Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mark Shea on true and false courage

A terrific piece from Mark:

Similarly, many a radically selfish person has managed to convince himself he was a soul dedicated to the Good of Mankind or the Love of God even as he was about the business of doing some miserable piece of self-serving filth and telling himself throughout the whole affair that the gag reflex he felt was what truly courageous people must muscle down as they defy God and conscience for the Greater Good.

If that is so, then how do we make the distinction between a radically good and radically evil act? How do we tell that one is advocating radical evil and another is advocating radical Christian charity?

The answer is the cross. What marks out Jesus' radical act of courage is that He is brave in offering His own life, not some other innocent person. Conversely, if somebody is "courageously" willing to make some innocent person suffer or die, that's your first clue that they are not courageous for the things of God.

And so, for instance, Himmler is very brave with the lives of innocent people and singularly protective of his own. Likewise, Myers does not volunteer his own body to be reduced to a piece of meat for the sake of Science, much less for the sake of a baby. He demonstrates a congenital inability to distinguish brutality from courage and regards himself as brave for, among other things, being unmoved by the thought of stabbing a defenseless baby to death with scissors. The distinction between that act and interposing one's body between the baby and a fiend like himself is lost on a moral monster like Myers, as it is on Himmler. Like Jeffrey Dahmer, he is "unafraid" to reduce persons to meat. (And, oddly, nobody frets about his "incivility" or the effect he might have on some Jared Loughner in his class.)

In the same way, the Croatian guard is "brave" enough to slaughter innocents, but not enough to slaughter his nationalism on the cross of Christ.

Go read the whole thing here.

We've seen the "false courage" motif crop up in torture debates. The idea is that those who oppose torture are too cowardly to "man up" and do What Must Be Done to Defend Our Nation. The response to that is simple: a nation that can only be defended by having recourse to torture--or, indeed, any other intrinsic evil--is a nation no longer worthy of defending.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More fun with the death penalty

Mark posts over at Inside Catholic on the death penalty with predictable results.

Here's the skinny:

  1. The Church teaches, as she has always taught, that a legitimate government has the authority to execute a criminal

  2. The Church teaches, as she has always taught, that the government has the responsibility to use capital punishment rarely, when a criminal's sure threat posed to the common good cannot be otherwise met

  3. John Paul II and the Catechism teach that such circumstances under which the death penalty may be justly and prudently imposed are so rare as to be nonexistent, for practical purposes

  4. However, neither JP2 nor the Catechism impose the burden of sin on any governmental officers who impose or enforce a sentence of capital punishment - given that the process is imposed and executed as justly as possible

Mark calls this position "death penalty minimalism" which seems a good enough moniker to me. It is consistent with the philosophical principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and with the ancient tradition of Catholic moral teaching. It is consistent with scripture and with all the saints I know of.

Some go further, calling for an all-out abolition of the death penalty; this is acceptable under Catholic teaching, so long as they do not oppose the State's obligation to defend the common good.

Some argue strongly to retain the legal option of the death penalty; this is acceptable under Catholic teaching, so long as they recognize that capital punishment is a tool that poses dangers as great or greater than those it solves, and must be used with extreme caution.

I don't have strong opinions on the issue myself, except to maintain clarity that Catholic moral teaching does not necessarily map to party policy, and may have a variety of practical implementations.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Love your neighbor as yourself

I keep noticing, both in the comments here and on other sites, that some people seem to see a contradiction between the divine command to love one's neighbor and the natural right to defend oneself and others.

The Catholic Church sees no such contradiction. There are a few basic principles which allow us to find clarity in complex situations.

The first principle is simply the Law of Love, also known as the two Greatest Commandments:
"Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the law?" And he [Jesus] said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." (Matthew 22.36-40)

Now, "Love" in the Christian tradition means much more than a nice feeling or an attraction or any such emotion. Love is an act, the most fundamental act of a person. It is to will what is good. Love delights in a good that is present, and pursues a good that is absent. The love of charity, the perfection of love to which we are called, seeks the good of union with God, which is the highest good, and the one that all persons share in.

In other words, to love God is to delight in his glory. To love myself is to seek union with God. And to love my neighbor is to seek my neighbor's union with God.

Now, this sounds very abstract and mystical, but it has some very practical implications. Perhaps most importantly, it shows us the priority of goods in the world. Everything God has made is good in itself; but not everything is good for me (or for my neighbor) at any given time. Things are good insofar as they draw us closer to God.

So, my physical safety and integrity are good things. Most of the time, being healthy and secure is a real help toward union with God. But there are times when my physical or social safety becomes an obstacle to union with God. To admit I am a practicing Christian at school or at work can lead to ostracization. To serve the poor and the sick risks infection or theft of my property. To refuse undue honor to Muhammad or to the Koran, in some parts of the world today, risks imprisonment, torture, or even death.

In other words, when even a good so important as my physical integrity is set against the good of God, the choice must be for God.

Martyrdom is not something we seek out for its own sake. It is something we endure only when necessity drives us to it. So, when possible, we try to hold onto both goods: bodily integrity and union with God. Under normal circumstances, these goods are not opposed to one another. Martyrdom - of any kind or degree - is not normal.

Now, if we love our neighbors as ourselves, then we will be concerned for their physical integrity as for our own. That is, whenever it does not conflict with union with God, we will seek to defend and promote their bodily good. In families, this means caring for and sticking up for one another. In communities, this takes both personal forms - such as intervening when you witness a crime in progress - to institutional forms - such as the police and military.

The whole notion of rights to self defense and just war are founded, in the Catholic tradition, on the law of love. They are legitimate rights, but they are limited because they are not ends or obligations in themselves; they are for the sake of union with God.

So, I do not have the right to defend myself by any means necessary. Rather, I have the right to defend myself insofar as I do not commit a sin in doing so. I can fire a gun at my attacker, even shoot to kill if that is the only way to defeat the attack; but I cannot poison him, or maim him, or use deadly force where lesser force is a real option. In other words, I may not commit murder, even to prevent my own murder.

Likewise, the State has the obligation to defend the common good, and so (as noted) has the right to detain and punish criminals up to depriving them of life. It has the right to maintain a military fighting force, and to engage an attacking enemy. But the State does not have the right to murder. It has no right to kill a criminal when other means of defending the common good will do; and it has no right to use military force when other options for defense are available. It has no right, ever, to attack a neighbor. The only truly just war is a war of defense.

This will make clear, I hope, the second principle, that we may never do evil, even for apparently good reasons or seeking good consequences. Murder, the deliberate taking of innocent life, is always and under any circumstances, wrong. For that matter, any deliberate attempt to harm another person in any way, that is, to act contrary to their good, is an evil act.

The second principle simply states that nothing supersedes or dispenses from the first principle.

Hopefully, this will make the theory usually called "double effect" more clear. Double effect is a last-resort theory for extraordinary circumstances, when no choice is an unmixed good. It does not permit anyone, ever, to choose an evil act under any circumstances. Rather, it acknowledges that there are times when, no matter what one does, something bad will likely result.

  1. First, I make sure what I am going to do is itself a good act; for example, I am defending myself and/or my children against an attacker

  2. Next, I see what possible evils could result; for example, I recognize that I will likely injure, perhaps even kill, the attacker; I also risk injury or death myself

  3. Finally, I make sure that the evil I risk or allow is not disproportionate to the good I seek; for example, if my attacker has a pocket knife, I don't respond with a 9mm

This principle applies to acts of individuals as well as institutional acts of governments. Morality doesn't change with size; only the means available change.

I hope this clarifies why, from the perspective of Catholic moral teaching, torture and abortion and euthanasia are always wrong; the death penalty, self defense, and defensive war must be used with extreme caution, if ever; and "pre-emptive" wars are inherently unjust.

Friday, January 7, 2011


It's been a while since I've posted here; I'm hoping to get back onto a regular posting schedule again in this new year.

I'm sure you've already seen this, but it's worth sharing:
Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

Often times, the proponents of torture will use language that demonizes all Muslim people, as will, indeed, others caught up in propaganda. I have seen and heard the words "Muslim" or "Islamic" used as synonyms for "terrorist," sometimes by people who should know better. But not only is this unjust to the sort of Muslims described above, it has the effect of placing a whole category of people into a sort of "nonperson" or depersonalized status.

Just as proponents of abortion often refer to "fetuses" or "embryos" or even "zygotes" as if these terms clearly denote someone who is less than human, so too do people at various times in history tend to depersonalize whole cultures and societies with whom they might be at war. During World War II, for instance, epithets like "Huns" and "Japs" were used to refer not only to enemy soldiers, but to everyone who had the misfortune of living in Germany or Japan; from there it was a short step to the view that there was really no such thing as a noncombatant, and that everyone within the enemy countries' borders was "fair game" for acts of war.

The brave Muslims who attended Mass with their Christian neighbors as a rebuke to the terrorists have demonstrated three important things: the kind of solidarity that all human beings should strive for with each other, the courage to reject evils being done in the name of the religion they practice, and the committment to peaceful and civil relations with all the people in their nation. We should at least have the similar courage to correct anyone who says that "the Muslims" are the problem in regard to modern-day peace efforts; the terrorists are the problem, but many Muslims are tired of being associated with the intolerant and irrational thuggery and violence that terrorists create.