with hard work and by keeping the nose to the grindstone, could make his or her own way in this free society. No more.

What we have accepted today is a vast permanent underclass of scores of millions who cannot cope and must be carried by the rest of society – fed, clothed, housed, tutored, medicated at taxpayers' expense for their entire lives. We have a new division in America: those who pay a double fare, and those who forever ride free.

We Americans are not only not the people our parents were, we are not the people we were. FDR was right about what would happen to the country if we did not get off the narcotic of welfare.

Of course, a less affluent America could still build their own homes (as my grandfather did) without being forced to abide by laws and building codes and safety requirements put into place for huge home builders. And own these homes outright. And commute to work, to the grocery store, and to Church every Sunday without needing a car. And...well, the point is that the change to modern living has been expensive, and we're still all paying for it.

But, on the other hand, as I wrote on my other blog recently, there is something somewhat troubling about seeing people rely on entitlement programs as a needed part of their "incomes," rather than a temporary safety net. This is especially troubling when the entitlement is seen as something "free" which is coming from the "government" instead of as something which costs my neighbor something, and which is confiscated from him, diminishing his ability to pay for his own family's needs.

No Catholic would deny the need for sound, practical, regular, efficient ways of providing for the needs of the poor. But are government entitlement programs the best way? Is there, as Buchanan says, a danger that a person's own natural and laudable desire to work and to provide for his own and his loved ones' needs might be destroyed by such programs? Do the programs contribute to the destruction of marriage and the family--or are they merely necessary in a culture which sees both marriage and the family as disposable?

What do you think?

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The disservice 10:10 does to the environment.

Others have noted the gruesome video posted by the British wing of the environmental group 10:10. I won't link to it here, because it really is disgusting; but here's a good summary of the controversy. In short, it's a series of scenes in which a teacher, a boss, a football team, and so on "suggest" that people reduce their carbon emissions by 10%. They ask who is on board, and who isn't. "No pressure." Then they push a little red button and those not on board explode, covering everyone else, and the camera lens, with blood and guts.

Now, environmental stewardship is one of the important features of Catholic morality: we are here to keep and tend the garden, after all. But ads like this betray a bizarre and anti-human attitude among some environmental activists. It's vital to realize that humanity is itself part of the environment, and the part for which we have the greatest responsibility to protect and respect.

In other words, environmental protection only makes sense as a life issue, and when you throw out the connection to human dignity you end up in the culture of death.

Other Catholic responses:
Mike Flynn
Mark Shea
Jeff Miller

The Curt Jester on hyphenated-Catholics

Jeff Miller makes some great points while critiquing the idea of a "Catholic Tea Party" as too limiting and politicizing for the Catholic Church or her members. The heart of it:
When you confuse the faith with a political party it makes it easier for someone in the other party to dismiss you.

Fighting against abortion is not a conservative thing, it is a protection of the truth that we are created in the image of God and that the innocent can not be murdered. Doing what we can to help the poor is not a liberal idea, but again the protection of the truth that we are created in the image of God and that we can not limit the scope of the world neighbor.

"The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners." (1 Tim 1.15) That is, people like me, and like you, and even those poor schleps who get involved with politics.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Placing blame

Mark Shea on illegal immigration:
I don't get the panic over illegal immigrants. They are thoroughly woven into our economy, so it's cloud cuckoo unrealism to imagine we are going round up 12 million of them and send them back. And they are, largely, Lazarus--doing back-breaking work that we need them to do and getting crap wages for it. I've never understood the menace they allegedly represent: hard-working, largely Catholic, with a strong sense of family who have shown repeatedly that they want to make a better life for themselves and their kids. Yeah, sure, they've ignored US immigration law: a human system. Not ideal, but not the end of the world either. The reality, though, is that large segment of our economy would collapse without them. So since we have already made it clear we are willing to exploit them, I think the real onus is, as ever, on the powerful rather than the powerless. Weak and hungry people who fudge on a human law are guilty, it seems to me, of a venial sin at best. Powerful people who exploit the poor and the alien and deny the worker his wages are guilty of three of the sins that cry out to heaven for judgement.
1867 The catechetical tradition also recalls that there are "sins that cry to heaven": the blood of Abel, the sin of the Sodomites, the cry of the people oppressed in Egypt, the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan, injustice to the wage earner.
Such is the fractured nature of American politics that the first two sins are sacred rights defended as "freedom of choice" and "the right to gay marriage" by the Left, while the latter three sins are solemnly defended pillars of any conservative worth his salt. We'll take the powerless migrant's labor, denounce him for doing it and then defend the guy who pays him crap wages. Any sympathy for the poor and powerless laborer is bleeding heart liberalism and (naturellement) incipient socialism.
Read the whole thing here.

I think that any attempt to solve the problem of illegal immigration is going to have to be clear about why it's a problem in the first place: that is, we have to identify the powerful corporate interests that entice (and even bus) immigrants into our country to do the jobs that these corporations won't pay Americans to do. And before we start punishing the illegal immigrant, we need to punish American businesses that insist that in order to maintain the level of stockholder profit they've become used to, they can't afford to hire Americans.

Because I don't believe there are jobs Americans won't do. I do, however, believe that there are plenty of companies out there who won't pay Americans to do the jobs their companies depend on. Let's make sure that the proper share of blame gets placed where it belongs, on the issue of illegal immigration.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Philippines, at least, gets it right

Filipino pro-life groups see no conflict between opposition to abortion and opposition to torture. They see that both are necessary to promote the dignity of human life. Therefore, pro-life groups there gladly stand with other anti-torture groups in proposing more humane legislation.

The world is not divided between Democrat and Republican. At most, it's our United States of America. And hopefully, that dysfunctional bipolarity won't continue much longer even here.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Should this woman be executed?

Even if you support the death penalty in theory, I think it's rather difficult to support it in this case:

WASHINGTON — Barring a last-minute reprieve from the US Supreme Court, 41-year-old Teresa Lewis will on Thursday become the first woman to be executed by the state of Virginia in almost 100 years.

Abolitionists paint Lewis as a classic example of why capital punishment is flawed, saying the mother and grandmother has diminished mental faculties and was taken advantage of by smarter accomplices.

But with an IQ hovering at 70 or above, Lewis is considered fit for trial in Virginia and she pleaded guilty to hiring two men to murder her husband and stepson to pocket their 350,000-dollar life insurance policy. [...]

Lewis met Rodney Fuller and Matthew Shallenberger in a Walmart superstore. Soon she began an affair with the 22-year-old Shallenberger and encouraged her 16-year-old daughter to get together with Fuller, who was 19.

Lewis admits she left the door of the family trailer in rural Pittsylvania County open in 2002 so the two young accomplices could enter and shoot her husband and his 25-year-old son, who was in the military.

All three pleaded guilty. The triggermen got life in prison, but Lewis, who was deemed fit to stand trial, was sentenced to death as the mastermind of the killings, or in the words of the judge "the head of this serpent."

His summation is far from the portrayal that Lewis supporters offer -- that of a borderline mentally disabled woman, who struggled with a behavioral dependency disorder and was addicted to prescription drugs. [...]

Lewis's lawyers argue that new evidence, including her low IQ, has appeared since her trial that should prevent her execution.

The key piece of evidence they want considered is a letter from Shallenberger, who killed himself in jail in 2006, in which he claims full responsibility for the murder plot and suggests he pushed Lewis into it.

"From the moment I met her I knew she was someone who could be easily manipulated," he allegedly wrote. "Killing Julian and Charles Lewis was entirely my idea. I needed money, and Teresa was an easy target."

I hasten to say that the killings are not to be condoned in any way; nor should Teresa Lewis' role in them be ignored. But is there any reason why life in prison without possibility of parole shouldn't be the more just punishment for a woman with a low IQ whose partners in crime received only this punishment, and no more? Does Lewis pose an ongoing threat to society? Does executing her protect the people of Virginia in any way?

What do you think?

40 Days for Life

Though it seems to surprise some readers, we at the Coalition for Clarity consider opposition to abortion to be at least as important, if not more so, than opposition to torture. We consider both stands to be in keeping with our commitment to promoting the dignity of the human person in every circumstance.

Therefore, I'm happy to promote the latest campaign by 40 Days for Life, an internationally coordinated campaign to raise awareness of the consequences of abortion for local communities, families, and friends.

They follow a three-pronged strategy:

  1. Prayer and fasting

  2. Constant vigil

  3. Community outreach

This run of the campaign stretches from September 22 through October 31, 2010. It's easy to get involved in almost any State of the Union, and in several countries beyond the borders of the U.S.A. Click and go!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A day for prayer and penance

There are so many possible reactions to September 11, most of them embodying some flavor of anger. Anger has its place: anger moves us to work for justice.

But if we're going to commemorate September 11, I suggest that the most Catholic way to do this is with prayer and penance.

Let's pray for our nation, for all those who have been harmed - directly or indirectly - by the attacks of nine years ago.

Let's also pray for our enemies and bless those who persecute us. (As St. Paul reminds us, this heaps burning coals of charity upon their heads. He follows saying, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Romans 12.19-21) Let's pray for God's will to be done for them, especially that they may repent and find the fullness of Truth.

And let's offer whatever sufferings we bear, whether they're related to the attacks or any subsequent events or are purely personal, to God our Father in union with the sufferings our Lord Jesus bore on the cross. Let's do some act of penance today, in reparation for our own sins, and for the sins of all the world.

This suggestion goes against my personal inclinations; but one of the roles of religion is to correct and refine our personal inclinations. Today, whatever feelings arise in me, I'll try to put my remembrance into action through prayer and penance.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Do we need more nukes?

If you don't already read the Catholic Key blog--you should. Jack Smith does an amazing job.

Today, he highlights Kansas City – St. Joseph Bishop Robert W. Finn's statement on the groundbreaking of a nuclear weapons plant in the area. Excerpt:

On September 8, 2010 ground will be broken to begin construction of a new facility for the production of non-nuclear parts for nuclear weapons in South Kansas City. In the Catholic Church September 8th is the feast of the Birth of Mary, the mother of Jesus. The confluence of the groundbreaking with the feast of Mary’s nativity provides the opportunity to pause at the irony of the situation: Mary, mother of the Prince of Peace, and the construction of a facility whose main purpose is the construction of weapons for warfare.

The Catholic tradition has always affirmed the right of a state to defend itself from unjust aggression. Implicit in that right is the need to equip a trained military force. We do not deny this obligation and necessity on the part of any state.

However, the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction – which this nuclear plant proposes to construct – constitutes a grave moral danger. Nuclear weapons are by their very nature weapons of mass destruction: their force and impact cannot be contained, and their use affects combatants and non-combatants alike. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation. A danger of modern warfare is that it provides the opportunity to those who possess modern scientific weapons – especially atomic, biological, or chemical weapons – to use them” (CCC #2314; cf. also Gaudium et Spes #80). Since the use of such weapons is morally questionable, it follows that the production of such weapons is also morally questionable.

Read the whole thing here.

Do we really need, at this point in history, to build more and more nuclear weapons? Is this something Catholics should generally oppose? What do you think?

UPDATE: Mark Shea weighs in here.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The definition game

In various places around the Internet, including my blog, I find myself arguing with people against the idea of gay "marriage." In the course of participating in discussions about this topic, I've started to learn the difference between an effective argument and an ineffective one as regards the idea of same-sex "marriage."

One of the less effective arguments often goes something like this, and is conducted between a traditional marriage supporter (TSM) and a gay-rights advocate (GRA):
TSM: Two people of the same gender can't get married. That changes the definition of marriage.

GRA: What is the definition of marriage?

TSM: Marriage is a legal and sexual union between one man and one woman.

GRA: And where does this definition come from?

TSM: Our culture and civilization. Marriage has meant this one thing for a couple thousand years, at least.

GRA: But if our culture wants to change the definition, then it can.

TSM: But having same-sex marriage changes the definition too much. If marriage isn't between a man and a woman, then what is it?

GRA: It's the legal and sexual union of two people. Gender isn't important.

TSM: But gender is important to the definition of marriage.

GRA: To a definition, maybe. But there have been many definitions of marriage throughout human history. And we no longer think gender matters in most areas. So why should it matter in marriage?

TSM: Because marriage is about procreation, about having children...

GRA: Now, wait a minute! You said the definition of marriage was the legal and sexual union of a man and a women. There's nothing about children in the definition. If there were, then infertile couples and elderly couples couldn't get married.

TSM: Just because I didn't mention it didn't mean that it's not part of our understanding of...

GRA: But it's not in the definition. By the definition, marriage is pretty vague. There's no reason for it to involve a man and a woman, and not two men or two women. There's really no reason for it to be limited to two people, except that our culture isn't ready to take that step.

TSM: You're altering the definition so much that you're making the word marriage mean nothing!

GRA: Well, you can't seem to define it in such a way that it means only what you want it to mean. So maybe it doesn't really mean anything...
There are better ways to argue against gay marriage, of course. But I show this argument, which is a composite of many such discussions I've seen online and elsewhere, to show what happens when you insist on having a precise definition as the starting point for a discussion about a moral issue.

The same thing happens in the torture debate, from the opposite side. The torture defender insists that without an extremely precise definition of exactly what torture is in each and every possible hypothetical situation, we can't possibly say that torture is wrong, that it is morally evil, gravely so. But just as the definition of marriage is hard to pin down in a single declarative sentence drafted in such a way that it reflects the religious, moral, philosophical and cultural understanding of the Christian West and not, say, the understanding of ancient or modern pagan and/or polygamous cultures, etc., so is it difficult to pin down a definition of torture that, while being specific and legal, reflects the moral vision of Christianity. This is especially true of the vision of the Catholic Church, which clearly wishes to promote the idea that we ought to treat all people, including prisoners, humanely, and that various acts of violence, pain, coercion etc. violate that principle.

To put this more simply, in the gay "marriage" debate proponents of same-sex "marriage" want to start with a definition in order to deconstruct that definition; that is, they want a definition of marriage so that they can reword, alter, and destroy the definition to the point where it is meaningless enough to include the understanding of "marriage" they wish to promote. Similarly, in the torture debates, many (though not all) who want a clear, precise, exhaustive, and definitive definition of exactly what torture is want this definition so they can insist that certain things, such as waterboarding, or putting prisoners in freezing cold cells and drenching them with water, or humiliating them in various inhumane ways are somehow not torture, because our definition didn't actually mention these particular things.

In the discussions concerning marriage, it is important to remember that marriage, an enduring cultural institution centered around the building up of strong natural families and the raising by a man and a woman of their own biological children whenever possible, can't be reduced to a mere definition of a sentence or so. It is equally important in the discussions concerning torture to recall that humanity's capacity for the intentional infliction of suffering on our fellow human beings can't be summed up by a quick definition of what torture is. In both discussions, there is a tendency by those on the other side of the issue to insist on a definition merely as a starting point for the deconstruction of that definition--and the point of that, of course, is so that the perversions they wish to allow, whether gay "marriage" or "enhanced interrogation," are suddenly made possible by the destruction of their opponents' definitions of words like marriage or torture.

Monday, August 23, 2010

That slippery slope

Pearls Before Swine

Sorry for the light posting--August is always a busy month. I have a post planned for this week about the problem with framing the debate about torture around the definition of torture.

In the meantime, Stephan Pastis of Pearls Before Swine shows, in the comic linked above, what can happen when you give governments the power to torture. Okay, it's humor, and I don't expect librarians to torture people who turn in books late--but that's the problem with granting government the authority to do evil: there's no guarantee that the evil will never be done to you.

We've already heard about pro-life activists placed on government "watch lists" for peaceful protesting and other free-speech activities. And I've read, on other blogs, calls for American prisoners--that is, American citizens arrested and charged with crimes--to be tortured in order for the truth about the crimes to be discovered.

This is why it's important to oppose torture even when the arguments are that it is necessary for American safety, will only be used against foreign criminals and terrorists, etc. Because once the government has the power to torture anybody, there's no guarantee that they will restrict this evil to foreign prisoners, or criminals, or terrorists. None whatsoever.

Monday, August 9, 2010

There are limits

Today is the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Japan. Three days ago was the anniversary of the similar bombing of Hiroshima.

I've reposted, on my personal blog, a post about Nagasaki, which I wrote a few years ago. I would like to repeat here a part of my preface to that post: I am firmly and irrevocably on the side of those who say, without nuance, that our use of these weapons to destroy over a hundred thousand people, most of them civilians, to force Japan to an unconditional surrender (when, in fact, the Japanese had made overtures already for a surrender even on what were called hard terms) was a hideously immoral act, a grave evil.

Even if there had been no talk of surrender on the Japanese side, our use of these bombs was gravely evil. From their legacy come things like "pre-emptive bombing" and "enhanced interrogation" and the other policies of truly unjust warfare that have somehow become acceptable to far too many people.

A nation which thinks that using weapons which killed hugely disproportionate numbers of civilians was somehow justified by circumstances is a nation that will not accept any limits to its power. But there are limits; God places them upon us as a duty, and we are not under any circumstances, however dire, allowed to violate His moral law.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Same-sex marriage, immigration, and human dignity

I wish I had time to think through and write a post or three on some recent Federal court cases. But I only have time to make a quick note and raise a question.

First, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton blocked a big chunk of Arizona's law that brought immigration enforcement to the local level.

Second, yesterday U.S. District Chief Judge Vaughn R. Walker ruled California's marriage-defining amendment to their state constitution as unconstitutional.

Both these rulings are of interest to Catholics, and I would note that (despite the apparent difference in subject matter) both are interesting for the same reason. The reason is that they ultimately are about how the government upholds or denigrates the dignity of the human person.

This is even the apparent concern of the judges who made the rulings. However, this is where competing notions about the foundation of human dignity arise.

From a Catholic perspective, human dignity is based in the gift of being made in the image and likeness of God, and is augmented by God's call to communion with him in the life of his Son.

It's not at all clear to me what basis these judges have for their ideas of human dignity.

So here's my question: in a nation that A) treats illegal immigrants - and those who employ them - with horrendously inconsistent laws and enforcements, B) regards marriage as a merely contractual arrangement, D) promotes research on human embryos, having been convinced that they're merely "blobs of tissue", and C) is willing to torture both foreigners and its own citizens ... how can we present to our elected officials and to the public generally a clear and consistent idea of human dignity? How can we preach the Gospel in such a way that it falls not on deaf ears?

That's a real question, not a rhetorical one. I'm working on some bits of an answer, but I have other ducks to get into a row just now. Hopefully I'll be able to post a few more ideas soon.

Monday, August 2, 2010

An enduring commitment to the protection of all human life

(Cross-posted at And Sometimes Tea.)

The FDA has approved a company's study of the medical cannibalization of children:

A Menlo Park biotech firm said Friday that federal regulators will let it proceed with the world's first human test of a treatment made from embryonic stem cells, a much-anticipated but controversial study of patients with spinal cord injuries that had been placed on hold for nearly a year because of safety concerns.

If the treatment from Geron works, it "would be revolutionary," said Dr. Richard Fessler, a neurological surgeon at Northwestern University, who will lead the study of a stem-cell treatment designed to be injected into patients with spinal injuries to restore their motor function. "The therapy would provide a viable treatment option for thousands of patients who suffer severe spinal cord injuries each year."

Geron has spent 15 years and more than $150 million to develop the treatment, and "getting it into a clinical trial, just by itself, is a big deal," added Fessler, who has no financial ties to the company.

Many people hope that human embryonic stem cells, which can turn into any type of tissue in the body, could prove useful for everything from generating organs for transplants to helping test drugs on numerous diseases. But because the cells are derived from discarded 3- to-5-day-old embryos, their use by researchers has sparked ethical concerns and a highly contentious national debate.

The Food and Drug Administration had put the study on hold last year after a few animals the company was testing with its treatment developed small cysts. Although similar cysts had appeared in earlier animal studies, they appeared with "a higher frequency" in more recent animal tests, the company said at the time.

So eager is the culture of death to commence turning the surplus of manufactured children into a viable commercial product so they can make even more money off of the buying and selling of human beings that they are ignoring the potential side-effects, as well as the slightly inconvenient reality that adult stem cells, which carry no ethical baggage, are actually working quite well:
For all the emotional debate that began about a decade ago on allowing the use of embryonic stem cells, it's adult stem cells that are in human testing today. An extensive review of stem cell projects and interviews with two dozen experts reveal a wide range of potential treatments.

Adult stem cells are being studied in people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, heart attacks and diabetes. Some early results suggest stem cells can help some patients avoid leg amputation. Recently, researchers reported that they restored vision to patients whose eyes were damaged by chemicals.

Apart from these efforts, transplants of adult stem cells have become a standard lifesaving therapy for perhaps hundreds of thousands of people with leukemia, lymphoma and other blood diseases.

"That's really one of the great success stories of stem cell biology that gives us all hope," says Dr. David Scadden of Harvard, who notes stem cells are also used to grow skin grafts.

"If we can recreate that success in other tissues, what can we possibly imagine for other people?"
Embryonic stem-cell research has yet to produce much of anything, and there are those pesky side-effects to consider. But, of course, researchers are sure that the only reason they've yet to perfect a magic cure for all known ailments of humankind except for reality television and news anchors is the fact that the Christianists out there are kind of squeamish about killing unborn children, mixing their cells with a jigger of gin and a dash of vermouth, and quaffing this new "Fountain of Life Cocktail" (price: dead innocents and the immortal souls of everybody involved in this hellish practice) and so won't allow oodles of free government money to entice women into selling off for cash those unwanted extra embryos they created in a rush of parental dreaming, back when they were still married to the father.

Here's the problem, for pro-life Catholic voters: Republicans are not as vehemently opposed to this barbarism as we'd like. In fact, quite a few of them aren't opposed at all (and apparently lack the awareness to see what is wrong with a phrase like "Find out how you can join the fight for personal freedoms and against Personhood today..." which can be seen on that homepage). In terms of our elected officials, it is sadly the case that in 2006, 17 Republican Senators voted in favor of expanding federally-funded ESCR, and a year later about 40 House Republicans did the same. And even those who oppose an expansion of federally-funded ESCR don't usually oppose the Bush "compromise" on the issue, which allowed such funding on research involving existing cell lines.

I've heard the objection: but compared to the Democrats, with their funding of abortion via the health care bill and their push to require Catholic hospitals to give out abortifacient contraceptives to rape victims and their support of partial birth abortion, etc., Republicans are shining examples of pro-life consistency and virtue, regardless of this little "hiccup" involving research on five-day-old unborn human beings (or on the cell lines already derived from such children, as if it's perfectly moral to participate in and profit from the murder of the unborn so long as one isn't actually doing the killing, or some such thing). There's no denying that when it comes to life issues, most Democrats are measurably worse than most Republicans--but if there are no consequences to Republicans for their support of things like ESCR, if people of faith give them a "pass" on this issue because they're better than the alternative, etc., then we do two things: we weaken our witness to the value of unborn human life, and we make it easier for the Republicans to run weaker and weaker candidates in the arena of life issues, and harder for us to insist that support of the killing of the unborn, whether via abortion or via medical research, is a deal-breaker for us when it comes to our votes.

In some senses, we've already done this. But should we continue? Or should we insist that the phrase "pro-life" means something real and substantial, and means, above all, an enduring commitment to the protection of all human life, born and unborn, regardless of age, health, or condition of dependency?

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Not a valid basis

War is not a blanket excuse for violating divine moral principles - or even human law.

Case in point: a contractor working for the U.S. military in Iraq is being sued for allegedly torturing prisoners in their charge. (CBS news link here.)
U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte dismissed L-3's claims that they are immune to civil lawsuits because they were working for the government in wartime. The judge said this was "not a valid basis for the defense."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

War - even a Just War - does not somehow magically remove a person from the world as it is. It does not make killing right. It does not make the enemy to be less than human. What it does is: acknowledge that I'm likely to end up killing someone who is trying to kill me and my countrymen, and that this evil is unavoidable in defending the innocent against attack.

Those who cite war as some extraordinary moral circumstance that turns evil into good have abandoned the Just War tradition, and have rejected the ancient Catholic teaching on the subject.

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?

Monday, June 21, 2010

New topic, old news: Pius XII and bioethics

Our reader Matthew pointed me toward an address given by Pope Pius XII to a group of psychologists and neuroscientists a-way back in 1952. In that address, the Holy Father proposes to
draw your attention to the limits of this field-not the limits of medical possibilities, of theoretical and practical medical knowledge, but the limits of moral rights and duties. ... We would like to set forth briefly the essential principles which permit an answer to be given to this question. (Emphasis in the original)

He distinguishes very clearly between the role of the Church and the role of doctors: the doctors are medical experts, and are responsible for the final judgment in particular cases. But the Church is the moral expert, providing the principles by which such a judgment can properly be made.

He also makes it clear that, just because the doctors possess moral expertise and even authority to make such judgments, their judgments are not infallible. They themselves must face a higher Judge who looks into the heart.

I wish I had time to comment on this address thoroughly, but for the present I will merely recommend it to anyone with questions about bioethical matters. While I'm not a big fan of "deontological" language, his presentation is clear and comprehensive. It forms an excellent foundation for all sorts of questions.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Two questions

With the firing squad execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner less than two hours away, I want to ask two questions here:

1. Does the execution of Mr. Gardner meet the conditions specified in the Catechism for the use of the death penalty?

2. Is the use a firing squad today "cruel and unusual" as a method of execution?

Comment thread open for discussion.

UPDATE: Comments now closed.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thinking out loud

I'm thinking out loud in this post, so please bear with me.

Yesterday I started to think about the similarities and differences between parental punishment of children and the State's legitimate punishment of offenders. While there are, of course, important differences, some of the principles are the same: parents may not be cruel or abusive, the punishment, to be effective, ought to be suitable to the offense, and the punishment should have a twofold purpose: to restore order, and to provide the opportunity for the child to repent and be "rehabilitated" from his infraction.

To look at an example, suppose a child is playing with several other children and begins behaving badly (snatching toys away, pushing, yelling etc.). The mother enters the room, and conducts a sort of "mini trial," in which the infraction is investigated, blame assigned, and the guilty party identified. She then "sentences" the naughty child to sit on a chair by himself in another room for a specific period of time. He does not wish to do this--but he complies, knowing that the punishment will be worse if he does not. When his time of "incarceration" is over he returns to the game, and now the choice is his: to play by the rules and behave himself, or to act up again and risk further punishment.

Now, while the arrest and imprisonment of a grown man or woman is different in many ways, you still have a just authority, a trial to determine the truth, a sentence pronounced, and, usually, a prison sentence or other punishment determined. Again, the punishment is geared toward both justice and mercy, toward both removing the offender from society, the way the child was isolated from his peers, and toward giving the offender the opportunity to repent and be rehabilitated, and thus return to and remain in society.

How does the death penalty fit into this? The way I see it presently (though I'm open to correction), the death penalty is to be used when the State determines that only thus can society really be protected from the offender--that the offender has been an aggressor against innocent life, and has lost all his "chances" of the kind of rehabilitation that will allow him to return to society or even to continue his life among the society of the prison. I may be wrong, but I think it is possible that the death penalty's claim to consider the prisoner and be merciful to him lies in the notion that the final and severest mercy one can have toward the truly incorrigible aggressor is to force him to face his mortality in the light of his crimes and sins. This is not the reason the state may execute; the reason remains only to protect everyone else from this incorrigible aggressor who will not stop attacking and threatening his fellow men. But the Church would not, I think, condone a use of the death penalty which cut off the prisoner from spiritual guidance, from the Sacraments (if he is Catholic), or from similar exhortations to repent before repentance is forever impossible--which, to me, means that mercy to the prisoner is still, if somewhat paradoxically, intended.

But this sentence from CCC 2267 is important, too: "If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."

From this I get that the Church sees non-lethal means as "...more in conformity to the dignity of the human person..." which implies that the death penalty is necessarily less in conformity to that dignity. Far from being some kind of perfect means of punishment which ought to serve as the standard by which we measure all other means of punishment, the death penalty is a sorrowful necessity caused by our fallen nature, and by the possibility of incorrigible depravity and viciousness that lurks in the human soul.

How does this relate to torture?

I think that some people argue this way:

a) the Church permits the death penalty, to protect society.
b) there are times when torture (or something not-torture that would be torture if it were not justly necessary) would also protect society.
c) Torture (or the not-torture which is exactly like torture) is less extreme than putting someone to death.
d) Therefore, if the extreme of putting someone to death may be used to protect society, it follows that torture (or not-torture) must be permissible if it is being used in limited situations to protect society.

But the way the Church writes about the death penalty, she makes it clear that non-lethal means are "...
more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person..." than the death penalty is. Like I said, then, the death penalty isn't the "model" of how we ought to punish the guilty--it is something sadly necessary because of our fallenness, but not something to be used indiscriminately, celebrated, or elevated as the standard of Christian punishment.

What should be the standard, to me, are those punishments that are more visibly ordered toward both justice and mercy, toward the protection of society and, simultaneously, toward the possibility of the repentance and rehabilitation of the prisoner.

And this means that so far from seeing a sort of "If the Church permits the death penalty, then the Church must permit torture..." framework, we could instead see it as "Though the Church must permit the death penalty in rare circumstances, we should remain mindful that the ordinary purpose of punishment, formed by considerations of justice and mercy, is to protect society from the aggressor while offering to the prisoner the opportunity for repentance and rehabilitation."

Thoughts? Clarifications?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Moral principles

I'm mainly writing this new post because I'm tired of scrolling through over 100 comments on Red's challenge below. So please feel free to continue here other discussions started there.

In the comments, reader Matthew offers the following suggested definition as an alternative to those already offered on this blog and elsewhere:
"Torture is the unjust use of extreme mental or physical violence which degrades the human person. Examples of this would be the use of physical and mental violence against prisoners when the end is not justified, for reasons such as revenge, humiliation or to extract information from someone when their probable guilt to immediate threats to innocent human life are not at stake. This would not include proportionate means of physical and mental violence done by the State for the just purposes of self defense or for exacting retributive punishment, including Capital Punishment. Even the just use of physical and moral violence would be limited to the proportion of the crime committed in the classification of the State's right and obligation to keep the moral order and to exact retributive punishment. In the case of the State' right to protect innocents in the act of self defense, actions such as amputating limbs or taking the violence past the rational faculties can never be done."

Now, I love the first sentence of this definition. I agree with it one hundred percent. I find it concise, clear, and useful for practical application.

Then it turns consequentialist. That is to say, it stipulates that the end justifies the means. The end of preventing "immediate threats to innocent human life" allows us to "degrade the human person" of whomever happens to be in custody at the moment.

This same Matthew also asks for discussion of moral principles. So I will lay out my own understanding of foundational Catholic moral principles, which I hope will show exactly why consequentialism is a serious problem. I'll try not to be too long-winded.

First, I start where St. Thomas Aquinas started, and where the Catechism starts: with the purpose of human life. Our entire reason for being is to enter into that eternal communion with God which is usually called Heaven. In a word: happiness.

Our happiness entails acting according to our nature as God created us, and answering our supernatural call. Morality is the entire realm of human activity. A "moral" act is one that accords with nature and answers our vocation. An "immoral" act is one that is contrary to nature and/or to God's call.

Virtues are habits of action that support us in our natural and supernatural life. Vices are habits that reinforce the damage and stain of original sin, separating us from Life Himself.

Sin is a particular act that separates us, either venially or mortally, from God.

Law is a support to virtue in (at least) three ways: first, making known the order and purpose of creation, and of ourselves within it; second, warning us against acts that threaten our happiness; third, providing direct consequence for such vicious actions.

I know this is a cursory and abstract presentation, but I hope it is enough to keep the conversation moving forward.

Let me just leap over all the intervening steps and say, the reason torture is intrinsically evil is that it is impossible to degrade any human person and at the same time be acting in accordance with the nature God gave us, or the supernatural life to which he calls us. It is always and unchangeably sinful.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Docs in the torture chamber?

The NYTimes reports on a statement from Physicians for Human Rights regarding the roles of medical personnel during C.I.A. waterboarding sessions. The accusation is that the doctors and others were engaging in illicit research on human subjects. The doctors were monitoring the prisoners during waterboarding and making suggestions as to how to increase and "calibrate" the "effectiveness" of the techniques.
That meant that the medical professionals crossed the line from treating the detainees as patients to treating them as research subjects, the report asserted.

Seems to me that calling it "research" can be misleading; these were not laboratory conditions, and no one seems eager to publish any "findings."

But the point is well made: these doctors are not treating patients. They are advising and assisting in the torture of prisoners. Somehow, I don't think that's in keeping with the Hippocratic Oath.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bagram airbase's "black prison"

Here's a quick history and status report on the prison at the U.S. Army airfield at Bagram, Afghanistan.

After all, it's Torture Awareness Month all month long! Let's keep ourselves aware: the waterboarding may have stopped, but other highly questionable techniques are known to remain in place, e.g., sleep deprivation and "isolation."

It's not clear to me whether this "isolation" is a temporary solitary confinement (which could have, under certain circumstances, a legitimate penal use) or whether it's a long-term isolation from human contact, which attacks the fundamentally social nature of the human person.

In any case, extended and involuntary sleep deprivation is definitely an attack on the dignity of the human person.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Pro-torture people: post your best pro-torture argument here

Okay, so apparently some of the people who think that the Church is wrong about torture and that torture ought to remain a morally legitimate option for the State to use feel as though their arguments have not been addressed. I'm opening this thread for pro-torture people to put their best arguments forward in answer to the following question:

The Catholic Church teaches, in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the following:
"2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law."
If you believe that the use of torture by the State is not gravely evil, but instead, a property of the State's authority to defend its citizens, to punish the guilty, etc., how do you read the Catechism passage above, and other, similar Church statements, and how does the notion that torture is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity fit with your view that torture nonetheless remains a morally valid option to be used by State authorities?

As arguments are posted, I will do my best to collect from the best responses by Zippy, Mark Shea, and others that address each argument. In the event that someone proposes a truly innovative and new argument, I will highlight that argument and ask for responses from Coalition members.

It's Torture Awareness Month - and I wasn't even aware of it!

According to a couple different sources, June is Torture Awareness Month.

Now, anyone can simply declare any month "Something-or-other Month" and I haven't figured out who has declared June to be Torture Awareness Month. But I'm guessing it's intended to highlight June 26th as the anniversary of the U.N. Convention against Torture.

So I'm all in favor of raising awareness of torture issues this month. Let's all be aware!

Bush would waterboard again

Former president George W. Bush says he'd waterboard KSM again:
GEORGE Bush has admitted that 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded during his administration and said he wouldn't hesitate to give the order again.

“Yeah, we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” the former US President told the Economic Club of Grand Rapids in Michigan.

“I’d do it again to save lives.”

Mr Bush also defended his decision to go to war in Iraq in 2003, calling the attacks on September 11, 2001 “a declaration of war on our country”.

“Getting rid of Saddam Hussein was the right thing to do and the world is a better place without him,” he said.


Wednesday, June 2, 2010

What is the role of the State?

I'm cross-posting this both on my personal blog and on the Coalition for Clarity, because it's the rare topic that fits both topics pretty well.

On Virtue Quest, I've been blogging about my reading of Alisdair MacIntyre's "classic," After Virtue. At the Coalition, I've raised the question of what the basis is for actions permitted to agents of the State that are forbidden to private citizens, such as capital punishment and war. So, toward the end of After Virtue, I ran across this passage:
But my present point is not that patriotism is good or bad as a sentiment, but that the practice of patriotism is in advanced societies no longer possible in the way that it once was. In any society where government does not express or represent the moral community of the citizens, but is instead a set of institutional arrangements for imposing a bureaucratized unity on a society which lacks genuine moral consensus, the nature of political obligation becomes systematically unclear. Patriotism is or was a virtue founded on attachment primarily to a political and moral community and only secondarily to the government of that community; but it is characteristically exercised in discharging responsibility to and in such government. ... Loyalty to my country, to my community - which remains unalterably a central virtue - becomes detached from obedience to the government which happens to rule me.

Now, I'm far from being in easy agreement with everything that MacIntyre says - or even with most of it. But his distinction between "political community" and "government" struck me as exactly the sort of thing that I have argued in saying that the State as embodied in modern nation-states is not necessarily the same kind of beast as the State as embodied in the variety of forms known to, e.g., Thomas Aquinas.

Here is how the very modern Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1910) describes the role of the State:
It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society, its citizens, and intermediate bodies.

I'm still reading through what Thomas has to say about the State, but my impression thus far is that the power of the State derives from its responsibility for goods that are common to society and therefore beyond the power of any single person as such. And the Catechism agrees, at least insofar as its authority is bound to the common good and does not bind whenever an agent of the State acts against the common good. Or, in a saying at least as old as Augustine of Hippo, an unjust law is no law at all.

Now, the first thing that almost everything I've read says about the authority of the State is that is "orders" things to the common good. That is, it resolves what is otherwise disordered and chaotic when left to individual persons or families. This is clearly the source of authority for laws and lawmaking. It also is fairly clearly the source of authority to tax or conscript, that is, to call individuals to a duty owed to society.

Now, I myself have to this point held the opinion that war and capital punishment are simply "public" forms of self-defense. In other words, I've assumed that the State does not have any "rights" or authority that is essentially beyond what is given to individuals; the authority of the State is simply exercised on a larger scale, with broader consequences. Yet almost everything I am reading implies or assumes that the State's role of ordering things to the common good extends to acts that are different in kind from the moral responsibilities of individuals.

So I'm left with a couple questions at the end of this rather rambling post:

First, does a radical difference in the structure of government make a real difference in the relationship of individual persons to the State (such that Patriotism is no longer the same thing, for example), and in the role or authority of the State itself?

Second, does responsibility for the common good extend to acts that are beyond the normal scope of morality as applied to persons taken singly?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Justice, mercy, and the death penalty

What should Catholics think about the death penalty?

Unlike the issues of the morality of torture, abortion, and euthanasia, the death penalty is an issue that Catholics can disagree about in good faith. It must be said from the starting point of any discussion about the death penalty that the Church recognizes the authority of the State to punish the guilty and protect the innocent, and that in the pursuit of this goal the State may sentence a criminal to die, and carry out that awful sentence.

But I think in our deliberations about whether the death penalty ought to be used, and under what conditions, we'd be remiss to ignore the Catechism, which says:

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.NT

That last point, of course, comes from Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelicum Vitae. The death penalty is addressed a few times in that letter, particularly here:

56. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offence".[46] Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.[47]

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person".[48]

I personally struggled to embrace this view of the death penalty. For a long time I saw it only as a matter of meting out to violent murderers their "just desserts." I ignored tales of innocent people being executed (or released from Death Row years after being convicted), and of the disproportionate justice offered to the wealthy, who could afford expensive lawyers, and the poor, who had not these means to defend themselves against criminal charges. I didn't think about that corporal work of mercy which orders us to visit the imprisoned, or consider the impact on the souls of victims' families when they would publicly demand the death of the criminal as a kind of revenge for their suffering and loss.

Surprisingly enough, it was a purely secular source that led me to rethink my position in favor of the use of the death penalty as it is used here and now, in 21st century America. It was the late Erle Stanley Gardner's book, The Court of Last Resort, that first made me rethink my assumptions in favor of the death penalty. At the time I read this book, I'd been presented with Catholic arguments against the death penalty--I had just rejected them as "liberal" without really thinking about them. Mr. Gardner's book, detailing cases where men were waiting to die when there really was reasonable doubt that they were guilty--and in some cases, abundant evidence that they couldn't possibly be guilty--made me think about the issue in a new way.

Death, after all, is irrevocable. If an innocent man is executed, there is nothing that can be done to remedy the matter. But if a guilty one merely lives out the rest of his life in prison--who, exactly, is harmed? Society is not harmed--because we can't execute prisoners merely to avoid the cost of housing them. Society would only be harmed if the incarceration were lacking and the prisoner continued to hurt or kill people while behind bars--which does happen, and must be addressed.

Let's begin the conversation, respecting each other's views. The death penalty is not something that is morally evil--but is it imprudent, often unjust, and at odds, ultimately, with the Christian idea of mercy?