Tuesday, November 28, 2006

More Tortured Debate

The debate in Catholic circles over the use of torture is an interesting one, and I've touched on this before. If you dip into the debate (both Catholic and non-Catholic) you will see frequent references to "ticking bomb" scenarios and how torture may be necessary to save countless lives. Jack Bauer suddenly becomes the moral standard. But this is consequentialism, the idea that the end justifies the means, and can never be defended. It would be very wrong to torture somebody even if doing so would save a million lives. Likewise, Truman's decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities was an evil one, no matter how many lives were saved through an early end to the war.

Now, Catholic apologist Jimmy Akin has jumped into the fray, and tries to define torture here, here, and here. What's interesting about Akin is that he is one of the guys behind the Catholic Answers voter guides, those of the infamous five non-negotiable principles. As I've noted many times, there is no clear reason why torture is excluded from this list, based on their own criteria: issues that "involve principles that never admit of exceptions and.... are currently being debated in U.S. politics." But, of course, adding torture which change the hue of the message, which, as it stands, is a subtle (or not-so-subtle) exhortation to vote Republican. Until now, Akin and Catholic Answers pretty much ignored torture, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it had become one of the defining issues of the Bush administration. So Akin's large-scale attempt to belatedly delve into the topic is of great interest.

Sadly, Akin disappoints. Starting off on the wrong path, he states the issue as follows: "The sin of torture consists in the disproportionate infliction of pain." He recognizes, validly, that inflicting pain can be sometimes be licit, such as to save a person's life, or even for the purpose of punishment (think of spanking a child). For Akin, the key is "disproportionate". If the alarm bells are ringing by now, it is for good reason. To quote Akin directly, "torture is intrinsically evil because it is the infliction of disproportionate pain on a subject." But what is "disproportionate"? For Akin, the action becomes disproportionate (and hence torture) if there is no other way to save lives. So, he argues that waterboarding is not torture "if it is being used in a ticking time bomb scenario and there is no other, less painful way to save lives."

This is flirting dangerously with consequentialism and proportionalism. Fortunately, a blogger named Zippy does all the heavy lifting and explains exactly how Akin goes astray. Appealing to John Paul II's Veritatis Splendour, Zippy notes that an intrinsically evil act is one that is evil in itself, and can never be justified by appealing to a host of good intentions. The act is evil in its object, independent of intent or circumstance. It cannot be justified by using a proportionate reason to do it, or as a proportionate response to some circumstance. As the late pope says: "circumstances or intentions can never transform an act intrinsically evil by virtue of its object into an act "subjectively" good or defensible as a choice."

Torture is listed as an example of something that is intrinsically evil in Veritatis Splendour. Why? Well, torture is intrinsically evil if since it violates the God given dignity and integrity (the intrinsic worth) of human beings. Or, as Zippy phrases it, "the intrinsic evil in torture would inhere in treating a human being as nothing but a means to some end: in exchanging his suffering for a fungible commodity." In other words, you are treating the person solely as the means to an end, here, the extraction of a confession or information, or even to exact retribution. Licit punishment never treats a person in such a manner. Zippy ties this to the other intrinsic evils listed in Veritatis Splendour (taken largely from Gaudium Et Spes), including "treating persons as nothing but property (slavery), treating persons as nothing but an impediment to some political goal (arbitrary deportation)... treating persons as nothing but objects to satisfy our lust for vengeance (torture as punishment), treating persons as nothing but machines to manufacture our products and maximize our profits (subhuman living conditions)". It all fits together, and, viewed through this lens, clarifies what John Paul was getting at in his encyclical, and shows quite clearly that torture is always intrinsically evil.

Now, Akin is an erudite guy, well-versed in theology and moral reasoning. Why would he make such an elementary error? Is it because of his political leanings? One thing is for sure: do not expect Catholic Answers to list torture as a non-negotiable principle any time soon.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Benedict to Turkey

I'm not a big fan of George Weigel. I think that his Catholicism is too influenced by his political ideology, as when he jumped through all kinds of hoops to try to defend Bush's Iraqi misadventures. But he has an article in Newsweek that provides essential background reading about the pope's impending trip to Turkey.

Weigel notes that the main purpose of the trip is to build bridges between the western Church and orthodoxy, as Benedict (the successor of Peter) visits Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (the successor of Andrew). Instead, the media is focusing on Muslim opposition, pointing to demonstrations against Benedict in the wake of his Regensburg lecture. But while this is tangential to the main purpose of the visit, Weigel points to a subtle connection to the Regensburg speech: religious liberty for orthodox Christians in Turkey. To put it mildly, Turkey's treatment of this small community is shameful, and this should raise grave questions over Turkey's fitness for EU membership. Weigel documents the following injustices:

* "It is Turkish law, not the canons of the Orthodox Church, that determines who is eligible to be elected ecumenical patriarch, and Turkish law limits the pool of possible candidates to Turkish citizens living in Turkey."

* "The Turkish government closed the patriarchate's seminary, the Theological School of Halki, in 1971, and has refused, despite numerous requests, to reopen it."

* "Turkey will not grant the Ecumenical Patriarchate legal 'personality,' in defiance of the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which defined the legal position of minorities in Turkey; this refusal to deal with the patriarchate as a legal "person" (as churches are regarded throughout the West) is, according to the patriarchate memo, 'a major source of many other problems'."

* "The Turkish government blocks work permits for non-Turkish citizens who wish to work at the Ecumenical Patriarchate."

* "The Ecumenical Patriarchate is not permitted to own property; thus it owns none of the churches under its religious jurisdiction."

* "Turkish authorities have also confiscated houses, apartment buildings, schools, monasteries and lands that were once owned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate; the state seized the patriarchate's 36 cemeteries, which are now the property of various legal subdivisions of the city of Istanbul; and, earlier this year, the state confiscated the boys' orphanage run by the patriarchate."

* "The Turkish government also determines who may teach in the elementary schools that serve the Orthodox community, and enforces a six-year "approval" process to control the flow of books to Orthodox school libraries."
This gets to the heart of the issue of religious liberty and reciprocity of treatment for other religion in predominantly Muslim countries (when will there be a church near Mecca to match the mosque overlooking the Vatican?). Turkey is about as secular as Muslim countries come, and these restrictions remain. If Benedict's visit manages to highlight the predicament of this ancient struggling community, then it will not have been in vain.

Iraq and Collective Guilt

The most recent issue of the New Republic is devoted to the Iraqi quagmire, and what to do next. A large number of contributors wrote short essays, expressing various points of view. Of course, there is no easy answer to this vexing question. The lessons we can learn relate to the past. In particular, the tendency of the Bush administration to take liberties with the truth and resort to the most cynical form of moral relativism is now bearing fruit, as Iraq has descended into a hellishly vicious civil war, and become the world's largest terrorist training camp. But what to do next? Who knows.

But of all the proposed solutions in TNR's forum, one really sticks in the gut. A contributor called James Kurth proposes to "crush the Sunnis". His plan is admirably simple: create a Kurdish state in the north, a Shia state in the south, and leave the Sunnis "subordinated so that they have no state at all". Yes, you read that correctly. Why? "The Sunni Arabs of Iraq have much to answer for...They compensated for their small base by employing especially brutal methods against their Kurdish and Shia neighbors." And the bottom line: "The losers, of course, would be the Sunni Arabs of Iraq, who would have to pay for the sins of the cruel regimes that represented them in the past and the cruel insurgents whom they support today."

This is a stunningly outrageous proposal on so many different levels. Notice the not-so-implicit accusation of collective guilt: all Sunnis must be punished because Saddam (and other bad guys) were Sunnis. Collective guilt is a feature of really bad theology, used notoriously to justify genocide in the past. Even putting aside the inherent immorality, think of the practical implications. Surely the entire postwar Palestinian experience is a cogent argument against leaving an entire people without a state? Doesn't the treaty of Versailles present an apt lesson about the dangers of foreign policy based on retribution?

One final note: the Vatican--from Benedict XV during the World War I down through Benedict XVI during the Lebanon war-- were indeed making these arguments. But the war party not only refused to listen, but never seemed to learn the lessons of the past. It still refuses, with Rumsfeldian obstinacy.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Whither Lebanon?

When this blog began during the summer, the war in Lebanon was top of the agenda. I argued then that the war was a big mistake, since the traditional just war tenet that "the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated" was violated by Israel. Why? I listed four conditions: bombing civilian areas, intentionally destroying the Lebanese economy and infrastructure, threatening the stability of a nascent democracy, and boosting the hand of Hezbollah.

Pay attention to the last point. At a time when the "rah-rah" brigade of the war party has long forgotten Lebanon, the worst fears are coming to fruition. Hezbollah resigned from the Lebanese government, with the firm intention of bringing it down completely. They are demanding a staggering one third of all cabinet positions, which would give them veto power. What is their main aim? To keep doing the will of the Syrians and cancel the investigation into the murder of Hariri. Lebanon stands, quite literally, at the brink, as the hopes of dreams of 2005 fade.

So depressing, so predictable. Where is the war party now? As always, never around to learn the lesson that violence engengers violence and evil. Too busy pushing for an attack on Iran, no doubt.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Perils of Gnosticism

I'm back! And no better way to herald my return than with a take down of the increasing-popular Gnostic approach to Christianity, evidenced by the recent furore over the Gospel of Judas and the staggering popularity of the Da Vinci Code. In what follows, I lean heavily on an excellent little book by N.T. Wright, Anglican Bishop of Durham, entitled Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth About Christianity?

First things first. What is Gnosticism? Well, Gnosticism is an alternative approach to Christianity, echoes of which have been with us since the earliest days of the Church. But its approach is by no means unique to Christianity. At its heart lies a Platonic metaphysical dualism that sees the world and all of creation as evil. Since creation is evil, it cannot have been created by a benevolent God. No, the creator is an evil God, a demiurge, often identified with the God of the Jews. Beyond all this lies a greater God, a good God. And here is the crux: within every human being lies a "spark of the divine" that is itching to be re-united with this greater God and escape the confines of the evil materialistic world. And how to escape? Escape comes through knowledge, gnosis, often hidden esoteric knowledge available only to a select few. In some variants of Gnosticism, a revealer from the true God is needed to come and point the way toward salvation, where salvation is defined as liberation from the material world.

And what of the gospel of Judas? It is simply an exercise in pure Gnosticism: Jesus needed to die to escape the evil materialistic world, and Judas was the only one with the gnosis to realize this. Hence he had to facilitate his death. The other apostles were basically morons, and Jesus laughed at them (astonishingly, this condescending mockery is used as evidence by Gnostic defenders that this Jesus is more human, with a sense of humor).

Now, if you want to believe this, fine, but it must be acknowledged that it has precious little to do with historic Christianity, and that to claim otherwise is simply wishful thinking. But this is what a small subset of (typically American) researchers are trying to do: to claim that Gnosticism was the true message of Christ, suppressed by a hierarchical church mainly concerned with its own political survival. Even a superficial knowledge of early Christianity should put a lie to these claims. The canonical gospels were written and circulated between 60-100 AD, whereas the Gnostic tracts are clearly second century creations at best. And far from trying to maintain their own political power, many of the Christian leaders at the time suffered terrible persecution and martyrdom, a fate not shared by their Gnostic compatriots.

For here is the rub: Gnosticism was merely an attempt to make Christianity compatible with the prevailing religious ethos of the time: a world full of esoteric and mystery cults that provided no threat whatsoever to the prevailing political authority. But Christianity was different, and perceived as a major threat. As Wright demonstrates with conviction, the dawning "Jesus movement" was based on a very Jewish notion of history, one which proclaimed the coming of a messiah who would make things right in the the world, as the "kingdom of God" arrived. But as anybody at the time would have recognized, there was aleady an established "good news" or "gospel" out there and his name was Caesar. The threat is clear. As Wright puts it, the goal of salvation is the "remaking of the good God-given created universe, and the resurrection of the body for those who have died, so that they can share in the world that has been put to rights." This challenges authority; Gnosticism does not.

But Gnosticism continues to tempt. Why? I'll get to that it a moment. But first, let's pull apart the notion that Gnosticism is superior to orthodox Christianity:

*First, real Gnosticism is fundamentally anti-semitic. Orthodox Christianity began as a Jewish sect, with definably Jewish characteristics and a Jewish eschatological outlook. Gnosticism sees the God of the Jews as evil, or at best stupid, thus casting a spear through the entire basis of Jewish faith.

*Second, Gnosticism is elitist. Whereas orthodox Christianity opened to door to everybody, only a select few were worthy enough to receive the necessary wisdom of the Gnostic cults.

*Third, Gnosticism is not a more "tolerant" religion. One of the most laughable treatises in the Da Vinci Code is that the Gnostic tracts viewed Jesus as human, and thus offered a less "dogmatic" message. But Gnosticism sees the created world as pure evil! For this reason, in many of the Gnostic tracts, Jesus is little more than a ghost (since the body is evil). In the Gospel of Judas, he is struggling to cast off his body. Despite it modern liberal fans, much of Gnosticism was ascetic in nature, loathing the flesh, and expressing disgust with all aspects of sexuality. As for women, Gnosticism most certainly did not offer any advantages-- in one famous Gnostic saying, Jesus claimed that he would "save" Mary Magdalene by turning her into a man! And of course, if the body is evil, then suicide can easily be justified....

Why is this approach to Christianity so popular? Is the message that Jesus essentially committed suicide because his body was evil really a more positive message that the traditional Christian one of forgiveness and renewal? No, something else is at stake here. In one of the most fascinating aspects of his book, Wright contends that Gnosticism strikes a chord in modern American life, especially American Protestantism (for this he relies on the work of people like Harold Bloom and Philip J. Lee).

How? First, the individualism appeals. Who needs doctrine when all that matters is the "spark of the divine" within me? Experience triumphs everything! Of course, individualism can morph quickly into narcissism. And most religious Americans think that, hey-presto, they are going straight to heaven when they die. Fundamentalists think that all they need do is say that Jesus is their personal savior (note "personal"- that individual thing again) and they are saved. This is more like reuniting the "spark of the divine" with God than anything underpinning historical Christianity. How many people claim to be "spiritual, but not religious"? Then there is the fixation on conspiracy theories and cover-ups, alongside the postmodern disdain for the notion of objective truth.

And there is a more sinister side. The dualism that underpins Gnosticism feeds the dualism that operates in much of recent American foreign policy, dividing the world into good and evil. Classic Gnostic elitism enters the picture too, in that America is seen as unique, specially blessed by God, and not constrained by the same rules and constraints as other countries. Hence Americans are rich because God made them rich and Americans can impose their will on the rest of the "unenlightened" world. And if creation is not fundamentally good and in need of renewal, then why should be it not exploited through violence and environmental degradation? I wonder how many liberal commentators, obsessed with the evils of Christian dogma, realize that much of what they despise is actually a bastardized form of their beloved Gnosticism, with little connection to the universal liberating message of Jesus the Christ, whose memory is preserved more accurately in the institutional church than elsewhere?

Finally, although Wright does not address it, it is important to note that many of the religions created in the United States and basically Gnostic in nature. Remember the suicide cult that thought they would end up on the spaceship? Mormonism holds that humans can one day be Gods, with their own planets! Just look at Scientology: it maintains that inside every person is a thetan, an alien creature yearning to escape, and that only a special secret knowledge will allow the person to understand and exploit this reality. This is nothing more than Gnosticism dressed up in cheap science fiction clothing, with, of course, the classic American refinement of uninhibited individualism approaching narcissism. This is what it boils down to then: Pope Benedict and Mother Teresa versus George Bush and Tom Cruise? Not such a hard decision...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Light blogging....

Since I'll be in Europe for the next couple of weeks, blogging will be light, if it even happens. Never mind, my trusty co-bloggers will hold down the fort! Pity, though, with the mid-terms coming up...

I'll sign out with a parting thought: will somebody tell me where the so-called "liberal" media went? John Kerry tells a bad joke about Iraq, and CNN is all over him, with Karl Rove-like intensity. On the other hand, as Josh Marshall and other have pointed out, Bush says that voting for the Democrats is akin to voting for terrorism, and....you guessed, nothing from CNN. No wonder the United States ranks so low in press freedom. Wait, here comes Nancy Grace...

It gets worse. When some guy tried to ask George "Macaca" Allen some hard-hitting questions, Allen's thugs attacked him and threw him to the ground. But CNN tries to defend this behavior by saying the guy had a backpack on, so maybe they thought he was a terrorist. No joke.