Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The Problem with Nationalism

In my post on immigration, I referenced the Catholic principle, the notion that (in Catholic social teaching), the concept of neighbor extends to the whole human race. In that sense, I have some basic problems with nationalism, the glorification of the nation state, or at the very least, the claim that it takes precedence over other claims of loyalty.

The way many Americans treat the concept of culture, flag, nation-- well, borders on idolatry. Nowhere is this clearer than with discussions of the Iraq war. Priests have been accused of treason for merely preaching Pope John Paul's opposition to the war from the pulpit. And in right-wing Catholic circles, one often sees more fealty shown toward the Bush administration than the pope! Many point that the Catechism seems to defer to the civil authorities when it notes that "The evaluation of these [just war] conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good." Hence soldiers and draftees are morally obliged to obey orders, and civilians are urged to support the war effort lest they be accused of a bevy of abuses ranging from disloyalty to treason. We see this quite clearly in the ongoing debate today. But it's wrong. It is certainly a necessary condition that the secular leadership evaluates the just war conditions, but it is not a sufficient one. The judgment could be wrong, immoral.

Were soldiers in Nazi Germany obliged to obey orders? Was the German population obliged to support the war effort? Of course not! The Austrian farmer Franz Jägerstätter died as a martyr when he refused to be drafted by the Nazis. He reasoned very clearly that while obedience to the government was ordinarily required, this was not the case in gravely evil situations. And the Nuremberg trials concurred, stating clearly that the "following orders" defense was invalid.

Where am I going with this? In earlier days, before the Enlightenment and the rise of the nation state, nationalism, at least as understood today, was non-existent. The ruler was regarded as having a divine mandate to rule, but this was contingent upon the ruler supporting the common good. There was never any obligation to support tyrants. Of course, the environment was very different, during a time when borders were in constant flux, and when there was no real concept of a "state" demanding allegiance. Loyalties were of a local nature. But the rise of nationalism changed the equation, as (absent any notion of the divine), the state itself became an end in itself. It is by no accident that many trace the birth of modern nationalism to the French Revolution. As Christianity waned, secular mythologies and ideologies arose take its place, and those ideologies often glorified country. In its extreme forms, this ideology quickly shifted into the venomous pseudo-religions that so marked the 20th century. Even its more benign forms (such as in the United States) it is, in its essence, an artificial concept prone to corruption.

Perhaps we need to reassess nationalism. The ruler in a modern democracy is obliged to protect the common good, chiefly to protecting basic human rights. Borders are necessary to establish administrative boundaries. But should these boundaries be accorded a mystical quality of their own? I don't think so.

Five Favorite TV Shows

I think it's time for a lighter topic! So here goes: the five TV shows I most enjoy at the present time.

1. Battlestar Galactica

A brilliantly written show, featuring multidimensional characters and a fascinating story arc, that fearlessly addresses highly controversial topics like abortion, terrorism, torture, fear-mongering, suicide bombing-- all in the context of a science fiction space drama.

2. Lost

Mixing the present with character flashbacks, this complicated drama piles riddle upon riddle, mystery upon mystery, in an ever-increasing spiral of confusion, with only the vaguest hints that somehow everything is connected and will one day be revealed! Highly addictive...

3. Rome

And you thought modern politics was vicious! After Ceasar was knifed to death, it's everybody for themselves in the Roman streets-- and the Senate too.

4. 24

Maybe getting past its sell-buy date, but still makes for gripping television and a weekly adrenaline rush, as long as you realize that it's all fiction and that Jack Bauer is not somebody to lauded or emulated... (that's for Bush supporters!)

5. Prison Break

This started off as a unique concept-- breaking into prison to break somebody else out. Now trying to sustain itself in second season, the escapees are on the run and seem to have a remarkably easy time avoiding detection. Still, the diverse cast and multiple story lines makes for interesting viewing, and who can resist a drama about a nefarious president in the grip of big companies engaging in multiple conspiracies and cover-ups?

Now, if only The Sopranos returned, it would surely have its rightful place in this group restored!

Monday, January 29, 2007

The American Right is Wrong on Immigration

""Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.'" -- Matthew 25: 42-45 (NAB).

The American right is opposed to immigration. They are especially riled up by what they regard as illegal immigration, but many too, simply seek curbs on legal immigration. And here's the interesting thing: this group includes the majority of evangelical Christians. Eduardo Peñalver over at Commonweal links to an interesting article exploring Christian reactions to immigration. According to the article, a poll of the Family Research Council's (FRC) members showed that 90 percent of them favored deportation of the 12 million or so undocumented workers. Deportation! Moreover, according to a Pew poll, 63% of white evangelicals view immigrants as a "threat to U.S. customs and values," compared to 48% of the population as a whole. And sadly, many on the Catholic right shares these views. The champion of this group is evangelical fundamentalist politician Tom Tancredo, who seeks to criminalize those who "aid and abet" illegal immigrants, and is running for president on a strongly nativist platform. It used to be that Catholics faced the ire of guys like Tancredo. It is yet another bad fruit of the marriage of convenience between many right-wing Catholics and evangelicals that large number of Catholics can embrace such a position.

Why? Some will say it to to protect against terrorism. Others will say it is for economic reasons, to protect low-paid native workers. But these are not the real reasons. The real reasons are cultural. The American right is uneasy with, and sometimes hostile toward, Mexican culture. This is the defining issue. And when speaking among themselves, they can be refreshingly frank. Long-time right-wing activist Phylis Schlafly wrote to her membership that the proper Christian response to illegal immigration in the United States is to "erect a fence and double our border agents in order to stop the drugs, the smuggling racket, the diseases, and the crimes." Less provocatively, the FRC's Tony Perkins announces that the core issue is to protect the "cultural fabric." Gary Bauer also acknowledged that culture is the "unmentioned undercurrent" in the debate. Catholics can join in too. Thomas Fleming, president of the Rockford Institute, said that "Whatever we may say in public, most of us do not much like Mexicans, whom we regard as too irrational, too violent, too passionate." And we all know the views of well-known Catholic Pat Buchanan.

How can these views accord with Christian philosophy, with Gospel values? One can only assume that these people know full well that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were migrants and refugees, and that Jesus calls on us to embrace everybody as brothers and sisters, regardless of race or nationality. Ominously, as the quote at the top shows, he damns those who ignore the stranger.

What's going on here? The position of many on the right derives from a secular nationalistic ideology. There is nothing "Christian" about it. In particular, these people seem to have lost all notion of the "Catholic principal", the idea that there can be no boundaries on who is and who is not our neighbor. But there may be a way out. Evangelical fundamentalism is inspired by a Calvinist belief in predestination, dividing the world into the saved and the damned, and often holds that God has somehow favored the United States above all others. It follows naturally that America should protect its culture, much as God favors the United States. Thus a secular ideology can be safely wedded with (bad) theology.

But the essence of Christianity is that God does not play favorites. It is catholic, universal. St. Paul stated clearly that all races and cultures are united in one Church. The need to welcome the migrant is at the core of Christ's teaching, and that message is preserved in the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

The Evangelical Catholicism blog has been doing sterling work in standing up for this aspect of authentic Catholic teaching. The teaching is quite old at this stage. The right to migrate to sustain one's family was laid down by Pope Leo XIII's Rerum Novarum back in 1891. At the end of World War II, Pope Pius XII recalled the Church's support for "pilgrims, aliens, exiles and migrants of every kind." and reiterated the right to migrate if workers cannot achieve a life of dignity in their own land. While the Church acknowledges that countries have the right to regulate borders, that right is by no means absolute. Above all else, the human dignity and human rights of all migrants must be always respected, irrespective of what documentation they hold. Basic rights must always be upheld.

The Church continues to make these points. Pope John Paul addressed the issue frequently, and had the following to say:

"By her nature, the Church is in solidarity with the world of migrants who, with their variety of languages, races, cultures and customs, remind her of her own condition as a people on pilgrimage from every part of the earth to their final homeland. This vision helps Christians to reject all nationalistic thinking and to avoid narrow ideological categories. It reminds them that the Gospel should be incarnated in life in order to become its leaven and soul, also through a constant effort to free it from the cultural incrustations that inhibit its inner dynamism.

For the Christian, every human being is a 'neighbour' to be loved. He should not ask himself whom he should love, because to ask 'who is my neighbour?' is already to set limits and conditions. One day Jesus was asked this question and he responded by turning it around: it is not 'and who is my neighbour?', but 'to whom should I become a neighbour?' that is the right question. And the answer is: 'anyone in need, even if he is a stranger to me, becomes a neighbour I must help'. The parable of the Good Samaritan (cf. Lk 10:30-37) invites everyone to reach out beyond the bounds of justice in the perspective of gratuitous and unlimited love."

In other words, beware of secular ideology and nationalism. And yet many Catholics will dismiss Church teachings in this area as yet another example of prudential judgment that can safely be ignored. And it is true that if the Church issues a statement on a particularly policy matter related to immigration, it is indeed a judgment about particular circumstantial facts. But in this matter more than any other, many who disagree with the Church are not simply questioning its prudence, but disagreeing with core social doctrine, in other words, about the underlying principles governing the particular circumstances. The critics above-- Perkins, Schlaffly, Tancredo, Buchanan, Fleming-- fall into this category.

And one more thing. Dismissing the God-given human rights of a migrant can have serious consequences. Deportation is one of the examples that John Paul gives in Veritatis Splendour when addressing offenses against human dignity that are intrinsically evil, in other words, that can never be justified by appeal to intent or circumstance. Deportation, just like torture and slavery, can become intrinsically evil if it violates the God given dignity and integrity (the intrinsic worth) of human beings. In other words, if it treats the person as a mere means to end (in this case, the protection of the American culture). This is always and everywhere wrong. And, no, this is not a prudential judgment.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Bishops And Domestic Partnership Benefits

When it comes to granting legal rights to same-sex couples, many of the Catholic right will kick and scream, oppose without thinking, and demand excommunication and (at the very least), denial of communion for those not with them. In that light, what is going on in Washington state right now is interesting. As noted by Rocco Palmo, Joseph Tyson, Auxiliary Bishop of Seattle, testified at state legislative hearing concerning the expansion of domestic partnership rights and benefits. Tyson sought to broaden the provisions, to encompass not only same-sex couples but any registered "domestic partnership" (that could include, for example, an elderly parent).

This pragmatic solution as the one adopted a decade ago in San Francisco by then-Archbishop William Levada, averting a showdown with the City, and a possible loss of funding for the local Catholic Charities. Levada's solution was that domestic partnership benefits would be paid to "any legally domiciled member" of a household.

Of course, Levada was denounced on the right as a sell-out. But one person paid attention, and and promoted Levada to his old job (Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) when this person was elected pope. And, interestingly, one of Pope Benedict's first appointments in the United States was (you guessed it), Joseph Tyson of Seattle. Yet again, will some on the Catholic right claim to know the mind of Benedict more than Benedict himself?

Saturday, January 27, 2007

When is Euthanasia Not Euthanasia?

Evoking parallels with the Terri Schiavo case in the United States, the Italian Church has been at the center of controversy over the death of Piergiorgio Welby, a man who was paralyzed and kept alive by a ventilator for nine years. The case created a huge political furore, and the Church was painted as a stark opponent of allowing him to die.

First off, this is all incredibly complicated and nuanced. We need to be absolutely clear about what the Church says and what it does not say. For that, I recommend a good article in the Tablet by John Paris S.J., a leading expert on end-of-life issues. First, things first. Euthanasia (or "mercy killing"), like abortion and torture, is evil in its object, which means that no appeal to either intent or circumstance can justify it. As the Catechism says clearly (#22877): "
"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 of 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."
But there is a profound difference between killing somebody and discontinuing treatment that offers no hope of recovery. This distinction is well-grounded in Catholic moral teaching. Again, from the Catechism (#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."
The 1980 Declaration on Euthanasia had this to say:

"One cannot impose on anyone the obligation to have recourse to a technique which is already in use but which carries a risk or is burdensome. Such a refusal is not the equivalent of suicide [or euthanasia]; on the contrary, it should be considered as an acceptance of the human condition, or a wish to avoid the application of a medical procedure disproportionate to the results that can be expected."
This reflects a very old tradition. As far back in the 4th century, St. Basil wrote: "Whatever requires an undue amount of thought or trouble or involves a large expenditure or effort and causes our whole life to revolve, as it were, around solicitude for the flesh must be avoided by Christians." The distinction between proportionate/ordinary care (which was morally obligatory) and disproportionate/extraordinary treatment (which was not) was worked out in detail by a group of 16th Century moralists, including Domingo Bañez and Francisco de Vitoria. When Vitoria was asked if a sick person who refused to eat be guilty of suicide, he answered:
"If a patient is so depressed or has lost his appetite so that it is only with the greatest effort that he can eat food, this right away ought to be reckoned as creating a kind of impossibility, and the patient is excused, at least from moral sin, especially if there is little or no hope of life."
In modern times, and in modern medical circumstances, Catholics moralists have arrived at similar conclusions. As noted by Fr. Paris, the eminent Jesuit moralist Gerald Kelly concluded in the 1950s that (in Paris's words): "No one is obliged to use any means - natural or artificial - if it does not offer a reasonable hope of success in overcoming the patient's condition." He stated that this included the use of IV feeding for patients in a terminal coma. Pope Pius XII noted that the use of ventilators was not necessarily obligatory either. And in a recent case, Archbishop Mario Conti of Glasgow, in discussing a case of a woman paralyzed from the neck down, said that:
"The principle here [the request for the withdrawal of a ventilator] is quite different from euthanasia. The request in this case is not for assisted suicide, rather it is for the discontinuation of a medical procedure which is burdensome to the patient."

Paris concludes his essay by appealing to the example set by Pope John Paul II, who refused to go back to the Gemelli Hospital, where he would probably have been hooked up (yet again) to a respirator and feeding tube. Instead he said simply "Let me go to the house of the Father."

The consensus view is elucidated in a thoughtful essay by Brother Daniel Sulmasy, who claims that intervention can be judged extraordinary and disproportionate if it is "too expensive, not likely to work, is associated with great suffering, or might save the patient's life at too great a psychological, spiritual, or interpersonal cost".

In light of this, why did the Church react to Welby in the way they did? Quite simple. Gerald Kelly himself provides an answer when he wrote, in the context of his own position on the licitness of withdrawing IV treatment:
"I frankly hesitate to give a practical answer allowing the physician to discontinue the intravenous feeding as a means to end suffering. I fear the abrupt ceasing of nourishment to a conscious patient might appear to be a sort of ‘Catholic euthanasia' to many who cannot appreciate the fine distinction between omitting an ordinary means and omitting a useless ordinary means."
In other words, these issues can be complicated, and the Church is afraid that its unambiguous treatment on euthanasia would be watered down. It is afraid that nuance will be interpreted as support for suicide and euthanasia. Hence, many in the Church are willing to draw a heavier line than exists in Catholic moral teaching.

This is what happened in Italy. In the Welby case, the patient claimed that the technology was artificially postponing his death and that was too burdensome (he could no longer eat or speak). In many countries, his wishes would have been granted automatically. The issue is that Italian law does not permit the denial of lifesaving care even though the patient can refuse treatment.

The Vatican said clearly that the issue was whether or not the use of the respirator constituted extraordinary measures to postpone his life. But the Church was not willing to take a stance on this question. Accordingly, two top Vatican officials-- Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry, and Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life-- stated that they did not have enough information to make such a determination. Both Cardinal Barragan and Bishop Sgreccia argued that the doctor should decide. But this is clearly an unsatisfactory position, as the Catechism clearly says that "the decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able."

More recently, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini entered the fray, and appeared more sympathetic to Welby's case, noting that he was fully lucid and that the breathing apparatus offered no possibility of improvement. Although Martini did explicitly condone Welby's decision, he did say that is is generally up to the patient to decide whether the treatment is disproportionate or not. So, at the end of the day, closer to the Catholic tradition, but not that far either from Cardinal Barragan, despite the media playing up in-fighting in the Church over this issue.

So far, so nuanced. But it got a lot worse when Cardinal Camillo Ruini, papal vicar of Rome, refused to grant Welby a Catholic funeral. Although the Diocese of Rome stated clearly that it was being denied because of his long-time advocacy for legalized euthanasia, and not arising from the circumstances of his death, the damage was done. The Church's attempts at nuance were lost. Welby's widow made the valid point that the Church had not refused a Catholic funeral to murderous dictator Pinochet. [As an aside, this gives a glimpse of how the Church's prestige in the US would suffer should they start to deny the Eucharist to pro-abortion politicians.] As Cardinal Martini hinted, “more attentive pastoral consideration" was have been helpful.

So, where do we stand? Paris makes the compelling case that the removing of Welby's respirator was fully consistent with Catholic tradition, at least in terms of similar cases in the past. And yet the Church was loathe to embrace this position, for reasons that are (at least partially) understandable. Still, many people failed to note the nuance in the Church's position and equated Welby's death with text-book euthanasia. The same happened with the Schiavo case, with extremists on both sides contributing to an atmosphere of bitterness than managed to obscure the Church's authentic teaching on the matter at hand.

Going forward, we need far more clarity on end-of-life issues in the modern day. In particular, it would be useful to address these issues:

(1) Is there a difference between refusing to accept treatment, and ending treatment that has already begun? Pope John Paul refused to get back on the ventilator. Welby took himself off. Is there a major ethical difference? Is the latter too close to suicide?

(2) How do advancements in the quality of medical care and treatment affect a tradition that was worked out in context of the 16th Century? Already, as noted in a 2004 papal allocution, the Vatican seems to be saying that artificial nutrition and hydration should now always be seen as ordinary, and thus morally obligatory (which was not the case in the past).

(3) Can we discern an ever-unfolding emphasis in Church teachings on the God-given human dignity of every human being affecting this aspect of Church teaching, as it has many others? In recent times, the Church has restricted its position on the licitness of the death penalty, and sees ever-narrower conditions for the justness of war. Does this general trend have implications for end-of-life issues? Can we argue that the old proportionate-disproportionate distinction places too much weight on "quality of life", in a way that downgrades the human dignity of disabled people?

One thing is for sure: the Church will have a lot more to say about this matter!

Friday, January 26, 2007

How Low Can Fox News Go?

Has Fox News really reached its nadir? With the Southern (sorry, Republican) Party in disarray following the Congressional wipe-out, it must be forgetting to send the daily marching orders to Roger Ailes. Spinning out of control, and not sure why its world is being turned upside down, Fox is getting desperate. Very desperate.

Take two recent stories.

One, Fox has been peddling a story that Barack Obama attended a radical Saudi-funded Indonesian madrassa as a child. In fact, reporters from CNN and the Associated Press went to investigate, and discovered that it was a secular institution. They even found that it had classes on Christianity, with pictures of Jesus on the wall. Unlike John Kerry, Obama swung right back and denounced Fox for its "malicious, irresponsible charges", and called out Fox commentators Steve Doocy and John Gibson by name. Obama's letter was signed by Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Islamic representatives. How did Gibson respond? By claiming that the "reporter" sent by CNN probably went to the same madrassa, and wondered how this person managed to miss the "terrorist training camps" and kids "bobbing their heads and memorizing the Koran." What can I say? Remember, this is the most popular news network in the country.

Two, Fox has decided to broadcast a total lie about Clinton and 9/11 that was excised even from ABC's ludicrous production (written by a Republican partisan) last year. Following widespread protests, ABC agreed to scrap some of the most offensive scenes, including the one that shows Sandy Berger refusing to allow the CIA to attack Bin Laden. No matter that the 9/11 Commission said this did not occur. Fox is a full part of the Bushite alternate universe where ideology trumps fact, where an insidious and cynical postmodernist vision holds sway, and where there is no such thing as objective truth. This, my friends, is moral relativism. And calumny to boot.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Communion Wars

If you look at what energizes the Catholic blogosphere today, you would be forgiven for thinking that pro-abortion politicians standing in communion lines is the leading moral issue of the day! It all harks back of course to the right-wing assault on John Kerry in 2004, coordinated by Bush's Catholic allies, including the dynamic duo of Deal Hudson and William Donohue. Now, the issue relates to the newly-elected speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Donald Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington DC, stated clearly that he has no intention of banning Pelosi from receiving communion. Instead, he drew attention to the Church's teaching role. The reaction was predictable. From Amy Welborn, who runs one of the most popular Catholic blogs:
"I think what Archbishop Wuerl and others fail to understand is the impact of things like this on the lay Catholic who is struggling to be a faithful disciple in the world. The message that is sent by silence is strong, in terms of the lay apostolate in the world, in terms of the unity of faith and life."
And Welborn's response was relatively timid. Richard John Neuhaus, whose essay I addressed in part yesterday, had this to say:
"It is understandable that Catholics and others have drawn the conclusion that, for both Wuerl and Egan, bishops of the two most prominent sees in the country, rejecting the Church’s teaching on the human dignity of the unborn child is not a big deal."
Neuhaus also accused Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Wuerl's immediate predecessor, of misrepresenting a letter sent by Cardinal McCarrick in 2004. Pretty serious charges. I've discussed this letter many times before in different contexts, including the relationship between abortion on one hand, and war and the death penalty on the other; and the conditions under which Catholics can licitly vote for pro-abortion candidates. But now the time has come to address the main point of the letter, the issue of communion. Here is Ratzinger:
"Regarding the grave sin of abortion or euthanasia, when a person’s formal cooperation becomes manifest (understood, in the case of a Catholic politician, as his consistently campaigning and voting for permissive abortion and euthanasia laws), his Pastor should meet with him, instructing him about the Church’s teaching, informing him that he is not to present himself for Holy Communion until he brings to an end the objective situation of sin, and warning him that he will otherwise be denied the Eucharist."
This results directly from the truth that directly-procured abortion is always and everywhere wrong, without recourse to intent or circumstance. It is the taking of innocent life. There can be no "right to take life". In this sense, and only in this sense, is abortion "non-negotiable".

So, what does this mean? First, formal cooperation in evil means something pretty specific. It refers to the proximity of the person to the act of abortion itself. It can be defined as "..when a person or organization freely participates in the action(s) of a principal agent, or shares in the agent’s intention, either for its own sake or as a means to some other goal." According to Ratzinger, in the case of abortion, formal cooperation includes "consistently campaigning and voting for permissive" laws.

Now, this may come as a shock to some American commentators, but perhaps Ratzinger was not just thinking about the United States when he set of these principles. In the United States, the "right" to abortion comes directly from the U.S. Supreme Court. Members of Congress do not typically vote for permissive abortion laws. If anything, legislators are indicted by their rhetoric, if inappropriate. It is therefore really difficult to discern the true intent of a politician in voting for or against a piece of legislation. As blogger M.Z. Forrest notes, "a politician could claim that by enacting a piece of legislation that would be turned down by the courts at this time he would cause harm to justice and not effect the rate of abortion."Cardinal Avery Dulles has also discussed this issue, noting that voting for an appropriations bill that includes some provisions for funding abortions "might arguably be licit if the funding for abortion were only incidental and could not be removed from a bill that was otherwise very desirable." And of course, it is perfectly licit to vote against a Supreme Court nominee that might well vote to overturn Roe v. Wade (but who knows if they actually will?) for other compelling reasons.

Overall, given the source of the abortion "right" in the United States, the proximity of legislators to the act of abortion is automatically diminished. Of course, that does not let them off the hook, especially if they share in the intention of Roe v. Wade that abortion is a "right" and hence something good. But this becomes incredibly difficult to discern. And even when the Church is compelled to deny the Eucharist in a specific case, the guidelines call for it to be done privately, without the fanfare of right-wing Catholics jumping up and down.

Of course, one can argue that persistently lobbying for abortion creates a public scandal. The USCCB statement on the issue makes this point by noting that "to give scandal means more than to cause other people to be shocked or upset by what one does...Rather, one’s action leads someone else to sin.” But does anybody really think that John Kerry or Nancy Pelosi are encouraging others to sin, either directly or indirectly? And what about the public scandal of the Bush administration defending torture for the sake of "security"? And so many other examples spring to mind...

Of course, for Catholics, participation in the Eucharist is a serious issue, not to be taken lightly. And many pro-abortion politicians probably should not participate. Any Catholic can tell you that we are encouraged to partake in the sacrament of reconciliation before receiving communion after committing grave sins. And there are many such sins out there, ranging from murder and abortion through malicious gossip and missing mass. How many of those who receive the Eucharist do so correctly? No, the key issue is coercion, whether people should be refused communion. The line is hard to draw. In Northern Ireland, the Church did not refuse communion to members of Sinn Fein and supporters, even though they supported terrorism. How many known mafia members are turned away in parts of Italy?

If the Church singles out one issue, the abortion issue, it will be seen as politicizing the Eucharist. Cardinal Dulles makes this point when he says that a coercive approach raises the possibility that "people can easily accuse the Church of trying to meddle in the political process, which in this country depends on the free consent of the governed." Moreover, he claims that the Church could be accused of trying to coerce the politicians conscience, and, even worse, risk " alienating judges, legislators and public administrators whose good will is needed for other good programs, such as the support of Catholic education and the care of the poor." No, the correct approach is the non-coercive approach, the teaching approach, and that is favored by both Archbishop Wuerl and Pope Benedict.

For these reasons, the bishops in the United States opted not to deny communion to John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi, or any other politician. There were a few exceptions (you can count them on one hand) and they were heavily criticized by their brother bishops. We should also realize that Wuerl's position on this was a matter of public record long before he was appointed Archbishop of Washington, and that he was chosen by Pope Benedict, who also happens to the the author of the Ratzinger letter. Clearly, some American Catholics seem to know more about the mind of Ratzinger than Ratzinger himself!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Burmese Repression

A disturbing new report suggests that the military dictatorship that rules Burma is planning on eradicating Christianity from that country. The ultimate goal is that there "shall be no home where the Christian religion is practised" and anybody accused of evangelization will be imprisoned. Interestingly, the report notes that the government is following the lead of a state-sponsored Buddhist group, whose goal is a Buddhist state, brought about by coercion and forced conversions.

Two points.

First, Pope Benedict's persistent exhortation against compulsion in religion remains timely and of utmost importance, not just in the Islamic world. As he noted in his World of Peace address, religious freedom is a core precondition of true and authentic peace.

Second, there is a myth by many in the western world that somehow Buddhism is purer, nobler, and generally better, than so-called organized religions, chiefly Christianity. This matter proves otherwise. And in Sri Lanka as well, the government is frequently held hostage by a vocal lobby of virulent Buddhist nationalists that opposes any peace talks with the Tamil Tigers. No, Buddhism should not be held to a higher standard. Frankly, I've never understood the "Hollywood" fascination with (what they perceive as) Buddhism. I believe its more a reaction "against" Christianity than "for" Buddhism.

Maher Arar

Remember him? This Syrian-born Canadian citizen was picked up by US authorities while transiting through JFK airport en route to Montreal in 2002, and sent to Syria to be brutally tortured. He spent ten and a half months in detention, and went through a horrendous ordeal. In 2006, he was cleared of all terrorism allegations by the Canadian government. The Bush administration thumbed its nose at Canada, and refused to remove Arar from its terrorism watch list.

Attorney General Albert Gonzalez scoffed at claims of torture all along, and claimed it was a "deportation", not a "rendition". And of course, the Syrians had promised he would not be tortured. Thankfully, the days when Congress would turn a blind eye to such abuses seem to be over. Recently, Senator Patrick Leahy launched an angry verbal attack on Gonzalez, who shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It's worth watching. Leahy asked an obvious question: how could Gonzalez say that he trusted the Syrian not to torture Arar when the official policy of the Bush administration is that the Syrians cannot be trusted at all? No, they knew exactly what would happen to Arar in Syria. And they sent him anyway.

Again, it is time to quote the list of crimes against human life and dignity spelled out so eloquently in Gaudium Et Spes, and referred to as "intrinsically evil" by Pope John Paul in Veritatis Splendour:
"Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, physical and mental torture and attempts to coerce the spirit; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery...."
It's all there, pure and simple...

And what many seem to forget is how the Bush administration responded to a federal lawsuit initiated by Arar in 2005. The implications go beyond Arar, and provide a mindset into how the administration views foreign nationals, and the application of human rights in general (remember their views on the "quaint" Geneva Conventions?). In this case, the administration argued that:
"Foreign citizens who change planes at airports in the United States can legally be seized, detained without charges, deprived of access to a lawyer or the courts, and even denied basic necessities like food... aliens have at most a right against "gross physical abuse."

Best Movies of 2006

Well, the Oscar nominations are out. I suppose it has become an annual ritual to criticize the pick, and to offer up one's own suggestions as a vastly superior alternative. Well, I will humbly follow in this tradition!

So, in no particular order, here are my selections for the best movies of 2006:


The Prestige
The Illusionist
The Devil Wears Prada
The Departed
Blood Diamond
The Last King of Scotland
All the King's Men
The Queen
Casino Royale (token action movie!)


Nacho Libre
Talladega Nights

Foreign Language:

Sophie Scholl: The Last Days
Pan's Labyrinth
Curse of the Golden Flower


An Inconvenient Truth
Jesus Camp
This Film is Not Yet Rated
Who Killed the Electric Car?
Saint of 9/11

Errors and omissions? Comments welcome!

Richard John Neuhaus is Confused About the Past

As we all probably know, Neuhaus is a Catholic convert and priest who has done more than most to forge an alliance between Catholics and evangelicals in the public square. And, of course, the abortion issue is the deciding issue that cements to alliance. Neuhaus pens an essay on the significance of Roe v. Wade, to coincide with its anniversary, and the annual March for Life. It's worth reading.

Interestingly, Neuhaus sheds more light on the origins of the pro-life movement than perhaps was perhaps his intention. He was quite right that, at the time, "the Catholic Church stood alone in protesting the immediate evil and long-term implications of Roe v. Wade." Opposition to the "right" to abortion was seen as a curious Catholic position. What he really brings out is how evangelical fundamentalism, at the very time when it was beginning to exert some political muscle during the Nixon administration, was fully on board with Roe v. Wade. Two years prior to the decision, the Southern Baptist Convention (the largest Protestant association in the country) called for a liberalization of abortion laws. And for years afterwards, the Convention passed resolutions in favour of the "right to choose". In fact, it was not until the election of Reagan, when the evangelicals assumed greater power, that they turned against abortion.

So why the enormous shift? Of course, Neuhaus assigns a charitable interpretation to the change of heart, dealing with increasing awareness of the plight of unborn. Occam's razor suggests a more obvious solution, however. The evangelicals embraced the pro-life cause because it became politically expedient for them to do so. It allowed them to defend their conception of a patriarchal society (cultural, not theological) while hiding it behind a noble cause. It was the Trojan horse for them to push forward with a social agenda that did not have the moral clarity of abortion. And it had the added benefit of deflecting attention away from the obvious conflicts between a Christian organization and the many social and economic injustices ignored by the prevailing individualist ideology. We also cannot forget that the religious right rose to power in the south, partly in reaction to increasing racial integration. Racism became uncool, but by wrapping themselves in the pro-life mantle, a new cohort of southern politicians could actually claim the moral high ground. That would be white, male, conservative politicians...
And of course, they used this defining issue to make common cause with like-minded Catholics, leading to a deal with the devil: in return for evangelical support, Catholics will turn a blind eye to the other aspects of Catholic social teaching that would go against the individualistic and nationalistic viewpoint of many evangelicals. Neuhaus attacks the "seamless garment" concept of Cardinal Benardin. But Bernardin was right, and prescient. Bernardin knew very well that it would be a mistake to divorce abortion from other issues, and to ignore the pressing social and economic concerns that drive women to have abortions.

Bernardin was consistently denounced by the right (with Neuhaus on the front line) for supposedly engaging in moral equivalency. The charge, however, is nonsense. Bernardin never claimed that abortion was of equal importance to every other issue on the Catholic radar. No, the "seamless garment" is an well-grounded in Catholic teaching, as it recognizes the God-given dignity of every human being.

And so, here we are. The pro-life cause is still a Catholic cause, but the alliance with evangelicals has done untoward damage. Many Catholics pontificate about the moral duty to vote Republican, no matter what. Simplistic and misleading voter guides ape evangelical tactics. The weight of Catholic tradition can simply be discarded, reduced to one-dimensional slogans. Bishops are mocked and attacked, often in vitriolic terms. And people like Bill Donohue feel free to parrot fundamentalist claims about evolution.

As T.S Eliot had Thomas Becket say in his great play, Murder in the Cathedral: "The last temptation is the greatest treason; to do the right deed, for the wrong reason". Indeed.

Six Years Into Bush: United States Never More Unpopular

A new BBC poll, covering 26,381 respondents across 25 countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Turkey, United Arab Emirates and the United States) presents some bad news. Opposition to US foreign policy has reached record levels.

Overall, 29 percent think the US plays a positive role in the world, and 49 percent say negative. And only 57 percent of Americans give a positive appraisal (down 14 percent from even 2 years ago). The issues are quite clear:

War in Iraq: 73 percent disapprove (57 percent in US)

Guantanamo: 67 percent disapprove (50 percent in US)

Israel-Hezbollah: 65 percent disapprove (50 percent in US)

Approach to Iran's nuclear program: 60 percent disapprove (50 percent in US)

Global warming: 56 percent disapprove* (54 percent in US)

Approach to North Korea's nuclear program: 54 percent disapprove (43 percent in US)

* There was a big cross-country divide on this one. Developed countries like France and Germany were more opposed to the inaction on global warming than elsewhere (80 percent).

Thank you, George W. Bush.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Yet More On Abortion, War, and the Death Penalty!

I've blogged about these issues many times now. Readers are probably bored to tears! But these issues are incredibly complex, and I'm not even sure I understand them correctly. But here is my attempt to outline the relative position of Church teaching on these three key topics. The starting point must be Cardinal Ratzinger's oft-quoted comment: "There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty [but not about abortion and euthanasia]." We all know what many right-wing Catholics conclude from this! But let's actually delve deeper. This means getting into the different levels of the Church's teaching authority ("magisterium")

As I understand it, there are three basic levels of teaching.

First, infallibly defined doctrine. If you dissent from this, you cannot consider yourself Catholic, and you have embraced heresy. But before you accuse me of cheerleading for a return of the Inquisition, let's be quite clear: as Stephen Bainbridge points out, there are relatively few formally-defined infallible teachings. These mostly concern themselves with teachings pronounced by ecumenical councils (there have been 21) and by the pope acting ex cathedra (there have been 2). These doctrines comprise the deposit of faith, and as noted by Vatican II's Lumen Gentium, "must be adhered to with the obedience of faith". There is also the concept of infallibility according to the ordinary magisterium, or (in the words of Archbishop Bertone), a concept "expressed in the fact that all the Bishops (including the Bishop of Rome, who is the Head of the College) give a common witness." This requires no formal declaration, and was also set out in Lumen Gentium. What component of the ordinary magisterium is infallible or not is a subject of great controversy among theologians, and it is not something I wish to discuss (the border is, to say the least, fluid!).

Second, the category of non-infallible Church teaching in the domain of faith and morals that is nonetheless part of the ordinary magisterium. Although not infallibly defined, it does require "religious assent". Again, this is made clear in Lumen Gentium. If one dissents from these teachings, one is still Catholic. But one cannot do so, absent very good reasons.

Third, prudential judgments defined as the "application of Catholic doctrine to changing concrete circumstances" (Cardinal Dulles's language). As this is by its nature in the realm of uncertainty, one is not necessarily bound to adhere to Church statements in this area.

Now, what of my three examples: abortion, war, and the death penalty? First, I think it is fair to say that the teaching that the taking of an innocent human life is always and everywhere wrong is an infallible doctrine. That would hold for both directly-procured abortion, and in war when non-combatants are deliberately targeted (think Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki). These actions are evil in their object, and there is no need to address intent or circumstances. So far, so straightforward.

But the Church does not teach that war and the death penalty are always and everywhere wrong, or wrong in their object. Their moral licitness depends on other factors, notably intent and circumstance. We must move to the next step. Here, it is important to note that Church teachings at this step should not be understood as prudential judgments, but as part of the second category above, namely, non-infallible teaching according to the ordinary magisterium. As Zippy says, they refer to as principles governing circumstances rather than judgements about particular circumstantial facts. They are not prudential judgments. Church teaching in these does indeed attempt to carve out situations under which war and the death penalty may and may not be immoral. For war, the strict just war conditions must be followed. For the death penalty, there needs to be no bloodless way of defending society for it to be licit. These are teachings about morals, requiring "religious assent".

But many who disagree with recent Church statements on war and the death penalty claim not to disagree with the principles, only to their application to particular circumstances. For example: Do the just war principles hold in this conflict? Was the execution of this person immoral? But note something incredibly important. Many of the Church's statements on abortion are also firmly of a prudential nature. The only infallible statement is that the taking of an innocent human life is wrong. It follows that there can be no "right" to take life. So if the Church says penal sanctions must be applied by the state for abortions, it is applying infallible teaching to the concrete circumstances of abortion in modern society, and implicitly assuming that this will succeed in protecting the unborn. To deny that penal sanctions ever work might be a peculiar opinion, but it is a valid one. Many countries where abortion is illegal still have non-negligible abortion rates. And even accepting criminalization, should doctors, women, or both be punished, and why? Again, prudential judgment! Another argument is that the pro-life movement must focus all its efforts on overturning Roe v. Wade. But an equally valid prudential judgement is that while the principle underlying this case (that abortion is a right) is immoral, its overturning will have minuscule effect, as most states will retain legal abortion. And, of course, it is possible to argue that what actually works best in reducing abortion is putting into place supporting economic and social policies that facilitate the rearing of children.

So, how can we sum up?

First, some of the teachings pertaining to war and the death penalty are clearly teachings about morals under the ordinary magisterium, in particular, the underlying principles. Many who reject Church teachings on these issues, while they refer to individual circumstances, are actually implicitly rejecting principles. For example, how many of these Catholics accept the principle that the war or the death penalty should not be an instrument of vengeance? It is in this sense that Justice Scalia dissents from Catholic teaching, by refusing to adhere to the moral principles pertaining to the application of the death penalty. And when it comes to war, how many truly take concepts like "last resort" and "evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated" seriously?

Second, as noted above, while a directly-procured abortion is always intrinsically evil, dealing with it in modern society calls for prudential judgment. If you can so readily dismiss the Church's prudential judgment on issues like war and the death penalty, why are you supposed to automatically hold the prudential judgments pertaining to abortion to a higher standard? And there is another point. The idea is to try to figure out, using reasoning, whether something is right or wrong. "Prudential judgment" is not (as many claim) a license to ignore. For, as noted earlier, not all prudential judgments are equally valid. The Vatican was quite right about the Iraq war, and about the execution of Saddam Hussein. One could also contend that saying that having no laws against abortion would not affect abortion is a little bizarre. But the hypothesis that repealing Roe v. Wade will lead to fewer abortions is untested. We honestly do not know.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Moral Consistency

Sometimes, those on the Catholic right have an uncanny way of shooting themselves in the foot. If you follow discussions on the Catholic blogosphere, nothing taxes them more than the sight of pro-abortion Catholic politicians receiving communion. Even when bishops like Washington's Donald Wuerl, on solid pastoral grounds, refuse to discipline people like Nancy Pelosi, their ire is not calmed. To many, this is the leading issue facing the Church today, and a convenient diversion from the deviation from sound Catholic social teaching by their favored party on issues like war, torture, immigration, poverty, and a just wage.

But, worst of all, such a strategy will backfire if the aim is to reduce the number of abortions. The aim of the Church should be quite simple: to persuade secular liberals that opposition to abortion is fully consistent with other sound liberal positions that support human dignity, such as opposition to the death penalty, war, poverty etc. In other words, it is time to return to the late Cardinal Bernardin's much-lamented "seamless garment" approach to the gospel of life. Ah, but this is outrageous moral equivalency, they will cry! But this is a straw man argument. The key is to persuade. And nobody will be persuaded by a bunch of venomous right-wingers demanding the excommunication of a bunch of Democrats, all the while giving a free pass to those on the other wide to violate Catholic social teaching as they see fit. They will charge hypocrisy. But if instead, the Church spoke with a strong clear voice, claiming that human life and human dignity are always sacred, and that is why it opposes abortion and embryonic stem cell research, then this is a different matter. It has the capacity to persuade.

Pope Benedict understands this, and nobody can accuse him of pandering to moral equivalency. Rocco Palmo points to a recent article by Russell Shaw making this point. In the context of an address to the Swiss bishops last November, Benedict reflected on the issue. He noted that issues like peace, poverty, and the environment resonate with many, especially the young. But other aspects of Church teaching do not make such an impact, especially on issues like abortion and the family. There are two ways to address this division. The American right would jump up and down, screaming loudly about how the latter teachings and more important than the first. Not Benedict. One should not discard one set of beliefs for another. In the words of the pope:
"[w]e must commit ourselves to reconnecting these two parts of morality and to making it clear that they must be inseparably united. Only if human life from conception until death is respected is the ethic of peace possible and credible; only then may non-violence be expressed in every direction, only then can we truly accept creation, and only then can we achieve true justice."
No moral equivalence there. But a rebuke to many on the US right, and a vindication of Cardinal Bernardin's foresight.

Idiocy on the Right and the Left

First off, right-wing extremist Dinesh D'Souza has written a book in which he lays much of the blame for 9/11 on American liberals, or more specifically, "the cultural left and its allies in Congress, the media, Hollywood, the nonprofit sector, and the universities are the primary cause of the volcano of anger toward America that is erupting from the Islamic world." This mirrors exactly comments made in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attack by Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, two men still highly respected by the Republican right. D'Souza clearly does not know (or, in Bushite style, prefers not to know), that the leading grievances against the United States by citizens of the Islamic world pertain to US foreign policy. Unfortunately, these grievances have been exacerbated by the current administration's actions in Iraq, and by its gravely immoral detainee policy (including the use of torture). These are the people D'Souza needs to blame, but I don't see that happening.

And now to the left. Case in point: the cynical moral relativism that affects so many on the left. Martin Amis points to a clear case when asked what depressed him the most about the United Kingdom since his return. He opined:
"The most depressing thing was the sight of middle-class white demonstrators, last August, waddling around under placards saying, We Are All Hizbollah Now. Well, make the most of being Hizbollah while you can. As its leader, Hasan Nasrallah, famously advised the West: "We don't want anything from you. We just want to eliminate you." Similarly, when I went on Question Time the other week, a woman in the audience, her voice quavering with self-righteousness, presented the following argument: since it was America that supported Osama bin Laden when he was fighting the Russians, the US armed forces, in response to September 11, "should be dropping bombs on themselves!" And the audience applauded. It is quite an achievement. People of liberal sympathies, stupefied by relativism, have become the apologists for a creedal wave that is racist, misogynist, homophobic, imperialist, and genocidal. To put it another way, they are up the arse of those that want them dead."
This is what happens when religious faith is simply discarded. When Mao destroyed the last vestiges of traditional China during the Cultural Revolution, the modern China was born without spiritual values, and wedded to crass materialism. In much of secular Europe, the basic norms of humanism are being grotesquely distorted, given the lack of belief in objective truth. And meanwhile, the exact same thing happens on the Bushite right, as facts and truth are sacrificed to ideology. Idiots all round!

Monday, January 15, 2007

Children of Men

I saw the recent movie Children of Men, and thought the premise was intriguing: in a world in which women are no longer capable of bearing children, how will society respond? According to the movie, and the book upon which it is based, the answer is clear: paranoia and extreme societal dysfunction and ultimate collapse.

The execution, though, was merely adequate. But I didn't think it warranted further comment. Then I read Anthony Sacramone's review in the conservative Catholic journal, First Things. Sacramone lambasts the treatment of the original allegory as written by P.D. James. I haven't read the book, so can't say much about the veracity of his claims. But one theme struck: Sacramone claims that the original book was infused with religious (specifically Christian) undertones and many of the key protagonists were committed Christians. A leading woman character is seen as "the new Eve, the new Mary, the hope for the salvation of the world." When reading this, I then realized why this movie had made me uneasy in the first place. The implicit themes of sin, redemption, and salvation were all there, but pretty much ignored and debased.

What have we instead? The director (Alfonso Cuarón) instead includes among the "good guys" a hodge-podge of pop-Buddhists, aging hippies, and violent revolutionaries. How passe! The left really needs to lose its fascination with a romanticized view of eastern religions and Che Guevara wannabes. It has always bugged me that it sympathizing with Stalin was considered a lesser evil than sympathizing with Hitler. And, here, in the movie, we see the most jaded of 1960s leftist canards raise its ugly head one more time.

But I don't want to let First Things off the hook either. Sacramone practically sneers at the notion that Cuarón has Bush in mind when he paints a society that denies basic liberties in the face of some nebulous attacks on "security". But since Bush has indeed curtailed basic civil liberties, imprisoned without charge, and legalized torture, Cuarón's analogy is entirely legitimate. The right also needs to let go of its Bush-fetish, even if that requires a huge mea culpa for the past few years. Criticizing the movie for wiping out all sense of religious allegory is a valid conservative criticism, attacking it for making fun of dearest Bush is not. And that is a difference lost of the First Things crowd (though they are far from alone).

Martin Luther King Day Message

"One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that 'an unjust law is no law at all'. Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal .law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust."

-- From Letter from a Birmingham Jail (1963).

Saturday, January 13, 2007

New Season of 24

For most of us, a fast-paced thriller that grips us week after week, even though we know it is ridiculously unrealistic and grounded in fantasy.

But for some Bush administration defenders, a role model in how the "war on terror" should be fought. After all, Jack Bauer has no qualms about torturing people. Well, it's no less realistic than Fox News's never-ending narrative about how the Iraq was is part of the "war on terror". Next up: Sopranos tells us that killing people who betray you is fine.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Wrong Lessons from the Second World War

Those who defend the morality and legitimacy of military actions today inevitably point to the example of World War II. The story line is simple. Hitler was a monstrous evil that was swallowing up Europe. The allied campaign was a noble cause that ended the scourge of Nazism. This leads to a certain discomfort, if not outright disdain, for certain Church statements on matters of war and peace. For example, in a German media interview last summer, Pope Benedict said that"...war is the worst solution for all sides. It brings no good to anyone, not even to the apparent victors. We understand this very well in Europe, after the two world wars." More recently, he echoed these comments when meeting with the Syrian ambassador to the Vatican: "the Church emphatically rejects war as a means of resolving international disputes, and has often pointed out that it only leads to new and still more complicated conflicts." Many on the American right in particular are dismayed by such ideas.

Of course, the pope is right, and of course he is not abrogating the traditional just war theory that underpins Church teaching. He is simply aware of the larger picture. His opponents tend to have a blinkered view of the world. Group X engages in immoral activity (say terrorism), and so the response is to attack Group X with military means. Pure and simple. Except that is rarely is so. Every conflict has a context, a history, a cultural background. Go back to World War II. Hitler did not simply appear ex nihilo to threaten Europe. His emergence was the result of an earlier conflict, and grave mistakes made in the aftermath of that conflict.

Pope Benedict XV was a staunch opponent of the first world war, which he called "the suicide of Europe". He repeatedly called for peace, to be rebuffed by all sides. This dreadful war was provoked by pompous vainglorious militarism, underpinned by a philosophy that pumped up the glory of the nation state or empire at the expense of human dignity. In an increasingly mechanistic era, soldiers became cannon-fodder on an unprecedented scale. Millions died, and some countries lost of a whole generation of young men.

In the wake of the war, the Versailles treaty explicitly attributed blame for the whole disaster on Germany, and imposed ruinous financial terms. What drove the Versailles settlement was a spirit of vengeance, not a desire for peace. The Vatican remained opposed, but was excluded from the negotiations. In any event, the terms led to hyperinflation and economic ruin in Germany, and fueled the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. The greatest economist of hie time, John Maynard Keynes, was prescient. This movement arose explicitly because the victorious powers had eschewed justice in favor of retribution.

Nobody denies that the Second World War to oust Hitler met the conditions for a just war. But, had the Versailles victors behaved differently, it could have been avoided. Yes, the war was a last resort because vengeance was the first resort. But there is another point that needs to be made. The way the war was fought was not always just. In particular, the bombings of Dresden, and the Japanese cities of Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, by targeting civilians, was highly disproportionate and thus immoral.

Europe learned its lesson. Having seen the continent devastated yet again, governments made securing peace the first priority. They founded what would eventually become the European Union. They downplayed military solutions, and placed faith in the United Nations. So when some snarky American commentator refers to Vatican voices as "euro-weenies", there is indeed a grain of truth to it. But while Europe learned its lesson belatedly, the Church throughout the 20th century was constantly calling for sanity. At the same time, America remained somewhat immune to these developments. The complicated issues of how the war could have been avoided and how it was often fought immorally was downplayed amidst the burgeoning romanticism that enveloped all discussion of the "greatest generation".

What lessons can we draw for today? The Vatican opposed Bush's Iraq war and Israel's war on Lebanon. At the time, many on the American right predictably refused to listen. Saddam Hussein was a brutal thug with genocidal ambitions. And Hezbollah continued to attack Israeli civilians from southern Lebanon. And the ephemeral "global Islamic terror" served as the great narrative arc. Influenced undoubtedly by Calvinism, there was good, and there was evil. Context there certainly wasn't.

In retrospect, of course, the Vatican was right in both instances. The Bush administration engaged in a war that was not a last resort, without the necessary UN authority, and without heed for the disproportionate evils that would inevitably emerge. Not surprisingly, Iraq has descended into an ugly quagmire of vicious civil war and bloody retaliation. And Israel's attack backfired, emboldening Hezbollah, bolstering Syria, and threatening the nascent Lebanese democracy. Another unforeseen disproportionate evil.

What the war party failed to learn from World War II was that it was a war of last resort, that the mistakes of the previous 20 years had led irrevocably to this tragic point. There was no glory in the need to go to war. As the pope said, it brings no real good, not even to the victors, because it ultimately signifies failure.

Today, we must focus intently on the "disproportionate" evils that may arise from a military action, especially one that pays little heed to underlying injustices. Yes, we should never condone terrorism, or make excuses for it, but that does not mean we should ignore the underlying conditions that fuel war and terrorism. This point was made by Pope Benedict in his recent World Peace Day speech. And eminent moralist Germain Grizes stated that "force, especially deadly force, must never be used to avenge past acts or as terrorism to prevent terrorism... Even when carried out within proper limits, deadly force against persons cannot be an adequate response to terrorism". We should make sure that any military response is truly a last resort, and does not fuel greater ills. And lastly, we should take no delight even in a war of last resort, for it is simply an admission of failure.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Prudential Misjudgment

The American Catholic right really really did not like the Vatican's statements on the execution of Saddam Hussein (see my takes here and here). Robert T. Miller at First Things, quotes approvingly of Richard John Neuhaus who claimed that "when it is not necessary for the bishops to speak on a particular subject, it is necessary that they not speak on that subject.” His argument is by now the standard one, as indeed are the examples: abortion is wrong, regardless of circumstances, whereas for the death penalty, it depends on circumstances. In particular, the Church should just stay quiet when it comes to "empirical judgments about circumstances."

This harks back to the old war horse of "prudential judgment", invoked constantly when those on the right choose to ignore certain Church teachings. And on the definition, Miller is largely correct. Avery Cardinal Dulles defines prudential as referring to the "application of Catholic doctrine to changing concrete circumstances". But if we take Miller and Neuhaus to their logical conclusion, the Church should simply not give any opinion pertaining to "changing concrete circumstances". But this makes little sense, as is pointed out by blogger Paul from Catholic Deep Fishing. He notes that the Church does indeed claim, quoting a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that certain popositions contrary some to prudential teachings are "rash and dangerous" and so should not be taught. And if you think about it for a minute, the reasoning will be obvious.

Getting back to the classic abortion versus the death penalty example, Paul challenges Michael Liccione of the Sacramentum Vitae blog who notes that Cardinal Ratzinger once wrote explicitly that "There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty [but not about abortion and euthanasia]." This does not give one a free pass to ignore Church teaching on the former subjects. It says something quite simple: if you disagree with the Church and approve of a particular abortion, the Church says you are wrong without needing to judge the circumstance. But if you disagree with the Church over a particular application of the death penalty, the circumstance must enter the picture, and "we would have to investigate the circumstances to see if it was a legitimate disagreement." To put it another way, disagreeing about facts and circumstances can have clear moral implications. It can, in fact, be wrong. Paul gives an extreme example: a government says that poor people should be executed. Clearly, disagreeing with Church teaching on this has moral implications!

And it is not only the unrealistic extreme cases that should concern us. Too often, Catholics take the term "prudential judgement" to simply dismiss the facts or circumstances that prompted the Vatican's position, even when these facts and circumstances may have serious moral implications. Why do so many Catholics disagree with the scientific consensus on global warming? Is it licit to dismiss scientific fact, on the low probability that it might be wrong? In the case that started the whole discussion, it would be hard to argue against the Church's characterization of Saddam Hussein's execution (with its untertones of tribalistic vengeance). The fiasco in Iraq results in part from legitimate Vatican concerns about proper authority, last resort, and the emergence of disproportionate evils. American Catholics like Novak and Weigel defended the war (on the grounds that one can dissent from "prudential judgments"). Who was right in retrospective? The rise of Hezbollah's power in Lebanon and the weakening of the nascent demoracy in that country is a direct implication of the Israeli invasion, which the Vatican also condemned. Again, it was right. So the key is legitimate dissent. And it is not legitimate if you refuse to consider the full range of facts, if you ignore the circumstances, or if you let a secular ideology cloud your judgment.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Gandalf on the Death Penalty

Frodo to Gandalf, in the context of Gollum:
"Now at any rate he is as bad as an Orc, and just an enemy. He deserves death."
And Gandalf the Wise's response:
"Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends."
In other words, be very very careful about confusing human justice and divine justice. Now, replace "Gollum" with "Saddam" and re-read...

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Global Warming: Where Are All the Catholics?

Over at Commonweal, Eduardo Penalver as a timely post on global warming. He decries the lack of Church leadership on the issue, noting how many conservative Catholics ignore something which is firmly part of the gospel of life, while spending much effort fighting gay marriage and "sodomy". Let's face it. If global warming is real, and we continue to ignore it, we are implicitly engaging in a utilitarian calculus that values future generations less than those alive today, and that is deeply immoral. It is, in a sense, the ultimate moral issue of our time.

The Church is not exactly silent on the issue. Eduardo quotes John Paul discussing the obligation to be responsible stewards of creation. And Pope Benedict mentioned it in his recent World Day of Peace address, condemning the "destruction of the environment, its improper or selfish use, and the violent hoarding of the earth's resources". Sure, it would be better if Church officials were more vocal on this issue. But the real problem is not the Church leadership, it is those American Catholics who are quite happy to dismiss the notion of global warming altogether. Every time the issue comes on in the Catholic blogosphere, you will observe a predictable cavalcade of conservative voices, parroting the energy shills and pulp fiction writers (Michael Crichton) claiming there is no global warming. I hardly need to point out at this stage that the scientific consensus says otherwise. As I noted in an earlier post, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (in the journal Science) declared that there was "no longer any substantive disagreement in the scientific community" that artificial global warming is real, and of great concern. Moreover, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared unequivocally that the scientific consensus was that climate is being altered by human activities.

The cynical Bush administration has mastered the technique of ignoring inconvenient facts if ideology is on the line. And evangelicals have little stake in defending the environment if they believe a crazy end times scenario suggesting that God will "rapture" the saved to heaven, and damn the rest. The strong voluntarist strain also downplays the rational underpinnings of faith, as the will of God trumps scientific rules and empirical regularities. But Catholics are not supposed to think that way. Faith and reason are supposed to be totally compatible. Facts matter. Science matters. Reality matters. The fact that right-wing Catholics can join in the denial game suggests yet again that the "political marriage of convenience" with the evangelicals continues to yield rotten fruit.