"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Torturing heretics again

Shawn McElhinney of Rerum Novarum ('SM' for short), a Catholic apologist well-known in the blogosphere, has undertaken to rebut my treatment of the Church's development of doctrine on the question of punishing heretics. Be it noted that the point of my post was to argue that the Church's development of doctrine on this question does not constitute any negation of doctrine that had been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium. I'm sure SM agrees with that point, but he doesn't like what he takes to be my argument. Readers should also note that, on the nest of moral topics associated with that of the punishment of heretics, SM has disagreed with Mark Shea, who as far as I can tell agrees with me that the Church has come to recognize as intrisincally evil certain acts which many bishops and popes once thought fit punishment for heretics in a Catholic state. I make my rebuttal of McElhinney herein.

As usually happens when debating this issue, many others get conflated with it. One is whether any sort of act that can reasonably be classifed as torture is intrinsically evil as opposed to being merely evil in most circumstances. Since the term 'torture' does not have a definition that's both consensual and decisive for the purpose, the question cannot be answered to everybody's satisfaction. But McElhinney isn't even totally forthcoming about his own, tentative answer; by his own account (see below), it seems he wishes to avoid giving scandal. That's a red flag in itself. Perhaps the brouhaha at Shea's blog has made him unwilling to be totally frank. At any rate, if I went on as SM does, I wouldn't be totally frank either. Candor would not be politic even in ecclesiastical terms.

Other forms of misunderstaning appear in SM's critique of me, so let's get to it.

He claims that Dignitatis Humanae "does not contradict the injunctions of Lateran IV viz. persecuting heretics however it may appear," and cites his reply to Brian Tierney for his argument on that point. Having examined that reply, as well as SM's reply to Scott Carson, I find the nub of the issue in the interpretation of this passage from DH §2:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others within due limits.

The question, specifically, is what the phrase "within due limits" modifies. I've always taken it to be modifying the immediately preceding phrase "in association with others...." Such due limits might mean, for example, the forbidding of certain cult practices, especially those involving minors, or open attacks on public morality, such as what one sees at "gay-pride" parades. (Of course even the latter wouldn't comport with the First Amendment as currently understood in American jurisprudence, but that is secondary; the focus here is meaning of the teaching of the Church.) I limit the scope of 'within due limits' as I do because, if one takes it to be modifying the whole previous part of the sentence, then it can be so interpreted that the alleged "right to religious freedom" would be no different in principle from a right extended only to Catholics. That indeed is pretty much how it was understood in the Middle Ages. Some trads would have no problem with that, to be sure; but if that's how DH is to be construed, it's not easy to explain how its teaching constitutes a substantive development of doctrine as distinct from a mere rhetorical game. It's more natural, as well as more common, to explain the passage in question as forbidding some forms of coercion not only practiced but mandated in the medieval Church.

Now I claimed that the older teaching rejected by DH can be conveniently formulated thus:

(HP) Heretics should be punished with torture and/or death if their being so punished is necessary for the common good.

SM criticizes that formulation as follows:

The problem with the way the statement is phrased is that it involves a normative or subjective element into the equation. It involves a value judgment in other words as to what should or should not be done. The only concern we need in the current context is not whether someone should be punished with torture or death under certain circumstances but only if they could. The latter is a non-normative or objective question in the sense that we are only interested in what can be done in these situations.

I'm afraid that illustrates the sort of confusion generated by assuming too sharp a distinction between value and fact. In the objective, factual, sense, of course heretics can be punished in any manner lying within the genius of the torturers. But the question is not whether they can be so punished, but whether there are circumstances under which they should be. That's the question to which HP, or a proposition relevantly similar to it, is an answer. The phrasing of HP reminds us that making moral judgments typically involves the exercise of prudence and that this case is no exception. One might snippily dismiss the judgments HP calls for as "subjective," but that hardly makes them irrelevant. In general, the relevant question is how such judgments ought to be made; in the particular case, the question is what sort of punishment of heretics, if any, is necessary to serve the common good. One doesn't make that question go away by dismissing in advance any answer as 'subjective'.

I had written:

Between the fourth and eighteenth centuries, most popes and prelates believed HP. Even St. Thomas Aquinas believed it. But the Church's development of doctrine has it that the torture and execution of people for their religious beliefs is a violation of their consciences, which is intrinsically evil inasmuch as it violates one of the most basic of human rights.

SM doesn't like that one bit. He replies:

Notice the bait and switch: Michael goes from "[h]eretics should be punished with torture and/or death if their being so punished is necessary for the common good" to claiming that they are not to be punished in that way whatsoever for their religious beliefs and what exercising those beliefs may or may not involve. This may appear to be not what I assert but consider for a moment the relevant factors involved in a nutshell: ---In a society where church and state are closely intertwined, heretics who were zealous in propagating errors which were seen rightfully so as undermining the common good of society were not tolerated. That does not apply in a society as we have seen construed in recent centuries but it also overlooks a key factor: the necessity of the common good factor. If the heretics so called are seeking militarily to infringe upon the rights of others and threatening their survival unless said persons or nations bow to coersion and accept the aggressor's religious beliefs, then such "persons and societies" (cf. DH §1) can under the rubric of self-defense of persons and society be tortured or executed within certain parameters.{3} It depends of course on how "torture" is defined.

Apparently, the subject of the question needs to be reiterated. The question is not about whether heretics seeking to use force on others should be physically resisted and punished. As far as I know, that is not in dispute. The question is whether heretics should be punished just for publicly propounding heresy, not just for actions which would count as crimes even if heresy were not at issue. I clarify the question in that way because that's precisely what's at issue in the DH passage quoted above. And I've already indicated what the natural interpretation of DH's statement would be, when taken as an answer to the question properly understood.

Thus, I had claimed that, given the teaching of DH, "...it is never necessary to serve the common good by doing such an evil that good may come," where by 'such an evil' I meant torturing and/or execting heretics for publicly propagating heresy. What seems to have set off SM is that I was not crystal clear about the distinction between imposing heresy and merely propagating it. Thus SM replies:

Again, torture is not necessarily an intrinsic evil any more than the death penalty is. That does not mean that both torture and the death penalty are unable to be conducted in ways which are inhumane and objectively evil of course. But it does mean that not all means of coersing others or of executing them are intrinsically evil. The Pandora's Box that such a notion opens up is far wider than I originally asserted and I am frankly not sure I want to delve into it in the public medium at this time lest it scandalize some of my readers of a religious nature and start more fires than I care to deal with (metaphorically speaking).

Oy vay: doesn't want to light fires he can't put out! OK, but SM doesn't have to do that in order to address my point, which he fails to do. I did not claim that "all means of coercing others or executing them" are "intrinsically evil." If SM wishes to define 'torture' simply as 'means of coercing', that is his affair; but he's going to be talking to himself, since nobody condemns all means of coercing others as intrinsically evil. What DH condemns, and I condemn, is forcing others to act against their conscience; yet in certain instances centuries ago, the Church enjoined the civil arm to do just that. Whether the means of doing so should be classified as 'torture' according to somebody-or-other's definition of torture is sometimes an interesting question; but I take it we all recognize the rack and the stake as forms of torture that were used to do to heretics just the sort of thing that DH implies may not be done.

I also claimed that DH does not negate any teaching infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium—a claim with which SM would surely agree. His objection is to how I reach that conclusion, not to the conclusion itself.

Now I had said:

But since HP itself is a material conditional, the falsity of its antecedent makes it trivially true


So even if HP does meet the criteria for having been infallibly taught by the ordinary magisterium, it is trivially true.

That gets SM rather hot under the collar:

The crux of the issue is being avoided with the above statement so I will highlight it in bold font: Defending persons and society from the menace of heretics out to either undermine the common good of society or who seek to coerce people under threat of physical mutilation or death to violate their consciences and accept alien systems of thought is not "trivially true" no matter how you stretch the tape!!!

SM seems to think I consider this topic unimportant. Quite the contrary, of course, else I wouldn't have written more than one lengthy post about it.

It is evident that SM has completely misunderstood my use of the logician's term of art 'trivially true.' In logic, statements of the form 'P if Q' or 'If Q then P' are called "material conditionals." The truth-conditions on statements of that form are such that if the 'if-clause'—i.e., the antecedent—is false, then the whole statement is true regardless of whether the 'then-clause', the consequent, is true or false. That's why material conditionals whose antecedents are false are only "trivially" true. They are "if-then" statements but the condition, the state of affairs described by the 'if-clause', doesn't obtain; so it doesn't matter whether the consequent is true or not; the whole statement is true, but only "trivially" so in virtue of the antecedent's falsity. From the standpoint of development of doctrine, then, it doesn't matter that HP is true; it's only trivially true. The doctrine developed in DH only goes to show what makes its antecedent false. And what makes it false is that, be they called "torture" or something else, attempts to force people to violate their consciences are intrinsically evil.

SM complains about anti-Catholic apologists not wanting to do the work necessary to understand in context the magisterial statements they criticize. He would do well to try to understand his Catholic opponents better than his Protestant opponents understand Catholicism.
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