Pursuing Virtue, Not Clintonism

I think Chesterton is on to something profound when he says that when you abandon the big laws, you don’t get freedom and you don’t even get anarchy: you get the small laws.

In other words, the paradoxical effect of attempting to be lawless is to become more and ever more legalistic, to parse words ever more finely, to look for every loophole, excuse, technicality, and microscopic nuance in order to try to show why what you are doing is not really against the law that haunts our hearts.

We see it in the kid who carefully tells his Mom, “Yes, I had a piece of cake” while neglecting to mention that the piece consisted of three quarters of the cake. We see it in the memorable words—almost the only memorable words—of a recent President, who pondered what the exact, precise, fine-tuned meaning of the word “is” is.  We see it in the closely-parsed attempts of people who attempt to find excuses when it comes to their preferred evils; whether it be abortion on the Left or torture on the Right.

The excuses are psychologically necessary because something in our hearts tells us there’s something wrong with beating, drowning, and hanging a defenseless (and sometimes innocent) man.  When that man dies of injuries inflicted by interrogators as some prisoners in our charge have done, we have to rename what we did “enhanced interrogation” in order to avoid looking ourselves in the eye.  When we willingly endorse a system that leaves a baby to gasp out her last breaths on a sterile tabletop, we can’t endure having to look at that. So to distract ourselves, we embark on a prolonged search for exact, super-precise legalities that will place a cushiony barrier between our conscience and the crime.

“Does waterboarding rise to the level of torture?” ask ostensibly Christian pundits, oblivious to the fact that we hanged the Imperial Japanese for it and doubly oblivious to the fact that present Christian defenders of torture are using precisely the microscopically parsed language the Clintonoids deployed eight years ago to avoid impeachment.

“Exactly when does a fetus become a baby?”  Nancy Pelosi trots out all her best lawyerly skills to enlist the Church Fathers in splitting ultra-fine hairs about precisely, technically when a child is being torn to pieces and burnt alive and when it’s just a piece of meat.

What all this lawyerly electron microscopy overlooks is that such attempts to tiptoe right up to grave evil are themselves wicked.

Don’t believe it? What would you think of a friend (let’s call him “Bill Clinton”) who is constantly emailing you to ask just how far he can go with the hot secretary without it actually crossing the line into, you know, “adultery” (he always puts the word in scare quotes, as though there isn’t really such a thing and he’s certainly not guilty of it). He continues:

“After all, not all touching is necessarily sexual in nature. And besides, her husband is really a jerk. And just because you kiss somebody doesn’t necessarily mean you mean it in that way. Why, St. Paul says to greet the brethren with a holy kiss! So you could say that I’m just obeying God. And she’s so lonely and frightened right now. I feel like I’m her only friend. And let’s not forget King David. He was a friend to Abigail when her foolish husband acted like a brute and he was rewarded by God for it. And another thing, just how much clothing is “too little” clothing for us to wear around each other? That’s so vague! I mean, you can go to the beach and see lots of people with a lot less on! And has the Church ever dogmatically defined how many centimeters you actually have to penetrate in the act of sex before it’s technically called ‘adultery’? I’m just asking for clarity here!”

No. The last thing such a Clintonian line of questioning seeks is clarity. These questions—like the vast majority of “What is torture?  What is a baby?” questions—are asked, not to find things out, but to keep from finding things out. The goal of this rhetoric is to create a haze of fog that shrouds the intrinsically immoral act from view.

Happily, however, there is a remedy for all this tergiversation. The straightest, truest highway out of the morass of intellectual darkness caused by the sinful attempt to ask “How much sin can we get away with?” is this: “How do we act virtuously?”

The moment we go from framing the question in terms of trying to bargain our way out of damnation and instead frame it in terms of seeking virtue, all the fog disappears. We no longer have to wonder just how close we can tiptoe up to adultery without committing it.  We don’t have to endure puzzlement about how near to hypothermia we can push our victim without it being torture. We don’t have to microscopically parse the question “How near to personhood should our victim be before its wrong to burn them alive or tear them apart in their mother’s womb?”

When you are trying to be virtuous and not merely trying to get away with something, you don’t do that kind of stuff.  The whole discussion begins on a different footing.  You ask things like “How can I love, honor, and cherish my wife and avoid the near occasion of sin?”  You seek to interrogate prisoners in a framework of humane treatment and discover that people more readily divulge accurate information to people they trust than to people they hate and fear.  You find that people who retain their dignity as human beings are more likely to be accurate than people who have been pushed past the brink of madness by cruelty.  You seek to care for women and their children without making it a kill-or-be-killed scenario.

You trust, in short, that Jesus knows what he’s talking about when he tells us “Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you as well.”

Mark Shea

By

Mark P. Shea is a Catholic author, blogger, and speaker.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • AnnaMarie53

    Mark, I’m not looking for equivocation here. A spade is a spade, after all. In the midst of all your deep thought in which you are trying to equate abortion and torture, however different from what our enemies do every day to even their OWN people, did you come up with a way to get the vitally needed information to prevent another 9/11 in the works? The job of an army is to kill people and break things. Sad, but nonetheless true. The ones we are fighting, to be honest, routinely torture missionaries, even when in their own families, and they DON’T stop. They go ahead and murder you and if your family is lucky, mail back the pieces.

  • plowshare

    I am an admirer of Mark Shea, but here in places he is not paying close enough attention to differences that really do make a difference. His essay is somewhat like a response to a person who asks, “How far can one go without committing a mortal sin?” with the criticism, “You shouldn’t even be asking that question. You should avoid all sin, both mortal and venial.”

    In dealing with terrorists, it is important to apply whatever means are legitimate to obtain information from them. To do this, we must be able to distinguish between “enhanced interrogation techniques” and actual torture. NPR, no friend of Bush, did distinguish between them. See the Wikipedia entry and links:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waterboarding

    The entry shows that the Japanese method of waterboarding included the following:
    “In this version, interrogation continued during the torture, with the interrogators beating the victim if he did not reply and the victim swallowing water if he opened his mouth to answer or breathe. When the victim could ingest no more water, the interrogators would beat or jump on his distended stomach.”

    I do not know the details of the waterboarding that was carried out against terrorists by the USA, but I have never seen even a suggestion that it included these elements of torture.

  • Kathryn

    Here’s a thought: some terrorists have this belief that eating pork chops with a nice glass of wine will send ‘em to h*ll. We as Christians know this is not at all true.

    So,is providing them mostly pork type products (ham sandwich, bacon n eggs, tenderloin, etc) and a beer for most of their meals torture? Is it torture if we promise to give them a chicken sandwhich and a glass of apple juice after they spill the beans?

  • Kathryn

    I forgot to ask if, if offering the above terrorists mostly pork products is in fact torture, does that extend to my kids? They have this bizarra notion that if I required them to eat brocoli (no, its not overboiled and I even put cheese on it!) they will die within 2 seconds of the first mouthful…

  • http://4marks.com Donald Hudzinski

    AnnaMarie53,

    The job of the military is to defend, not kill people and they break things only when necessary.

  • http://catholichawk.com PrairieHawk

    The purpose of our military is to honorably defend our nation, with an emphasis on “honor.” Killing people happens sometimes unavoidably under the principle of double effect. Mark is right, virtuous people seek virtues like “honor” and not legalisms that delimit what they can get away with. This is why Abu Ghraib was such a scandal: it was dishonorable. We can discuss whether torture is honorable or not, but we need to be clear on why we have a military. It is to preserve the honor of our country.

  • Mark Shea

    AnnaMarie:

    Here is the teaching of Holy Mother Church:

    2312 The Church and human reason both assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. “The mere fact that war has regrettably broken out does not mean that everything becomes licit between the warring parties.”109

    2313 Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely.

    And, by the way, we are talking about a lot more than simulated drowning here (a crime for which we executed Japanese). We are also talking about roughly 100 prisoners dead, many of whom our own government acknowledges were murdered during torture. We are talking about leaving people to freeze till they die of hypothermia, beatings with rifle butts, stress positions resulting in suffocation, etc.

    We are also talking about threatening to murder children and rape female family members of detainees.

    In other words, we are talking about threatening the innocent. Tell me that is something Jesus calls “courage”.

    Oh, and we are talking about torturing people, not because they have done anything wrong, but because they were standing in the wrong place during a police sweep, or got turned in by a tribal enemy as an act of vengeance. 80% of the victims at Abu Ghraib were never charged with anything.

    And don’t kid yourself with the old lie that Abu Ghraib was an isolated incident or the work of a “few bad apples”. This stuff happened in CIA black sites all over the world and was the policy of the Bush Administration. It remains, by the way, the policy of the Obama Administration.

    If that worries you, it should. The problem with giving the state the power to torture is that the state will use it, not merely on Bad Guys, but on the innocent, if it thinks it’s power is threatened. After all, why limit the use of this tool to merely international terrorists? Why not use it against, say, dangerous prolifers who threaten the peace? Or their families?

  • goral

    Gotta hand it to you Mark, you have a tight grip on the reins of this torture horse. Our virtuous president has stopped all of that. On the other hand his virtue doesn’t extend to the actual law of the land.

    If your going to equivocate what is an entranched civil law and what is a questionable military practice, then you must also make the same unreasonable stretch that the torturers did it not just to extract information but because they are racists, haters of Islam, pro-Israel and they get their goodies from breaking-up families.

    All of that being true still would not put them on par with those who murder the innocent.

  • crazylikeknoxes

    You always seem to take so much heat for postings like this. But I say God bless you for them. Our world needs more of the Savonarola.

  • http://catholichawk.com PrairieHawk

    Mark has a pretty thick skin. I know I couldn’t take it. I stopped blogging because of people’s comments. Now I only poke my head out of the hole when I think it’s safe.

  • Mark Shea

    If your going to equivocate what is an entranched civil law and what is a questionable military practice, then you must also make the same unreasonable stretch that the torturers did it not just to extract information but because they are racists, haters of Islam, pro-Israel and they get their goodies from breaking-up families.

    All of that being true still would not put them on par with those who murder the innocent.

    I’m not aware of an entrenched civil law that allows us to torture or murder prisoners. As to the red herring about motivation, that’s not too complicated: These things were done (and are still permissible for the CIA) because it became the policy of these United States to permit torture of prisoners under George W. Bush and the Obama Administration has carefully preserved that option for itself.

    As to the excuse that “it’s not as bad as murdering the innocent”, there are two things to be said. First, it is predicated on the assumption that everybody we torture is guilty of something, which is demonstrably false, as the example of Abu Ghraib makes clear. You torture people to find out if they are guilty quite as often as you torture them because you know they are. (Oh, and once you torture them, there is rather a lot of pressure on you to say they were guilty of something whether they were or not since if they weren’t (as, for instance, Maher Arar was completely innocent) then you’ve, you know, tortured an innocent man. When you do that, you wind up lying and covering it all up since torturing completely innocent people is, you know, a criminal offense.

    But let us grant that torturing somebody, innnocent or guilty, is “not at bad as killing the innocent”. Great! I’m sure that when the Great Assizes come on That Day, all those who enter the everlasting fire of hell for impenitent mortal sin will take great comfort in the thought that “at least I’m not as bad as that guy over there.”

    The Church teaches (Veritatis Splendor 80) that torture and abortion are *both* intrinsically and gravely immoral. That is, they are mortal sins. I tend to think the “It’s not as bad as abortion, so it’s okay” defense will not be much use on That Day. Best to, as my article recommends, actually obey the Church and not torture (or make excuses for it) but rather to seek the intel we need while treating prisoners humanely.

    And before some smart alec says it, “treating prisoners humanely” does not mean warm milk and a kiss on the nose. We treated Nazis and Commies humanely and got intel. It is one of the blunders of our post-Christian culture to confuse brutality with courage and realism and to treat Church teaching on treatment of prisoners with contempt rather than with the recognition that it is rooted in practical reality. Torture, in addition to being evil, is stupid–as it was stupid for the Nazis and Commies we defeated without becoming like them.

  • crazylikeknoxes

    Trying to equivocate or rank the relative evil inherent in this or that sin does seem to me a fool’s sport. As Mark said, “best to *** obey the Church.”

    When people do debate which evils are the greatest in our world, there is one consideration that I’ve never see raised. Most often, it seems that evil is measured by the number of lives lost. According to this calculus, abortion is the worst because more children are aborted then are killed in wars, etc. But, as Mark noted in another post today, we are all going to die anyway. And, as our Lord noted in the gospels, there are worse things than losing one’s life. For example, losing your soul. The aborting of a child is the murder of a child. His or her life is taken. Murder is an afront to God. I do not see the peril to the child’s soul. The child is, it seems to me, utterly at God’s mercy. In that respect, an act of sexual abuse may cause greater harm. The victim might recover phyically and mentally but have died spiritually.

    Again, I’m not trying to rank evils, but it seems to me we too often speak in terms of lives, rather than Life.

  • goral

    Mark, the entranched civil law that I’m referring to is abortion on demand.
    I’m not the one making comparisons here. To me they are quite apart.
    There is of course the commonality of sin, and in that respect we can equivocate all manners of sin. As our Lord said, you break one Commandment, you break them all.

    George Bush was a bad guy for trying to find out why hundreds died at the Pentagon. Luckily they all went without torture.

    There have been responses before to your warped sense of proportion from many including knowlegable militry people. No need to rehash all of that.
    We all agree with Nancy Pelosi that torture is bad.
    I’ll prompt Fr. Euteneuer that he’s barking up the wrong tree.

    Bush’s torture chambers is where evil really resides.

  • Mark Shea

    Mark, the entranched civil law that I’m referring to is abortion on demand.
    I’m not the one making comparisons here.

    Of course you are. You began by saying abortion is worse than torture. Now you’ve moved on to saying that if I oppose torture, I must not care about abortion. A ridiculous assertion.

    To me they are quite apart.

    Right. But to the Church, they are both intrinsically and gravely immoral acts.

    There is of course the commonality of sin, and in that respect we can equivocate all manners of sin. As our Lord said, you break one Commandment, you break them all.

    Actually, it was James who said that. But, of course, the Church distinguishes between mortal and venial sin. Abortion and torture are both mortal sins.

    George Bush was a bad guy for trying to find out why hundreds died at the Pentagon. Luckily they all went without torture.

    Torturing Iraqis and torturing innocent people had exactly nothing whatsoever to do with finding out about 9/11. Indeed, evidence is growing that the program of legalized torture has impeded the war on terror. However, it does have rather a lot to do with the popular notion that torture is about punishing whatever foreign-looking person happens to fall into our hands. That’s why there seems to be so little interest in the question of whether the people we tortured were ever charged with anything at all and still less interest in those who have actually been proven innocent. They *must* be guilty or we wouldn’t have tortured them. How could we have sinned? Impossible. Repentance is for others. Classic Baby Boomer thinking.

    There have been responses before to your warped sense of proportion from many including knowlegable militry people. No need to rehash all of that.
    We all agree with Nancy Pelosi that torture is bad.
    I’ll prompt Fr. Euteneuer that he’s barking up the wrong tree.

    Now it’s warped to oppose grave sin. Great.

    Bush’s torture chambers is where evil really resides.

    And there we go with the ridiculous suggestion that opposition to torture means support for abortion.

  • Liz

    PrairieHawk, same here. Mark, great article.

  • Mary Kochan

    Torture and abortion are both evils and both mortal sins.

    I don’t think they are equally problems in terms of our country. I don’t think there are as many people involved in torture as in abortion; I don’t think there are nearly as many victims of torture as abortion. That may be why some people get upset with what they call your “equivocation,” Mark

    I think that a lot of people are afraid of seeing the torture issue used politically to gain power for the pro-aborts. But considering the outcome of the last election, I don’t think that should worry anyone any more. Spilt milk.

  • Mark Shea

    Torture and abortion are both evils and both mortal sins.

    Agreed.

    I don’t think they are equally problems in terms of our country. I don’t think there are as many people involved in torture as in abortion; I don’t think there are nearly as many victims of torture as abortion. That may be why some people get upset with what they call your “equivocation,” Mark

    Except that I have never ever said anything like “there are as many people involved in torture as in abortion” or “there are nearly as many victims of torture as abortion”. Of course there aren’t. My reason for linking the two is that a) the consequentialist arguments for both are identical; b) this means that acceptance of the logic for one necessarily means capitulation to the logic of the arguments for the other; c) so called “faithful conservative Catholics”, in greater percentages than the general population enthusiastically support the use of torture; d) this therefore destroys their philosphical basis for arguing against abortion and e) they are begging for disastrous consequences in urging a rapidly de-christianizing culture to embrace torture in order to save their skins.

    If I were writing to a Catholic readership that routinely said, “Abortion and contraception keep me safe from danger!” I would bang away on that point (as I, in fact, did in the piece above). But I’m not. I’m writing to an audience of Catholics that takes for granted two propositions: 1. Abortion is gravely evil and 2. torture is no big deal. So the illusion of disproportionality is due, not to the frequency on which I broadcast, but to the frequency on which so many conservative Catholics are receiving. For many, their tribal affiliation with the conservative movement in the US has taught them to hear the Church when she condemns abortion but to minimize, rationalize, ignore, excuse, explain away and (when sharply challenged) heap contempt on the proposition that torture is a grave sin, has in fact occurred on the orders of the American gov’t, and remains legal at this hour. If there were a law which said that, once a year, a single human being regardless of guilt or innocence, should be thrown in a volcano in order to keep us all safe, we’d call that crazy. But we do, in fact, have laws which allow the CIA to torture and even kill prisoners and we think that’s smart. If I saw Catholics protesting this as they protest abortion, I wouldn’t have to make a ruckus. But instead I see Catholics laughing off, excusing and even praising the torture of prisoners in direct contradiction to the Church, all while priding themselves on their fidelity in contradistinction to the dissenting Left.

    Of course, not every conservative Catholic does this, just as not every liberal Catholic supports abortion. But when a larger percentage of self-identified “faithful conservative” Catholic dissent from Church teaching than the general population, in which sense can we speak of them as “faithful” any more?

    I think that a lot of people are afraid of seeing the torture issue used politically to gain power for the pro-aborts. But considering the outcome of the last election, I don’t think that should worry anyone any more. Spilt milk.

    Certainly that’s part of it. But the defenses of torture continue on the Right even now that the election is over. Indeed, they crazily continue even when the power to torture perceived enemies of the state has now passed into the hands of Obama, who has developed a sudden reluctance to hand over this shiny new tool handed him by the Right. I think that’s crazy dangerous. Christians, prolifers and other undesirables on the Watch List should really contemplate how smart they think it is to make such a Faustian bargain with Caesar.

  • hsmarc

    Mark has some facts terribly wrong in this essay, makes me question anything else he puts his pen to. He would be better served to understand history correctly.

  • AnnaMarie53

    Okay, Mark, you have stepped over the line in debate. By what stretch of the imagination do you set yourself up to judge my, or anyone of us’s faithfulness to Holy Mother Church?!? Doesn’t that seem just a tad arrogant of you? You don’t know me, or anyone who has commented here, and comments like yours is a quick, sure way to shut down discussion and I believe you know it. This was a very cheap shot. I believe you owe me, because I have an opinion, which the Church allows as long as I am not committing a sin in doing it, an apology. Really, now, don’t you remember the comment Our Lord made about seeing to the beam in your own eye? I didn’t get personal.

    On the original topic, how do you suggest vital information be gotten from terrorists? We are at war. I hate it, but there it is.

    May God bless you in all you do.

  • goral

    “And there we go with the ridiculous suggestion that opposition to torture means support for abortion.”

    Mark, you can parse my words and come up with inconsitencies. I don’t write for a living, you’re the writer. In which case -
    “splain” to me where you came up with the rediculous statement quoted above. That was not even remotely suggested in my arguments.

    Thanks for the tip that Mother Church distinguishes between moral and venial sins. Really?

    We do have a problem in our church with the conservative cafateria factions.
    They simply refuse to protest in front of city torture clinics and they can’t seem to bring themselves to vote for all the politicians who oppose torture.
    It has nothing to do with the fact that those pols are Marxists, call ‘em Progressives.

    Looking forward to your next article which I know won’t be about torture.

  • Mary Kochan

    Mark, I don’t think Goral deserved that. That isn’t what he said, nor what he meant.

    Again, the question is one of proportion. Most faithful Catholics who oppose both torture and abortion simply see torture as an issue that pales in comparison with abortion. And if their choice — as it so often is — comes down to voting either for the party that wants unlimited abortion license OR the party that has defended torture as a defensive measure for this country, will vote for the latter.

    The “abortion party” won’t even allow debate within its ranks over the issue whereas the “torture party” is made up of people who are mostly against torture. I don’t think you could even argue that anywhere near the number of conservatives are defending torture as the number of liberals defending abortion.

    And there is another factor. People are afraid of the terrorists. And with very good reason. They don’t hate the innocent people who have gotten caught up in this and who have suffered through special rendition. They don’t even want to see innocent people hurt and they have some very knowledgeable people telling then that torture saved lives, prevented attacks, etc — that is to say saved innocent people. I understand that you would dispute that, but still that is the motive.

    Now what is the motive for abortion, for attacking (and as Goral pointed out, torturing to death) the unborn baby? Is that baby a threat? Are we afraid of the baby attacking us?

    This is why people get the feeling that you are doing an apples to oranges comparison and ignoring data that doesn’t fit your template of left is for abortion as right is for torture… and a pox on both their houses.

    This isn’t to say that I object to you continuing to throw the spotlight on the Church’s teaching on the torture issue, it’s just that you might want to reconsider this line of argument that drags abortion into it. The instruction on torture doesn’t need abortion for a foil and it isn’t a line of reasoning that is really connecting with people.

  • goral

    I didn’t??? OK, I automatically assume that I do. Thanks, dear editor.
    Now you’re using my kind of language – “abortion party” and “torture party”.
    Like the two great rocks in the Med. if you try too hard to avoid one you will shipwreck on the other.
    Mark, your picture is beautiful but the frame is ugly.
    I don’t deserve to be engaged by the best not to mention to be buttressed by the best. Thanks for the responses, PTL!

  • http://arkanabar.blogspot.com Arkanabar Ilarsadin

    AnnaMarie53,
    something to remember is that the sins of terrorists are not going to put us in Hell. Our own sins will do that. Their sins do not excuse ours. And the way to avoid Hell is not to tiptoe around the edges of the abyss, but to seek Heaven.

    The Church’s stand on killing people is pretty simple, after all: if somebody is out to kill, and the only expedient way to stop them is to kill them first, you do it. Otherwise, no killing.

    regarding your 2d comment: Mark has noted your willingness to excuse torture “to obtain vital [let's say, life-saving] information from terrorists.” Then he cited those paragraphs of the Catechism which make it clear that torture is gravely evil. If arguing to excuse abortion is formal cooperation with grave evil, REGARDLESS OF WHY IT IS DONE, why is arguing to excuse occasionally lethal torture any less formal cooperation with grave evil?

    Note well that Mark has not claimed the authority to determine what is torture, what isn’t, and what degree of “enhanced interrogation” is gravely evil. Also, he has NOT claimed that you are of a certainty bound for Hell because you offer “we’re saving lives!” as an excuse. Rather, he is saying first, that seeking to approach evil “just close enough, but not too close” is in and of itself an evil act, and second, that we are far better off seeking to approach virtue as closely as we are able.

    Finally, Mark, I’m going to remind you of your own warning that the Devil likes to send out evil in pairs. By all means, we should hold the various neocons’ feet to the fire over torture and chickenhawking, but we still ought to cast our vote so as to limit, as much as possible, how much evil is done in our society.

  • Mark Shea

    Aimee:

    I can’t for the life of me figure out what you are talking about. My reply to you said not a word about you, so I don’t understand what you mean about my “judging” you.

    On the original topic, how do you suggest vital information be gotten from terrorists? We are at war. I hate it, but there it is.

    We have been at war before. With real bad guys like Nazis and Commies. And yet we managed to treat them humanely and still interrogate them. We were even among the principal architects of the Geneva Conventions until the Bush Administration withdrew from them in order to establish a regime of torture and prisoner abuse. The answer to your question then is “By doing what was standard procedure for prisoner interrogation up until September 10, 2001. If you reply “That didn’t stop 9/11″ I answer “Neither has torture prevented terrorist acts”. What prevents them is a functional intelligence community gathering information according to civilized standards and using it wisely (as, for instance, took place in the thwarting of the bomb plot in London in August 2006). What allowed 9/11 was not failure to torture but failure of our intelligence community and state to pay attention to the information they’d already gained by conventional means (like “Hey! Here’s a bunch of suspicious foreign nationals taking flying lessons in which they have no interest in learning about taking off or landing, supplied with vast sums of money from shady sources”).

    Bottom line: the choice we face is not between torturing people or exposing ourselves to certain mass death.

    goral:

    I don’t understand what you are confused about. When you talk about my “warped sense of proportion” and punctuate it with claims that Fr. Eutneuer is wrong to oppose abortion and that “Bush’s torture chambers is where evil really resides” the implication is rather clear: you are sarcastically suggesting that I think abortion is no big deal. Retract it or take responsibility for it. But don’t pretend that’s not what you are implying.

    Mary:

    I’m really quite surprised by your argument. You speak of the fear that many people have of terrorists. Quite so. There is good reason to fear people like the animals who committed 9/11. But then you write:

    “Now what is the motive for abortion, for attacking (and as Goral pointed out, torturing to death) the unborn baby? Is that baby a threat? Are we afraid of the baby attacking us?”

    And, of course, the answer given by millions of frightened unwed mothers is “Yes! I am desperately afraid! And alone! And confused! That baby is a threat to my future! To my relationship with my boyfriend or husband! To my life if my Dad ever finds out! Everybody says it’s okay and *you* prolifers say I should give up my whole future! Can’t you see how much of a disaster for me that would be!” That’s the voice of pure fear, not of some casual desire to go around conceiving and killing babies for the fun of it. Sure, the baby isn’t attacking Mom as a terrorist attacks. Absolutely the baby is innocent and the terrorist is guilty. But the question (in both cases) is not really about the guilt or innocence of the people being tortured and killed. It’s about fear–abject terror–and the people who will do anything, including torture and kill whoever they think needs torturing and killing, in order to escape the thing they fear. Whether the people getting tortured and killed are guilty or innocent is, in the mind of a consequentialist gripped with fear, entirely irrelevant. So pro-choicers come up with elaborate psycho-emotional mechanisms for telling themselves the person they are killing is not a person or, if they are, they deserve what they are getting. So babies become “fetal tissue” and documentably innocent torture victims (such as Dilawar or Maher Arar [you can Google their stories]) become faceless foreigners who were probably guilty of something (we just can’t prove it) or else “collateral damage”. The pattern is identical.

    That’s why I say that it is so disastrous for conservative Catholics to make excuses for torture while attempting make a case for prolife beliefs, because the rationale for both grave sins is exactly the same: let us do evil that good may come of it. The pro-choicers feel tremendous terror at the thought of bearing a child and so accept abortion as the expedient solution to the problem. The torture apologist feels tremendous terror at the thought of terrorism and likewise accepts torture as the expedient solution to the problem. And each tends to form political allegiance with communities that insist that their particular fears excuse the corresponding evils they endorse. So Lefty Catholics tend to complain that the Church over-focuses on sexual sin and abortion while Righty Catholics tend to complain that in a piece which is equally critical of the grave sins of abortion and torture, there is way too much emphasis on torture. After all, goes the argument, terrorists are guilty while babies are innocent.

    Prescinding from the fact that Catholic teaching specifically targets for condemnation the use of torture to “punish the guilty” and prescinding from the fact that torture is often used precisely in order to find out if the prisoner is guilty of something, I simply note that as the recent report on black site torture makes clear, we have accepted the proposition that it is okay to threaten to kill the children and rape the female relatives of prisoners if we think it will keep us safe. This was done by our government in our name. No one has been punished for it.

    You may say, “Yes, but it’s still just a few people this has been done to. It’s not nearly the problem that abortion is.” True. And living in Washington state in 1970, that’s exactly what abortion supporters said when we legalized abortion a few years before Roe. It’s just a few babies. Sad, yes, that a few innocents have to suffer. But think how much happiness and safety it will bring.

    We are a nation that lives (and dies) by legal precedent. Allow the state to torture, kill and threaten a few innocents today and you allow the state to torture, kill, and threaten its whole citizenry tomorrow, all with the promise of “Peace and safety” (a notable biblical phrase). That’s where consequentialism inevitably leads. Once we embrace the idea that it is okay to do evil in pursuit of good end, then it is merely a question of how much evil we will accept. And our tendency as deeply fearful fallen creatures is always to fudge toward accept more evil in the Faustian bargain that it will keep us safe from things we fear.

    This is why we have laws against such things. Fear is a potent clouder of judgement. It is the cause of most abortions and of our embrace of torture. If Catholics cave to it, what hope does a population without access to the sacraments have? We *have* to do better.

    I appreciate, Mary, your firm willingness to affirm the obvious teaching of Holy Church here. Thanks for stating it so clearly. Abortion and torture are indeed both grave sins. A civilization which accepts either must, sooner or later, accept the other, for the arguments are the same for each. Our civilization must reject both, or it is rightly doomed. Much obliged to you for stating the Church teaching on this clearly. Best wishes!

  • Mary Kochan

    The fundamental soundness of your argument is being lost on your audience, though, Mark. Don’t you see that from the vituperation that accompanies this every time you hit on it. Here are the problems as I see them:

    1. Many Americans are either unaware of, or disbelieve, the reports. They are so used to the shenanigans of the left in attempts to smear the military (look at what has happened to Lt. Col Chessani for example) that they distrust the reports of torture. You don’t get through that distrust with your abortion equivocation, because equivocating abortion/war is a tactic of the left and so many are reflexively conditioned to resist it.

    2. You aren’t making you case in a way that “rings true” — sorry to say it Mark, but you aren’t — even above when I talked about the torture question as a fear-driven issue, you attempt to draw a correspondence yet again with abortion because the unwed mother is fearful of what the baby will do her to her life; this just feels bogus. The Supreme Court did not rule on abortion out of their own personal existential fear! The people at the top of Planned Parenthood aren’t experiencing dread of babies — they are in it for the money. Abortionists aren’t fearful of what a baby will do to them if they don’t dismember it.

    3. You have fixated so intensely on this issue according to this framework, as I said before: left is for abortion as right is for torture… and a pox on both their houses, that you are missing deep divisions. The root of abortion is contraception and the root of that is lust. The root of the entire torture issue is fear, at least at the the level of the populace — which is where you are aiming. Have you not noticed that you aren’t hitting the bullseye? The thing that counters lust is obedience. The thing that counters fear is hope and trust.

  • plowshare

    Don’t get me wrong, Mark. I do not deny that inexcusable torture was perpetrated by the US since 9/11. My issue is with your repeated insinuation that waterboarding, in the form in which US operatives did it, is the kind of torture for which Japanese were hanged. You even repeated it after I gave details about the Japanese method which clearly indicated that their method did, indeed, constitute torture.

    You have given no details about US waterboarding. Until you do so, I respectfully request that you cease and desist, here and elsewhere, from this unsupported insinuation.

    That said, I must add that I have long been, and still am, an admirer of yours. Your writings are a tremendous asset to Catholic Exchange, and I’d be very sorry if you stopped contributing them.

MENU