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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dawn Eden on the Theology of the Body

I've obtained the revised version of Dawn Eden's recent master's thesis at "the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies" in Washington, DC:  "Towards a 'Climate of Chastity': Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity". Some will remember her: ex-rock-journalist, Catholic convert, and author of the countercultural 2006 book The Thrill of the Chastea title reflecting her talent as an erstwhile headline writerEden can write very well for a general audience.

That's why potential readers should not be put off by the theological jargon in the title of the present, more academic work. For one thing, people motivated enough to tackle the topic in depth will already have a good enough idea of what terms such as 'catechesis', 'the theology of the body', and 'the hermeneutic of continuity' mean. And making the usual allowances for academic ritual, the work itself is a clearly written critique of the popularizing approach of Christopher West. That's important because West has guided the thinking of more American Catholics today than anybody else who talks about human sexuality from a Catholic standpoint. Exposing his theological and catechetical weaknesses, and proposing improvements, would be a real service to the American Church. Eden's thesis is a big step in that direction.

In due acknowledgement of my prejudices, I admit that I both like and dislike Pope John Paul II's theology of the body ('the TOB'). The Pope developed it most explicitly in a series of catechetical talks from 1979-83, which I recall reading as soon as they were published in English. I like the TOB because it continued the Roman Magisterium's efforts, starting with Pius XI and taking off with the sections on marriage in Vatican II's Gaudium et spes, to develop the Church's traditional teachings about sexuality in its mystical, biblical, and psychological dimensions. Indeed, the TOB was originally intended to defend, by way of creative explication, Pope Paul VI's widely execrated 1968 encyclical on birth control, to whose composition which Karol Wojtyla himself had contributed. Like other contemporary defenders of Humanae Vitae's teaching, I have mined some of Wojtyla's themes myself. That kind of project was and remains worthwhile. But I dislike the TOB talks because they are often obscurely expressed and suffer, at least to my philosophical mind, many gaps in argument. So the TOB itself cries out for explanation and defense, which it was originally meant to supply.

That is the main reason why the TOB hasn't yet fulfilled its promise. The progressives resist it because it's a rationale for teachings they want jettisoned; the traditionalists resist it because it doesn't just repeat the Same Old Thing they know. But most Catholics just lack the intellectual background to appreciate it in the terms JP2 used. To overcome such obstacles, clarity as well as depth of presentation is desperately needed.

West is the best-known person in the Anglosphere to attempt that at a popular level. His intentions are good, his style is arresting, and his influence has generally been positive. Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia, among other prelates, has backed him consistently. But there are problems. Most of them were brought to light by a few theologians in the aftermath of a rather unfortunate Nightline segment with West in May 2009. I suppose there are always problems with popularizers—just as there are always problems with real scholars—who tackle important and controversial subjects. But until David Schindler, dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, delivered himself of a brief but pointed critique of his ex-student Christopher West last summer, I hadn't realized the extent of the problems.

Eden does a good, nay surgical job of getting at their conceptual basis. Rather than summarize her entire case, I shall focus on her most important criticism and on what I see as her most constructive suggestion. The rest I leave to the reader.

Eden's most telling criticism is that West's explication of the TOB explicitly presents it as "revolutionary," in such a way as to constitute an actual rupture with the broad tradition of Church teaching. I'm convinced she's right about that. For example, she shows in almost painful detail how West's account of the pre-virtue of "continence," and the full virtue of "chastity" of which continence forms a part, is actually contrary to John Paul II's (largely Thomistic) meaning.

West also thinks that the TOB is revolutionary as an antidote to the sexual "repression" from which "generations of Catholics" have suffered. That may well have been true of many Catholics prior to Vatican II, but as Eden notes, it can hardly be said about the majority of Catholics since then. The vision of human sexuality that Humanae Vitae presented has been widely rejected in favor of a contraceptive mentality among Catholics themselves. In view of that, it's a real problem that West virtually ignores HV's exhortation to "self-mastery," which it was an important part of the TOB to explicate. As a whole, West's presentation violates the "hermeneutic of continuity" that must be pursued if progressive and traditionalist critiques of Humanae Vitae, which represent their own hermeneutics of discontinuity, are not to be justified. That's not what West intended, but that's what his execution entails.

This is not to say that I think Eden herself gets that broader issue quite right either. She writes:
In the long run, perhaps the most damaging aspect of West’s presentation may be his
assertion that John Paul II’s teachings are “revolutionary,” thereby teaching that the Church’s
sacred deposit of faith is not fully contained in Scripture and Tradition, but, rather, progresses
with the passage of time—like a pubescent child that “still has a good deal of maturing ahead ...and a good deal of ‘growing pains.’” The memory of the dissent from Humanae Vitae, which was prompted largely by contraception advocates’ dashed expectations that the encyclical would alter official teachings, should serve as a warning against suggesting to the faithful that the Church’s doctrine keeps pace with changing times (p 73).
I don't hear West saying, and I don't think his arguments commit him to saying, that the TOB was introducing truths that were not at least materially contained in the deposit of faith from the beginning. Properly understood, authentic development of doctrine merely makes formally explicit what has always been materially present in the deposit. That's what I believe the TOB was doing, and I see no evidence that West would deny that. The difficulty is not with his general idea about the development of doctrine, but rather with his imperfect understanding of the TOB's content. West makes JP2 appear to say things contrary to the tradition of the Church, even though neither man intended that. But West's metaphor of the Church moving from childhood to adolescence on the matter of sexuality, though perhaps sloppily applied, can be understood to apply to the Church's understanding of the deposit rather than to the deposit itself.

Unfortunately, West does not concern himself with such subtleties. Worse, his vision of the TOB is blinkered in comparison with that of JP2 himself. The wider context of the Pope's voluminous output shows that he makes far more allowance for the role of redemptive suffering in marriage, including conjugal sexuality, than does West, who virtually ignores the issue in favor of arguing that our relationship with Christ is "always" mediated through "sexual desire" and "intercourse." The charge that he oversexualizes spirituality is justified. In fact, a healthy conjugal sexuality should be seen as a real symbol of God's relationship with his people, but that entails self-restraint at least as often as it entails intercourse.

Accordingly, Eden's most constructive suggestion is to urge that West's approach incorporate "Mystical Body theology" especially in the "experience of brokenness," about which West says very little. There has to be a via media between seeing sex primarily as a danger to the soul and seeing it as the preferred medium for our divinization in Christ. Sexual desire, intercourse, and continence, each in their proper circumstances and order, need to be seen as expressions of a married couple's mutual self-gift, i.e. their sacramental love.

The issues raised by the TOB require more profound meditation than West has given them. That kind of meditation has been seen hitherto only in a rather narrow academic circle of Catholics. Once Eden's thesis is re-written as a book aimed at a general audience, the meditation can spread in earnest.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

At least they're our perverts...

Already numb, I can't work up enough outrage about the exposé, published two days ago in The Brussels Journal, of "the fall of the Belgian Church" by Alexandra Colen, now a member of the Belgian parliament. (We can't say we're 'shocked' anymore, since everybody instantly repeats the word and thus evokes Captain Renault's joke in Casablanca.) Here's the opening paragraph of Colen's piece:
In Belgium today [June 24], police searched the residence of the Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels and the crypt of the Archbishop’s cathedral in Mechelen. They were looking for evidence of cover-ups in the ongoing investigation into widespread pedophilia practices within the Belgian church in the decades during which Cardinal Godfried Danneels was Archbishop. Danneels retired in January of this year.
The article proceeds to recount some of the lurid details, which the author was personally involved in discovering and protesting as a Catholic parent. Let the squeamish beware.

We've seen versions of this movie already, over and over, with different characters and plot twists in quite a number of countries. Yet for those not already depleted by outrage fatigue, two factors make this one more outrageous than most. I shall describe them in the hope and with the prayer that the right lessons will be learned by some of the right people.

The first kicker is how Cardinal Danneels was, himself, enabled to enable the problems for three decades. What makes it so astonishing is that, as the article makes clear, the problems were public knowledge for much of that time. So how did he get away with it?

Two reasons. For one, and as the MSM have made sure we know, the Vatican wasn't aggressive enough in disciplining evildoers. But the other reason is the MSM themselves. Danneels was a darling of both ecclesial and secular "progressives" throughout his 30-year reign. Since progressives dominate the MSM in Western Europe even more than here, the damning facts were reported only haltingly, and no drumbeat of outrage was sounded against Danneels or his minions.

Although there's no evidence that Danneels himself committed sexual acts that are criminal, the evidence is overwhelming that he did not acknowledge the gravity of what he was enabling right under his nose. On the charitable assumption that his failure was due to ignorance, the ignorance itself was culpable. Somehow, though, I find it hard to believe that it was just ignorance. By 2002, the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandals in the Church had become impossible for anybody to ignore. I think it more likely that, for whatever reasons, Danneels was swayed by some underlying sympathy with the perps. But the Belgian media didn't want to talk about the long-running scandal for a long time, even aside from the question of Danneel's motives for enabling it. Both their and Danneel's attitude seems to have been: "They may be perverts, but at least they're our perverts." If Danneel's theological and political orientation had been conservative, his own failure might still have been what it's been, but you can bet the farm that the MSM would have striven to bring him down.

A similar dynamic has operated in favor of Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles. Slated to retire and be replaced by a Latino coadjutor, he has long presided over the most extensive sex-abuse scandal of any U.S. diocese. Payouts have been enormous and, almost certainly, more will eventually be ordered. Yet Mahony openly stonewalled the civil authorities for years without ever being prosecuted for obstruction of justice—or even eliciting a widespread campaign for him to resign, as Cardinal Law did seven years ago in Boston. None of that is in dispute. How could it happen? Simple: ecclesial and political "progressives" such as Mahony don't exactly get a pass, but are held to lower standards because their MSM allies don't want to undermine their larger cause. The young are thus sacrificed to political expediency as much by the Left as by anybody else. But you're not going to hear about that from the MSM, especially when it comes to the higher incidence of sexual abuse in public-school systems.

The other kicker in the Danneels case is the dilemma it poses for the conventional progressive wisdom. Popes rarely depose bishops, and the more prominent a bishop's see, the less likely he is to be deposed. That's probably how it should be. The pope is not the CEO of Catholic Church, Inc; he is chief bishop among his brother bishops. His exercise of jurisdiction over the Church universal must and does take due account of that. But amid the current agony of scandal, many progs will have none of it. They all want the Church to be less centralized when that would weaken Rome's doctrinal authority, but want her more centralized when that would help prevent things such as the sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal—except, of course, when the guy covering up is himself a progressive. Then we must remember collegiality.

Of course they can't have it both ways. But as Chesterton loved to show, the Catholic Church has always faced mutually incompatible charges. That's one of the reasons I'm Catholic. When you're always damned if you do and damned if you don't, you're probably on firmer ground than your enemies.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Catholic higher education: here we go again

Remember the brouhaha a little over a year ago, when the University of Notre Dame not only invited President Obama to give a commencement address but also awarded him an honorary JD? The University did not seem to care that such a move blatantly violated the bishops' directive that "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles"—a directive supported by the local bishop, who boycotted the ceremony. It got worse: Catholics, including priests, who peacefully demonstrated on campus against the event were arrested and prosecuted on orders of Notre Dame's president, Fr. John Jenkins. As Joseph Bottum put it, "when the protests over Obama’s honorary degree began, he decided to raise the stakes, which turned an unhappy situation into a disastrous one." The long-term problem that came to a head a year ago at Notre Dame is that of waning Catholic identity in Catholic higher education. Now it's cropped up again, this time at Marquette and the Catholic University of America.

The Marquette situation started so far south it could only go north. They were going to appoint an avowed, ideological lesbian, "sexuality scholar" Jodi O'Brien, to be Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences over two male finalists who were more academically distinguished. After an uproar both on campus and among some Catholic academics across the country, the nomination was withdrawn. Reporting in the Wall Street Journal, Anne Hendershott wrote:
In a post-settlement letter sent June 9th to the Marquette community, University President Father Robert A. Wild wrote, "[W]e have apologized to Dr. O'Brien for the way in which this was handled and for the upset and unwanted attention that we have caused to this outstanding teacher and scholar." Yet Fr. Wild also added that he stands by his decision to rescind the employment offer, a decision "made in the context of Marquette's commitment to its mission and identity."

The specific nature of the job at issue—as dean Ms. O'Brien would have been charged with helping to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae, Pope John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution intended to revitalize Catholic higher education—may have driven Marquette to back off this particular appointment. But the real story here is that in the upside-down world of Catholic higher education, there is more status in hiring a sexuality scholar who denigrates Catholic teachings on sexuality and marriage than in choosing a serious scholar who might actually support Catholic teachings.
The major difference between what happened last week at Marquette and what happened last year at Notre Dame is this: in the end, Marquette chose fidelity over status; whereas at ND, status trumped fidelity. I don't want to explain why appointing an opponent of Catholic sexual morality, who didn't even have heavy-duty scholarship to offer, would have been a mark of status. Trust me: In the "upside-down" world of higher education today, it would have been just that. Of course, Fr. Wild might just have learned something from Fr. Jenkins' bull-headed mistakes. As somebody who taught for years in Catholic institutions of higher education, and is slated to do so again this fall, I can attest that the choice between fidelity and status shouldn't have to be made in most cases. Often, it's completely illusory. Yet some presiding demon seems to have planted that false dichotomy in the minds of Catholic university faculty and administrators who crave the world's respect.  It's a spiritual parasite that seems to suck the vitality out of Catholic identity in that sphere of life.

A subtler instance of that is the appointment of John H. Garvey as the president of CUA. I don't doubt that he has considerable merits and is often right. But I want to focus on one thing he wrote eight years ago and has never retracted or qualified. CNA reports: "In a 2002 letter, Garvey tried to allay concern that Boston College’s Catholic identity will require “a certain orthodoxy,” claiming that “no school that regulates ideas can justly call itself a university.” If that's Garvey's view today, the game is over before it starts.

Every school regulates ideas. That's why there's peer review in every discipline, which is a good thing. Some proposals and arguments are bad, others good, and professionals are bound to discern the difference. Of course it's wrong that Larry Summers had to resign as president of Harvard for expressing a reasonable scholarly hypothesis about women's interest in and aptitude for quantitative science. But that sort of thing goes on in various and subtle ways in the most self-consciously "liberal" universities. It would seem that only religious universities are supposed to forfeit the name 'university' for enforcing orthodoxy. Yet if ideas incompatible with the Catholic faith are allowed to be proposed as truths in a "Catholic" university, then in what sense, beyond the transiently sociological, is it Catholic? Because Catholic parents send their kids there thinking the place is Catholic? Because priests and religious retain some residual influence? Because it has a chapel nobody is required to attend? Maybe things like that are all some administrators mean by Catholic "identity." If so, they're not worth the money. And when I hear phrases like "in the Jesuit tradition," I expect to see the actual Catholics heading for the tall grass.

Garvey's remark was absurd no matter how you parse it. Its only conceivable purpose is to convey the old, false dichotomy between fidelity to Catholic teaching and intellectual respectability. It's like a reflex one picks up in the atmosphere of universities; the Boston area is thick with them, which is perhaps one reason for what Phil Lawler called the "collapse" of Boston's Catholic culture. Let's hope Garvey has "grown" in a direction that liberals who use that word would dislike. But I'm not holding my breath.

Part of the problem is that the people in charge of vast sectors of Catholic higher education are still smarting from the old charge of Catholic intellectual mediocrity, which first surfaced inside the citadel with Msgr. John Tracy Ellis' 1950s exposé. Like a great many American Catholics, such people are a number of things before they are Catholic. So, naturally, when one of those things conflicts with Catholicism, it's the latter which gets compromised. To be sure, there are some well-known and not so well-known Catholic schools that are faithful to the Magisterium and proud of it. Most of my readers will know of at least a few such places. And plenty of younger Catholic scholars in philosophy and theology are sound. But such institutions and people are at the periphery, not the center, of American Catholic higher education. That should come as no surprise when Catholics fully faithful to the Magisterium are nowhere near a majority of American Catholics.

Why is that? Because, like the ancient Israelites and many of today's Jews, most prefer the gods of the world to God. It's a very old problem. Most of the money and power are on the wrong side.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Fathers are not fungible

I was going to give my preferred homilette on the Sunday Mass readings today, but over the past few years I've come to realize what self-indulgence that usually is. The way I used to get through many of the painfully mediocre homilies I've heard was to compose my own in my head. But then I realized that I was substituting my own wisdom for that of the spiritual fathers celebrating the Mass. Many were indeed bad preachers and clueless liturgists, unlike those of us who've never doubted we could do a better job in our sleep. But also unlike yours truly, those men had been called by God to be something priceless for their people. That had to count for more than what I thought about the exegetical issues at hand, or indeed about most anything else. And today that's got me thinking that fathers, in the ordinary sense of term, are not fungible.

I learned that phrase from Professor Brad Wilcox writing in Friday's Wall Street Journal. Here's the immediate context:
Until recently, there was one primary challenge to the intellectually fashionable view that fathers are fungible. It came from scholarship showing that children did better—e.g., were much more likely to finish school, avoid teen pregnancy and stay out of prison—in intact, married families than in homes headed by a single parent, most of whom are women.

Yet scholars such as Ms. Drexler were able to retort that much of the research relies on a comparison of middle-class married families with poor single mothers, so that differences in how children fare might be largely the result of socioeconomic differences. In their view, middle-class women who have a decent income and a good education can do just as good a job as a middle-class married mother and father.

That view ran into some major trouble this month, with the release of the report, "My Daddy's Name is Donor," by the Commission on Parenthood's Future (of which I am a member). The report is the first study to compare a large random sample of 485 young adults (18-45) conceived through donor insemination to 563 young adults conceived the old-fashioned way.

Significantly, the single women who chose to have a child by donor insemination were better-educated and slightly better off than the parents who had biological children together. So the study's results cannot be dismissed on the grounds that affluent marrieds were being compared to poor single mothers.
Ordinarily I would overlook articles like that, because what they say strikes me as so obvious. It is just obvious that, as Wilcox says, "despite the latest propaganda in favor of a father-optional future, this study suggests two stubborn truths: Children long to know and be known by their biological fathers, and they are much more likely to thrive when they have their own father in their lives." But after I called my own father today and was honored by one of my own children, I read that article and admitted that what ought to be obvious is not obvious in the politically correct world. Plenty of educated people hold as principle that fathers, in the ordinary sense of the term, are optional accessories in their children's lives. Many other people live as though that were the case, even though they wouldn't assert it and might not even like it. And millions of divorced men feel that the mothers of their children regard them as, at best, sperm donors and cash cows. Certainly most children, even those who have been not been properly loved by their fathers, know better. But it's not fashionable to admit that. It's a lot more fashionable to depict fathers as jerks, cretins, or abusers.

Some of my conservative and/or Catholic friends believe that the denigration of fathers is part-and-parcel of some grand conspiracy to destroy the family. It might be the UN, or the Marxists, or certain key 20th-century cultural icons such as Freud, Margaret Mead, and Picasso, whose creative ideas seemed to be closely bound up with their desire for sexual license. But I seriously doubt it's an organized conspiracy of human beings, save perhaps on the local level in California and New York. There's just a tremendous cultural force behind easy divorce, contraception, abortion, gay "marriage," artificial procreation, and other practices which corrode the traditional family. That's because the core of modernity's ideology is the goal of radical autonomy.

On this view, human freedom is so absolute, so precious, that anything which limits our freedom to define ourselves is either a political or a cosmic injustice. It's almost as if we're bigots if we believe that there is such a thing as human nature and that it admits of only so much self-definition by individuals. Nominalism has become not only respectable but morally obligatory. If that's how one sees human dignity, then anything that's important for who we are, but is nonetheless out of our control, is going to be either questioned, resisted, or changed (perhaps by evolving technology). To be sure, not many people want to do that to their mothers. Motherhood is still sacrosanct, largely for good and instinctual reasons. But a great many people do that to their fathers. The authority of the father in the family is now equated with the "domination" and "oppression" of "patriarchy." I've never thought of 'patriarchy' as a dirty word, but Hell's Philological Arm has succeeded in making it so. As women slowly but steadily achieve economic parity with men, the very usefulness of husbands and fathers as such, as distinct from that of the interchangeable "spouse" and "parent," now seems obscure to the educated classes. A great many people still feel otherwise, but most cannot articulate why they should. And so the erosion of fatherhood proceeds apace because of a faulty conception of freedom that now dominates thought.

The solution is holy patriarchs: in the family, in the church, even in the state. It's going to take women a while to recognize that such a thing is even possible, let alone necessary. But they'll come around if men do. I hope and pray to myself.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Conscience about conscience

Conscience seems to have become a hot topic again in the blogosphere, or at least that part of it which concerns Catholic intellectuals. That happens cyclically, mostly among such Catholics. What's apparent this time around is that conscience about conscience is sorely needed. The archeology of tradition is being mined selectively at best. That is, as it were, unconscionable.

The current flurry started with the debate over Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted's decision to announce that Sr. Margaret McBride, by approving an abortion in her role as an ethical consultant at St. Joseph's Hospital, had excommunicated herself along with others who had formally cooperated in the procedure. I questioned Olmsted's decision in an article at First Things that was cited, without criticism, by Michael Sean Winters, Jimmy Akin, and Terry Mattingly in their own measured treatments of the issue. Of course the matter was extensively debated elsewhere too, and it has become clear that the central issue for the more thoughtful commentators is what role Sr. McBride's conscience played in her decision. Specifically: if in fact she had made her decision in good faith as a well-informed Catholic, what sense would excommunication, or at least an announcement to that effect, make? And why does that question matter?

Such, in effect, are the questions raised by Dominican bioethicist Kevin P. O'Rourke in the June 21 issue of America magazine. For the general reasons given by Jesuit philosopher John Kavanaugh in the same issue, the answers are not obvious. Now Fr. Kavanaugh's penchant for subtly positioning himself above ideology, thus supporting one ideological side more by what he does not say, reminds me of President Obama. That's not a compliment. Not all moral disagreements can be settled by agreement on the relevant facts; in fact, the most fundamental moral disagreements entail disagreements about just which facts are all and only the relevant facts. But Fr. Kavanaugh is right about the need to know all the relevant facts, which, largely for HIPPA reasons, are almost impossible to learn in the McBride case.

More troubling is the unclarity about principle. I don't mean Catholic teaching about abortion specifically, which is clear enough in the abstract. It's unpopular only because, as the recurring torture debate confirms,  unregenerate man is a consequentialist when push comes to shove. But even among non-consequentialists, there's considerable confusion about the concept of conscience itself. Again at First Things, David Layman raises concerns about the Thomistic conception of conscience, which in turn are briefly answered by Brandon Watson at Siris. That's the sort of excursus I want to continue here, because good answers to the Phoenix questions I've posed depend on answering a yet more fundamental question: In what sense could acting in conscience be, itself, culpable?

That's a hard and pervasive question for Catholic moral theology. On the one hand, as both Thomas Aquinas and the CCC (§1790) point out, one is always morally obligated to act according to one's conscience. For conscience here means one's sincere act of judgment, in light of one's knowledge of the relevant principles and facts, about what it's right to do in the circumstances. To act against that is to alienate oneself from oneself as a moral agent. That is performatively absurd, indeed vicious, by virtue of entailing a deep rupture of integrity. So much is undisputed. On the other hand it is possible, by acting according to one's conscience, to do what is objectively evil if one's conscience is malformed. Worse, it's even possible to be subjectively blameworthy for such objective evil if one's conscience is culpably malformed. The example of Nazis and Communists involved, even indirectly, in the mass killing of innocents is enough to show that, but there are many other examples more quotidian.

It follows that somebody who acts in sincere conscience, but erroneously, is thus morally obliged to do something morally wrong. When grave enough, that's tragedy in the purest sense, which didn't end with Hellenic paganism. It may occur less often than some Calvinists and Jansenists have thought, but I do believe it happens more often than most Christians think. Indeed, not many have given the problem much thought at all.

Fortunately, there are important exceptions: Joseph Ratzinger and Elizabeth Anscombe, as well as the CCC itself (§1791 ff). Anscombe was not the first, but among recent philosophers was certainly the most prominent, to raise this issue in Catholic moral thought after centuries in which the standard Liguorian conditions ascribing mortal sin to an agent had been used uncritically in pastoral practice. Those were: "grave matter," "full knowledge" thereof, and "full consent" of the will thereto. Very well, but can't a lack of full knowledge itself be culpable? Aren't there lots of cases when people don't "know" what's "grave matter"—i.e., what's objectively and gravely wrong—mainly because they just don't want to know? Of course there are, even granted that mere humans can't be certain exactly which. So we must admit that the Liguorian schema is inadequate. Those who act wrongly but conscientiously are sometimes culpable for the state of their conscience and hence cannot be exculpated by lack of full knowledge. They're "damned if they do and damned if they don't." Admittedly, that seems unfair. But such a tragedy needn't be permanent; there is such a thing as repentance freely induced by grace, which is not required by "fairness" either. But whatever the population of hell may be, I'm sure a considerable percentage are there because they could have repented of just such a tragedy, yet never did.

Now in a narrowly Catholic context, the question about somebody like McBride is not whether she was acting against her conscience—presumably, she was not—but whether, if she acted wrongly all the same, she did so according to a culpably malformed conscience. My interactions with her conservative, pro-life critics suggest that they believe the answer is yes. If they're right, then excommunication makes sense and calls for her repentance. But my main point had been that we can't know that they're right because we don't know all the relevant facts. Since we don't, and legally can't, know the specifics of the abortion case, we're in no position to assess the plausibility of Sr. McBride's decision about it, and hence we're in no position to make statements about the state of her conscience. To that extent, I sympathize with the complaints of the Kavanaughs.

But even if we did know all the relevant facts using Church teaching on abortion as for our criteria of relevance, and determined that McBride's decision was objectively wrong, a key question about conscience would remain. As my point of departure for that question, I shall begin by quoting Watson on Layman.
Aquinas holds that it is wrong to violate conscience; he mentions in this context Romans 14:23, in which Paul says that everything that is not of faith is of sin. David then asks:

Remember that for Aquinas, conscience is an “act” arising out of the “disposition,” synderesis (ST I, Q 79, A. 13). This disposition is an universal ordering of all humans to the good. According to the glossary...conscience is “the dictate of reason that one should or should not do something.” 
If that is true, then how can Aquinas equate an evil “conscience” with the Pauline phrase “everything not of faith?” If a human can know the dictate of reason, “I ought not commit suicide”, through reason–apart from faith–then how can an evil conscience be the absence of faith? The dictate of conscience (according to the Aquinas) does not arise either within faith or apart from faith. It arises from practical reason, determined by synderesis, the disposition (again quoting the glossary of LMP) that all humans “should seek the good proper to their human nature….” But the absence or presence of faith does not bear on this issue. I do not see how Aquinas can properly cite the apostolic text as authority for his claim.

In other words, “conscience” in Paul (and the entire New Testament canon) is a state of moral knowledge known in and through the living (in technical terms, “existential”) reality of a specific community that enacts and expresses a new experience of life and moral reasoning. Aquinas reappropriates this concept and redefines it as a state of moral knowledge known by, and accessible to all humans, apart from that new life.

But a little thought shows that this puzzle is unknotted easily enough. Just as reason, although universal, can be examined specifically in a Christian context, so can universal moral dispositions. That everyone has something in the way of conscience doesn't mean that it is formed in the same way for everyone. And in the Summa Theologiae, which David is considering, Aquinas is not considering conscience "apart from that new life"...

The point is actually generally important for interpreting much of Aquinas's moral theory in the Summa. The long, detailed discussion of virtue in the ST is a discussion of infused virtue. What reason says about acquired virtue comes up quite a bit, of course; but it comes up solely as a starting-point for understanding its infused and charity-formed counterpart. The Summa moves from God ruling over us to God working in us to God being with us; it is, as it says, a work of Christian theology.
The puzzle David Layman identifies, and Brandon Watson tries to clear up, arises from the distinction between conscience as disposition—which the Aristotelian tradition calls synderesis—and conscience as the act of judgment itself. Conscience as disposition, which means the active capacity for moral judgment, appears to be universal, and thus identifiable apart from "faith," in such a way that we can specify what general sorts of moral judgments people are disposed by such a capacity to make. Hence for Layman, conscience as act does not seem to require assessment in terms of faith—or at any rate, that's how he reads Aquinas. Now Watson argues that Aquinas, given the theological aim and context of the ST, is making no such argument. The Common Doctor is explaining conscience informed by infused faith, not natural conscience. Of course Aquinas thought there is such a thing, but I don't believe that's the only sort of conscience that he, or the Catholic moral tradition generally, is concerned with even for theological purposes.

Ratzinger indicates that, according to said tradition, the way in which conscience as disposition is formed by the life of faith, which includes the infused virtue of caritas as well, is not a heteronomous imposition on "natural" conscience. The pertinent aspect of his argument may be summed up thus: Just as natural, "speculative" reason affords us a "preamble" to the supernatural, "infused" virtue of faith, so natural, "practical" reason affords us a preamble to the supernatural, "infused" virtue of love—the highest of all the virtues. On the natural level, speculative and practical reason are thus and both capax gratiae. Accordingly, the relationship between conscience as formed by natural reason and conscience as formed by revelation and grace directly affects today's debates about conscience. How?

Ratzinger suggests that the rather vague and confusing term synderesis be supplanted by anamnesis, which here denotes a natural, primordial "memory" of the good, one that can be either elevated by grace or obscured by cultural distortion and personal vice. If such a memory can be obscured but never altogether erased, then it is naturally fit to be elevated by knowledge of the "New Law" of the Gospel, so that its natural content is not opposed to the Gospel but a partially inchoate anticipation thereof. And if that's so, then one cannot excuse certain decisions made in conscience-as-act by saying that one's conscience-as-disposition was never adequately informed by cultural norms or knowledge of revelation. For example, if it was objectively wrong—which, I stress, we do not know—a decision such as McBride's would be blameworthy as instancing a consequentialism that cannot be excused as somehow "natural." Killing one innocent person to save another is the sort of thing one can know naturally to be an intrinsic evil, apart from knowing the specifics of divine revelation transmitted by, say, Catholicism. The role of the latter would be not to demonstrate its wrongfulness but to explain it more fully than one could without it.

Contemporary Catholic debates about conscience, I believe, should focus on that issue. The pastoral consequences of taking Ratzinger's, and Anscombe's, position would be fairly obvious. That no such focus seems forthcoming is irresponsible. Intellectual conscience, at least for Catholic theologians, calls for more. Sometimes there's no excuse for not knowing.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Love and debt

You may thank the Lord that this will not be a marital advice column. There are those who would not hesitate to point out that I am the last who should give such advice unsolicited. Even when it's solicited, I give it only by offering myself as a negative example. Instead I shall comment on today's Gospel in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite: Luke 7:36 – 8:3, the story of the woman who anoints Jesus' feet with costly perfumed oil, washes them with her tears, and dries them with her hair. I shall comment because neither I nor anyone I know seem ever to have said much if anything about its most extraordinary lesson. Doubtless some real saints have; Augustine and Chrysostom come first to mind. But I haven't read any of those thoughts; nor do I remember any of the ordinary homilies I must have heard on the passage. This comes from the heart.

The first thing I note is that this "sinful" woman who loves Jesus, and is forgiven by him, is a lot like King David, whose sin, condemnation, and confession we hear about today's first reading. Given her time and culture, it's likely that the woman's sins were sexual. Given that she could afford expensive nard to lavish on Jesus, she may well have been a high-class whore. Or perhaps she was just a successful businesswoman who had enjoyed sexual variety; the end of today's Gospel does, after all, identify a group of women who subsidized Jesus' ministry, and she may well have been one of them. In any case, the very lavishness of her gesture signified the great thing about her: the "great love" by virtue of which her sins were forgiven. The same, I should think, was true of David. He committed adultery with another man's wife and, so as to take her for himself, ensured that her husband would be killed in battle. Serious stuff. Yet when the prophet Nathan confronted him with the Lord's judgment, he admitted his sins and was told he was forgiven. David was a passionate fellow, and his passion carried over into his love of God, as any reader of the Psalms can see for themselves. And like David, the woman whom Jesus forgave loved God passionately. Of course she loved a man who is God, which is very important; for as the Fathers liked to say: "God became man so that man could become God." But both sinners attained forgiveness by virtue of their love of God.

This is not to say that they earned forgiveness thereby. We cannot earn divine mercy, which is his grace, which is primarily the Spirit living within us, transforming us into the gods we were created to become by living that same life. It's rather that the same Spirit which moved them to repentance moved them to love for the God they knew they had spurned. The fathers and doctors of the Church called the accompanying attitude "compunction." And the gift of compunction often brings that of tears, such as that woman's. But the love of God to which they were moved is, itself, the forgiveness of God. Love for God wipes away sin; beyond merely declaring the sinner righteous, which he does, God transforms the sinner. When that starts to happen, and only then, people realize that God always loved them and was just inspiring them to come home and embrace him. They react with disgust for their sins and joy in the Lord. I know it well. Conversely, the "wrath" or "judgment" of God is what happens to us when we prefer to live on our own terms, forgetting God's love, which brooks no compromise and entails unconditional obedience. I know that well too, and it's a lesson that we must all learn in order to grow into spiritual adulthood. As Dorothy Sayers once said: "None of us feels the true love of God till we realize how wicked we are. But you can't teach people that -- they have to learn by experience."

So why Jesus did say to the woman (and to others on other occasions): "Your faith has saved you"? Did she earn salvation by faith? Of course not. Accepting God's love in compunction is part of the same process by which we trust him and his word. All is made possible by the Spirit working within us, and what we call "graces" are just the occasions and manifestations of that primary grace. Existentially, it's not important which comes first; either can lead to the other. Conceptually, I suppose, faith comes first; for we can love God only if we recognize his presence or word as such, believe it, and trust him accordingly. And that means loving him, which entails putting him first. But explicit faith sometimes only follows on repentance and the experience of mercy.

Hence the most extraordinary thing about this passage is another statement Jesus makes: "The one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Ostensibly, that's about the mercenary attitude Jesus describes in his little parable about the debtors. The more I am forgiven for, the more I love the one who forgives me; conversely, the less I am forgiven for, the less I love the one who forgives me. But here's the thing: it's only the one who is forgiven little and loves little who thinks of the whole thing as a mercenary exchange. Like the Pharisee, in this case the "Simon" to whom Jesus addressed himself. He is the opposite of that sinful woman, who seemingly went overboard with the hospitality Simon should have shown Jesus. And there are many pharisees. They're the ones who think God owes them for keeping their part of the deal. An archetypal Pharisee says to himself that if he keeps the Ten Commandments, and most of the other 603 commandments, then he's a decent-enough sort and doesn't need forgiveness. So of course he doesn't get it. And he doesn't get it because, even though he needs it without realizing it, he doesn't really love God as God. That's why Simon didn't bother making any gesture of care or affection for Jesus. He saw God as The Boss who owes him fair pay. He had little or no love.

That attitude is all too easy for "religious" people and, yes, "spiritual" people to fall into. I'm afraid that explains how many Catholics today see the spiritual life. They say to themselves: "I'm a nice person. I don't rape boys; I obey the civil laws (OK, not the speeding law, but who does?); I pay my taxes and even throw a twenty into the basket each week; I love my kids and visit my aged mother in the nursing home; I even get a tingly feeling when I see a sunset or meditate. So what's the problem? The Church is so hung up about [sexuality] [social justice] [fill in your own blank]. I've got enough demands to meet, and I'm not doing a bad job of meeting them. There's no need for me to confess to some pampered hypocrite in black. And half the time I can't believe I'm paying to hear awful music and boring sermons!" The loss of a sense of sin is why Sunday Mass attendance is down to about 30% and one rarely sees people at the confessional. People don't love God because they think they're already keeping their end of the deal and aren't interested in hearing that they are supposed to become gods. Football and shopping are more interesting than fire insurance one doubts one needs.

To be fair, it's hard to blame people for that attitude. Too often, they are not challenged to become more than what they are. Semi-Pelagianism is not limited to the laity. Too often I hear preaching—whether from the Right, the Left, or the Laodicean middle—which reduces the Christian life to morality. What the laity hear, if they're listening, is not that they have to be something of another and higher order, but simply that they must do more of this and less of that. Another list to check off, another exam to pass.

In the end, though, it's not about sin and forgiveness, because the "rules" broken by sin do not exist for their own sake or even to facilitate a bargain. To stop at that level is to reify the metaphor of exchange that Jesus uses. The story of sin and forgiveness is ultimately a love story. Our destiny is to become partakers of the divine nature (1 Peter 2:4), which is love (1 John 4:8). Sin is whatever keeps us from that; repentance and forgiveness are what re-introduce us to it. We are released from our debts not to live as we prefer, but to live the unimaginably joyful life of the one who releases us. That is why Paul says, in today's second reading: "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me." My daily prayer is that that statement become true of me. It should be every Christian's prayer.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

When it's arrogance to cry 'arrogance'

What's so disgusting about the lead article from the June 7 issue of Time is not just that its headline, which disaffected Catholics will latch onto, is false. The Pope has apologized to victims in the U.S., Ireland, Malta, and God knows how many other places. What's worse is that the lengthy but tendentious "analysis" of Catholic doctrine and church order is sourced only by unnamed "Vatican insiders." Such is the arrogance of crying 'arrogance'.

Of all this, George Weigel has said:
It’s not easy to understand the decision of Time’s editors to run the magazine’s current (June 7) cover story, with its cheesy title, “Why Being Pope Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry.” The lengthy essay inside breaks no news; it recycles several lame charges against Benedict XVI that have been flatly denied or effectively rebutted; and it indulges an adolescent literary style (e.g., “mealy-mouthed declarations buttressed by arcane religious philosophy”) that makes one yearn and pine for the days of Henry Luce.

The lengthy story is also poorly sourced, relying (as many such exercises do) on alleged “Vatican insiders.” …

As real Vatican insiders know, real Vatican insiders don’t give back-stabbing and score-settling sound bites to the American media. That practice is more typically indulged in by clerics far down the Vatican food chain, monsignori who have no real idea of what’s happening within the small circle where real decisions get made inside the Leonine Wall, but who are happy to chat up journalists over a cappuccino or a Campari and soda while pretending to a knowledge they don’t possess. Such sources can be occasionally amusing; they are almost never authoritative.
Now as Orthodox blogger Terry Mattingly points out, one cannot dismiss Weigel's words as the knee-jerkings of a prominent Catholic "conservative" whose goal is to defend Rome at any cost. For instance, prominent conservative Catholics have written savage books about the recent failings of the hierarchy, such as Philip Lawler's The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture and Leon Podles' Sacrilege: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. As a not-so-prominent conservative Catholic, I endorse those books (with the usual scholarly quibbles, of course). But let me repeat: the current attempt to discredit the Pope is scurrilous. As head of the CDF, he was the Vatican official chiefly responsible for convincing John Paul II that there was a serious problem, and to obtain the authority needed to do more about it.

My own contribution to this controversy, "Crucifying the Pope," does not argue that Joseph Ratzinger made no mistakes in his past handling of clerical abusers. Given the Church's long-entrenched legal culture, and the "black wall of silence" that officials such as Cardinal Sodano preferred to maintain, I would be very surprised if Ratzinger had not let too much slide before he became fully aware of the extent of the problem. But he's known now for quite some time, even before he became pope. And he's doing what he can about it. The current pounding is just arrogant malice and vindictiveness. It's what motivates the irony of calling for the Pope to do more, as if he had the centralized, CEO-style power that most of the media and the non-Catholic world wish he didn't.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Sing(er)ing the "real nitty-gritty"

In the late 60s, I believe it was, a pop song call "The Real Nitty-Gritty" achieved one-hit-wonder status. Several singers have done versions of it since, and I've always liked how it can apply to a variety of situations beyond the merely sexual. That song came to mind again as my agreggator offered up a blog post yesterday from the New York Times: "Should This Be the Last Generation?"

My first instinct was to assume that the intent of the question was only rhetorical, that it was designed to get us pondering the true extent of human depravity. If that's how it had been meant, I would have appreciated it, while still answering it in the negative. But then I saw that the post's author was Princeton philosopher Peter Singer—you know, the guy who sees nothing wrong with euthanasia or even infanticide, but admitted he couldn't bring himself to off his demented grandmother. So at once I inferred that the question was meant seriously by a man who is better than his principles. Those who know Singer's reputation will understand why I inferred as much, and reading the post confirms its title's earnest intent. To be fair to Singer, he affirms his belief that "life is worth living." But he does not take that belief as self-evident. He invites readers to ponder his question along with a bunch of others subsidiary to it. Yet I'm inclined to believe that raising such a question seriously bespeaks an attitude toward life that should be treated primarily as a symptom of spiritual disease rather than as suggesting a serious philosophical thesis.

Since the piece itself is rather short, I shall leave Singer's argument to the reader. I'd rather focus on the premise, plain throughout Singer's work, that makes it possible to raise his post's question: the premise, that is, that the principal good of life is the experience of pleasure and the principal evil of life is accordingly that of pain. Now it's possible to hold, as Singer does, that most people hitherto will have experienced more pain than pleasure in their lives; and if that's right, then a utility calculus could lead one to conclude that most people's lives at this stage of history haven't been worth living. That is what Singer appears to believe. That is what makes it possible to raise his question, which he answers in the negative only by projecting a degree of future human "progress" that will end up shifting the utility balance for most humans to the side of pleasure. But the premise is pretty much stuck on a brand of utilitarianism going back to John Stuart Mill. The arbitrariness and incoherence of Mill's utilitarianism is deftly exposed in a chapter of J. Budziszewski's recent book The Line Through the Heart: Natural Law as Fact, Theory, and Sign of Contradiction.

A basic problem with utilitarianism is epistemic: even in its most sophisticated varieties, it requires assessing things from a global, impersonal point of view that we do not and cannot have. (Theodicy in the strict sense of the term is impossible for the same reason, but that's another topic.) There's an additional problem with Mill's and Singer's closely interrelated brands of utilitarianism: the pleasure principle itself. It assumes that the unique and supreme criterion of goodness is undergoing subjectively pleasant experiences rather than doing something of which such experiences, when they occur, would be objectively fitting byproducts. The latter would be the life of love; the former could suffice simply as a life of sensation. But the superiority of the latter cannot be explained in Singer's philosophy. That shows that what we're dealing with is a spiritual disease, not just a philosophically flawed argument. Those who think the superiority of love to pleasant sensation is not evident, or those who think the value of love can be reduced to that of pleasant sensation, share the same disease.

But it's a common enough disease. As the birth rate plummets well below replacement level in much of the "developed" world, it seems many have concluded that no future is better than a present of voluntary sacrifice for the sake of continuing the intrinsic good of human life beyond the present. This, friends, is the real nitty-gritty for the developed world. The choice is between love, understood as holy sacrifice, and nihilism.

Cross-posted at What's Wrong with the World

Friday, June 04, 2010

Getting it right while getting me wrong

In the current issue of the British Catholic periodical The Tablet, Michael Sean Winters has weighed in on the Phoenix abortion-and-excommunication case and, in the course of so doing, praised my contribution to the unusually acrimonious debate over the case. How ironic that this is the closest I've ever come to fame: ABC's George Stephanopoulos once called Winters "the most famous person in DC whom nobody's ever heard of." Problem is, Winters got a few of his facts wrong.

Now I happen to agree with his conclusion:
There is a yet deeper concern, and one that has not been much commented upon in the Phoenix situation. Yes, the controversy can be seen as a part of the culture wars. But it is also an example of a deeper pathology in American religious experience – the way religion is reduced to ethics in American culture.

“It is a great temptation for the Church to reduce its mission to that of an ethical authority in order to gain access to the public forum,” Mgr Lorenzo Albacete wrote in the Catholic quarterly Communio more than 15 years ago, and the warning remains true. Pope John Paul’s and Pope Benedict’s call for a “New Evangelisation” will be stillborn if the Church can’t find ways to proclaim the Gospel effectively, and a main impediment to that proclam­ation is this reduction of religion to ethics.

Today, in America, the Catholic Left reduces the Church’s mission to a social-justice ethic, and the Catholic Right reduces the Church’s mission to its ethics on sexual morality. Bishop Olmsted’s decision has encouraged partisans of both Left and Right to embrace a defensive posture in which it is difficult to even hear the transcendent call of the Crucified who Lives.

When a moralism of the Left or Right trumps mercy, the Gospel is not proclaimed. The most frightening thing about Bishop Olmsted’s decision is, finally, not its justice or lack thereof. It is that, in his multi-paragraph statement announcing the excommunication, he did not even mention God. That is, if you will pardon the expression, damning.
As I had implied in my article, I believe it was a mistake for Bishop Olmsted to have announced Sr. McBride's self-excommunication publicly even if he was objectively right and she was objectively wrong in the matter. I explained my reasons for thinking so, and I believe Winters has given a still more important reason for thinking so.

But there are at least a few inaccuracies in Winters' article. The most important is his assertion that "Upon learning of the abortion at the Catholic hospital, Bishop Olmsted ordered Sr Margaret to be reassigned and pronounced the formal excommunication...." That gives the impression that she was excommunicated ferendae sententiae, i.e. by a formal juridical act. She was not. According to Bishop Olmsted's communications office, Sr. McBride excommunicated herself by formally cooperating in a "direct" abortion. That's called excommunication latae sententiae. Olmstead's announcement did not excommunicate McBride; it purported merely to point out what she had already done to herself.

The other inaccuracy concerns me directly: a small but telling misstatement of something I had said in my article. I had written:
The moral principle of Double Effect plays a role here. Catholic teaching condemns only “direct abortion”: abortion in which the death of the child is either directly willed in itself or directly willed as a means to some specific end. The Church does not condemn “indirect abortion”: abortion that is a foreseen but unintended side effect of a medical procedure designed to preserve the mother’s life, which is not wrong, at least not merely as such. (The most common example is an ectopic pregnancy, in which the Fallopian Tube must be removed to save the mother’s life, but the resulting death of the child is not directly willed.)

And that, apparently, was the defense McBride offered to Bishop Olmstead. He rejected it, apparently believing that the abortion was direct and thus immoral. And under Church law, all who procure or otherwise “formally cooperate” in direct abortion excommunicate themselves.
Now here's what Winters wrote about what I had written:
More thoughtful commentary has emerged on both sides as well. In the conservative journal First Things, Michael Liccione questioned the role of Sr Margaret’s subjective intent. He noted that the Church permits abortions that are not intended, for example when a woman has an ectopic pregnancy, requiring the removal of her fallopian tube. This will result in the death of the unborn child, but that is not the intended object of the surgery. Liccione argues that this “law of double effect” may have animated Sr Margaret’s decision, in which case, her moral culpability is diminished.

The more persuasive criticism of Bishop Olmsted’s decision is located here. In such dreadful circumstances, even if the actors make the “wrong” decision, heavy-handed punishment is ill-advised. Liccione writes that “the bishop’s ability to make such a confident judgement in this case seems very unclear – to me and to many others. Moreover, the public outrage over the Phoenix case illustrates the dangers of making politically significant announcements on the basis of moral reasoning that not many people can follow and that even theologically well- educated Catholics disagree about.”
Wittingly or not, the sentence I have bolded can give readers the impression that I thought McBride might have been justified in believing that abortion was indirect. But I don't know enough about the medical facts of the case to suggest any such thing (or the opposite, for that matter). I did imply that Sr. McBride thought it was indirect and thus justified, and argued that as a morally well-informed Catholic health-care professional, she should be presumed to have been acting on the good-faith judgment that the abortion was justifiable, even if that judgment turned out to be incorrect. I questioned Bishop Olmsted's announcement for that and other reasons.

Perhaps, of course, Winters did understand me and just expressed himself a bit carelessly. But then, perhaps his getting a rather basic legal fact wrong is a sign that he just isn't reading carefully enough. Sloppiness in a case such as this, which involves theological and legal intricacies beyond most people, only muddies the waters further.

Even so, I'm grateful to be noticed. For a man in my position, all publicity is good publicity. Perhaps I should get my bishop to announce my excommunication despite my good intentions.

Israel Confronts the Gaza Freedom Flotilla

NOTE: Cross-posted to Catholic Friends of Israel & The American Catholic -- this roundup will be continuously updated with further information.

This past Memorial Day weekend, "Israel boarded a Gaza-bound 'Freedom Flotilla' and killed an indeterminate number of innocent bystanders as they attempted to take control international waters."

Well, at least that's the take of Henry Karlson of Vox Nova -- who appears to be taking his talking points from Egyptian passenger Hazem Farouq:

"It was hell on the sea. I saw Israeli soldiers killing activists in cold blood and then walking on their bodies ... The Israeli soldiers sprayed bullets as if they were a mafia in an American film."

Unfortunately, as with such accounts of Israel's actions, the facts tend to get in the way. Let's examine the various claims of this Catholic blog regarding what happened this weekend ...

Tantamount to Piracy?

[Henry Karlson @ Vox Nova] Israel is claiming the massacre is justified because their soldiers were attacked. They fail to point out they were attacked when they were boarding a vessel they had no lawful authority to board, acting like pirates who think they control the seas.
For what it's worth, the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs provides a page explaining the legal background behind the Gaza flotilla and the maritime blockade of Gaza:
A maritime blockade is in effect off the coast of Gaza. Such blockade has been imposed, as Israel is currently in a state of armed conflict with the Hamas regime that controls Gaza, which has repeatedly bombed civilian targets in Israel with weapons that have been smuggled into Gaza via the sea. [...]

[I]t should be noted that Israel publicized the existence of the blockade and the precise coordinates of such by means of the accepted international professional maritime channels. Israel also provided appropriate notification to the affected governments and to the organizers of the Gaza protest flotilla. Moreover, in real time, the ships participating in the protest flotilla were warned repeatedly that a maritime blockade is in effect. [...]

Given the protesters explicit intention to violate the naval blockade, Israel exercised its right under international law to enforce the blockade. It should be noted that prior to undertaking enforcement measures, explicit warnings were relayed directly to the captains of the vessels, expressing Israel's intent to exercise its right to enforce the blockade.

Not only did Israel convey explicit warnings against breaking the blockade, but the interception came after numerous appeals to governments, organizations, and flotilla organizers ahead of their departures, and also during their journeys towards the Gaza shore [to convey the humanitarian supplies by another route]:
In these appeals, it was clarified to the flotilla organizers that they would be able to anchor in the Ashdod port, unload their equipment and transfer it over to the Gaza Strip in an organized manner after it would undergo accepted security checks. When flotilla organizers made it clear that they had no intention of cooperating and accepting the invitation to the Ashdod port, it was decided to intercept the boats and to bring them to the Ashdod port.
Consequently, Israel believed it was well within its rights to enforce a declared blockade. See also Israel, the Flotilla and International Waters (discussion with Yaakov @ Newsvine.com).


Ed Morgan, a professor of international law at the University of Toronto, offers a helpful primer on the "Law of the Sea", by which we can judge the flotilla incident:
A naval blockade is defined in Article 7.71 of the U.S. Naval Handbook as “a belligerent operation to prevent vessels and/or aircraft of all nations, enemy as well as neutral, from entering or exiting specified ports, airfields, or coastal areas belonging to, occupied by, or under the control of an enemy nation.” It is designed to stop ships from crossing a cordon separating the enemy’s coast from the high seas. It is therefore often enforced in what would otherwise be international waters approaching, but not necessarily inside, the territorial sea of the blockaded party. [...]

A maritime blockade is for security purposes only, and must allow humanitarian assistance to the civilian population. Since the ships sailing for Gaza were on a declared humanitarian mission, those on board had the right to expect that any humanitarian goods would ultimately find their way to their intended recipients. On the other hand, having announced its blockade, Israel had no obligation to take the ships’ crew at their word as to the nature of the cargo. The blockading party has the right to fashion the arrangements, including search at a nearby port, under which passage of humanitarian goods is permitted. San Remo specifies that this inspection should include supervision by a neutral party to prevent the unwarranted seizure of humanitarian supplies and the abuse of humanitarian assistance by the blockaded party.

Finally, the rule of proportionate force, applicable to all armed conflict, applies equally to a naval blockade. Blockading navies are obliged to arrest a ship rather than simply fire on it, and once its soldiers are on board an arrested ship their actions must be proportionate to the threat that they meet. While Israel appears to have met the other criteria eliminating a macro offence, here the facts will have to be gathered from witnesses and videos to determine what level of force was truly needed at the spot where the paintballs met the hammers.

A disproportionate or justified use of armed force?

[Henry Karlson @ Vox Nova] Probably those who attacked the soldiers were acting reflexively without thinking. Let alone the moral question, in all practicality, this was not the wisest thing to do, because the soldiers were heavily armed and could take control of the ship without difficulty.

(Elder of Ziyon notes), these would be the same "peace activists" who attacked the IDF commandoes with chains and iron rods, throwing them over railings, stabbing them, and calling for a repeat of Mohammed's massacre of Jews at Khaybar.

By contrast, the soldiers by their account were not "heavily armed" but rather were woefully unprepared -- armed with equipped with paintball rifles used to disperse minor protests, and handguns as a last resort in life-threatening situations (as reported by Yediot Ahronot).

Here's how one IDF soldier described the incident:
"We went down with our bare hands and met passengers with glass bottles and clubs," said one fighter squadron participated in the operation.

"We were lynched," testified one of the fighters in the hospital. "For every person that came down, three or four people beat him. They were all with metal batons, knives, glass bottles. At one point there was live fire."

"In fact I got there last," said a fighter squadron in an interview with Channel 2 News. "I saw the guys scattered on the deck surrounded each of them with about four people beating him."

"Trying to defend myself I probably broke my hand . All who got on board had no weapons in hand, but their bare hands," explained the soldier. "We came to work things out, but they came for war - the gun was absolutely our last resort."

According to Army Radio reporter Gal Lev-Rom, "the soldiers said they were truly not prepared to face violence of this nature":
“The activists had many things ready for an attack on the soldiers,” Lev-Rom said, “including, for instance, a box of 20-30 slingshots with metal balls; these can kill. There were also all sorts of knives and many similar things. These are what they call ‘cold’ weapons, as opposed to live fire. It was quite clear that a lynch had been prepared.”

Lev-Rom said, however, that it appears the army, “even though it prepared for many different scenarios, was not ready for this one. The army seems not to have known what type of people were there and what type of weapons they had. It was hard for Israel to conceive that the ship, sponsored by the country of Turkey, would have such weapons. Israel was prepared to deal with anarchists, and instead had to deal with terrorists – that’s the feeling here.”

A Reuters cameraman on the Israel Navy ship Kidon, sailing close to the convoy, said IDF commanders monitoring the operation were surprised by the strong resistance (Haaretz):
One of the commandos said some of the soldiers were stripped of their helmets and equipment and a several were tossed from the top deck to a lower deck, forcing them to jump into the sea to escape.

"They jumped me, hit me with clubs and bottles and stole my rifle," one of the commandos said. "I pulled out my pistol and had no choice but to shoot."

The soldiers said they were forced to open fire after the activists struck one of their comrades in the head and trampled on him. A senior IDF field commander ordered the soldiers then to respond with fire, a decision which the commandos said received full backing the military echelon.

The IDF said its rules of engagement allowed troops to open fire in what it called a "life-threatening situation".


According to Free Gaza's account of the events, "Under darkness of night, Israeli commandoes dropped from a helicopter onto the Turkish passenger ship, Mavi Marmara, and began to shoot the moment their feet hit the deck. They fired directly into the crowd of civilians asleep."

However, a Turkish paper published pictures of Israeli commandos taken hostage during the initial moments of the flotilla raid, which reveals Free Gaza's claim to be a complete fabrication. The blog Elder of Ziyon comments:

The Turkish newspaper that published the pictures of the IDF soldiers today does not use the meme of ruthless IDF soldiers shooting from the helicopter and murdering civilians within seconds of landing on deck - nor do the pictures support that narrative in the least. Rather, they prove Israel's version of events completely. Yet the Turkish press, as we had seen Friday from some of the Arabic press, instead say how weak and ineffectual the IDF soldiers were, all but mocking them for not using lethal force initially.

The newspaper notes, with glee, the fear in the soldiers' faces captured in the photos. It discusses how the brave "humanitarians" fought the mighty IDF with sacks of onions. The article calls the soldiers "amateurish" and "incompetent."

To the supporters of the IHH and its partners, the IDF's reticence in using lethal force is a clear sign of weakness, not a sign of caring about human life.

  • "We had no choice" - "They had murder in their eyes". The Jerusalem Post gives an eyewitness account of the commando who killed six of the attackers:
    The 15th and last naval commando from Flotilla 13 (the Shayetet) to rappel down onto the ship from the helicopter, S. said on Thursday that he was immediately attacked by what the IDF has called “the mob of mercenaries” aboard the vessel, just like the soldiers who had boarded just before him.

    Looking to his side, he saw three of his commanders lying wounded – one with a gunshot wound to the stomach and another with a gunshot wound to the knee. A third was lying unconscious; his skull was fractured by a devastating blow with a metal bar.

    As the next in the chain of command, S., who has been in the Shayetet for three and a half years, immediately took charge.

    He pushed the wounded soldiers up against the wall of the upper deck and created a perimeter of soldiers around them to begin treating their wounds, he said. He then arranged his men to form a second perimeter, and pulled out his 9 mm. Glock pistol to stave off the charging attackers and to protect his wounded comrades.

    The attackers had already seized two pistols from the commandos, and fired repeatedly at them. Facing more than a dozen of the mercenaries, and convinced their lives were in danger, he and his colleagues opened fire, he said. S. singlehandedly killed six men. His colleagues killed another three.

    Humanitarians and "Peace activists"

    Henry Karlson (Vox Nova) moves on to describe the convoy itself and it's "humanitarian mission":
    "The Freedom Flotilla carries more than 10,000 tons of relief and developmental aid to Gaza, along with roughly 700 participants from more than 30 countries, among them volunteers from Canada, South Africa, Algeria, Turkey, Macedonia, Pakistan, Yemin, Kosovo, the UK and US and Kuwait – and an exiled former Archbishop of Jerusalem who currently lives in the Vatican."

    Here we see the situation involves not just Muslim nations, but many of the nations of the West, such as the United States. We also see that the retired Archbishop of Jerusalem is on board the ship, indicating the active role the Church has had in this humanitarian aid.

    The archbishop in question would be Father Hilarion Capucci
    ... the archbishop of Jerusalem during the 1960s and early 1970s, was arrested by Israeli security forces in 1974 for material support of a terrorist organization. According to Paul Merkley, a historian and author of the book Christian Attitudes Towards the State of Israel, Capucci used his official limousine and "the cover of his priestly office to personally smuggle explosives, submachine guns, and even katyusha rockets into Israel, which were then used in PLO terrorist actions accounting for the loss of many lives."

    The Muslim Brotherhood issued a statement on its English language website this week, announcing the priest's participation in the flotilla and claiming that "the Israeli occupation exiled father Capucci from Palestine because of his honorable national stands."

    Sentenced to fifty-seven years in an Israeli prison, the gunrunning clergyman was granted a reprieve in 1977 after direct intervention from the Vatican. The Catholic Church called for Capucci's release on the grounds that his incarceration only served to "aggravate tension."

    The Church promised Israeli authorities that Capucci would cease all involvement in political issues regarding the state of Israel. Since that time Capucci has positioned himself as a prominent anti-Zionist activist. In 2009 he was arrested and transferred to Syria by Israeli security forces after attempting to illegally enter Gaza by sea. The former terrorist is also active in promoting the right of return for those Arabs who fled during the 1948 invasion of the newly declared state of Israel.

    According to the former archbishop, the founder of his religion was "the first Fedayeen" and he was merely "following his example."

    So much for the "Church's involvement" -- what about the rest of the occupants?

    As Jonathan Schanzer (Weekly Standard) points out, the convoy of ships allegedly trying to bring aid to the Gaza Strip was organized by a group belonging to an officially designated terrorist organization:
    The Turkish IHH (Islan Haklary Ve Hurriyetleri Vakfi in Turkish) was founded in 1992, and reportedly popped up on the CIA's radar in 1996 for its radical Islamist leanings. Like many other Islamist charities, the IHH has a record of providing relief to areas where disaster has struck in the Muslim world.

    However, the organization is not a force for good. The Turkish nonprofit belongs to a Saudi-based umbrella organization known to finance terrorism called the Union of Good (Ittilaf al-Kheir in Arabic). Notably, the Union is chaired by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, who is known best for his religious ruling that encourages suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. According to one report, Qardawi personally transferred millions of dollars to the Union in an effort to provide financial support to Hamas.

    In 2008, the Israelis banned IHH, along with 35 other Islamist charities worldwide, for its ties to the Union of Good. This was a follow-on designation; Israelis first blocked the Union of Good from operating in the West Bank and Gaza in 2002. [Read the rest]

    See also: IHH's support and finance of radical Islamic terror networks - a report by The Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, according to which it's pretty clear that the activists aboard the Flotilla were hoping to provoke a confrontation with Israel:

    On April 7, 2010, IHH head Bülent Yildirim told a press conference in Istanbul that the flotilla would be a “test” for Israel. He said that should Israel oppose the flotilla it would be considered “a declaration of war” on the countries whose activists arrived on board the ships (IHH website, April 7, 2010). In a fiery speech given at the launching of the Mavi Marmaris on May 23, he said to Israel, “Handle this crisis well. If you prevent [the flotilla from reaching the Gaza Strip] you will remain isolated in the world and harm yourselves” (IHH website in Turkish, May 23, 2010). On May 21 Muhammad Kaya, head of IHH’s branch office in the Gaza Strip, said there was a plan to send flotillas to the Gaza Strip every month (Al-Jazeera-Info website, arabianawareness.com, May 21, 2010).
    Violence and possibly "martyrdom" against Israel was not only anticipated, but sought after according to Dr. Abd Al-Fatah Shayyeq Naaman, lecturer in Shari'ah law at a university in Yemen:
    "The [Gaza] flotilla commander said yesterday: 'We will not allow the Zionists to get near us and we will use resistance against them.'

    How will they wage resistance? They will resist with their fingernails. They are people who seek Martyrdom for Allah, as much as they want to reach Gaza, but the first [Martyrdom] is more desirable."

    [Al-Aqsa TV (Hamas), May 30, 2010]


    The International Muslim Brotherhood had a heavy hand in orchestrating the flotilla, reports Thomas Jocelyn (Weekly Standard June 3, 2010):
    [T]he flotilla was organized in large part by a radical Turkish Islamist organization named IHH (Islan Haklary Ve Hurriyetleri Vakfi). The IHH, in turn, is part of a Saudi-based umbrella group called the Union of Good, which was created by Hamas. [...]

    The Union of Good’s leaders include Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, a top Muslim Brotherhood cleric, and Sheikh Abd al Majid al Zindani, who heads Yemen’s Islah party. Zindani and the Islah party have deep Brotherhood roots.

    In other words, the IHH is an offshoot of the Union of Good, which is in turn an offshoot of the Brotherhood -- as is Hamas.

    Jocelyn goes on to investigate various flotilla passengers' connections to the Muslim Brotherhood. See also MEMRI's extensive investigation and profile of the flotilla passengers: "Writing Wills, Preparing for Martyrdom, Determined to Reach Gaza or Die".

    Not without reason does Israeli ambassador Michael B. Oren describe the flotilla as "An Assault, Cloaked in Peace" (New York Times June 3, 2010):
    What the videos don’t show, however, are several curious aspects Israeli authorities are now investigating. First, about 100 of those detained from the boats were carrying immense sums in their pockets — nearly a million euros in total. Second, Israel discovered spent bullet cartridges on the Mavi Marmara that are of a caliber not used by the Israeli commandos, some of whom suffered gunshot wounds. Also found on the boat were propaganda clips showing passengers “injured” by Israeli forces; these videos, however, were filmed during daylight, hours before the nighttime operation occurred.

    The investigations of all this evidence will be transparent, in accordance with Israel’s security needs.

    And The Washington Post now charges the Turkish government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan with responsibility for the flotilla fiasco:
    Turkey's ambassador to the United States makes the argument that Israel had no cause to clash with the "European lawmakers, journalists, business leaders and an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor" who were aboard the flotilla. But there was no fighting with those people, or with five of the six boats in the fleet. All of the violence occurred aboard the Turkish ferry Mavi Marmara, and all of those who were killed were members or volunteers for the Islamic "charity" that owned the ship, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH).

    The relationship between Mr. Erdogan's government and the IHH ought to be one focus of any international investigation into the incident. The foundation is a member of the "Union of Good," a coalition that was formed to provide material support to Hamas and that was named as a terrorist entity by the United States in 2008.

    Against the Distribution of Humanitarian Aid?

    What of the humanitarian supplies that Israel was dead-set against giving to the Gazans? (Jerusalem Post June 4, 2010):

    Twenty-four hours after the last ship of the Gaza aid flotilla entered the Ashdod Port under the watchful eye of the Israeli Navy, all of the equipment on board was examined Tuesday and the majority of it was loaded onto trucks headed to the Kerem Shalom border crossing. The flotilla’s flagship, the Marmara - where the clash between Israeli commandoes and the passengers took place and which held the participant’s personal belongings - had yet to be fully inspected.

    In a statement to reporters at the port on Tuesday, Colonel Moshe Levi, commander of the IDF’s Gaza Strip Coordination and Liaison Administration (CLA), said that none ofthe equipment found on board the three cargo ships was in shortage in Gaza.

    In fact, on the topic of humanitarian aid to Gaza, see this report: Behind the Headlines: The Israeli humanitarian lifeline to Gaza (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs):
    Large quantities of essential food items like baby formula, wheat, meat, dairy products and other perishables are transferred daily and weekly to Gaza. Fertilizers that cannot be used to make explosives are shipped into the Strip regularly, as are potato seeds, eggs for reproduction, bees, and equipment for the flower industry.

    In 2009 alone, more than 738,000 tons of food and supplies entered Gaza. Pictures in local newspapers show local markets aplenty with fruit, vegetables, cheese, spices, bread and meat to feed 1.4 million Gazans.

    In the first quarter of 2010 (January-March), 94,500 tons of supplies were transferred in 3,676 trucks to the Strip: 48,000 tons of food products; 40,000 tons of wheat; 2,760 tons of rice; 1,987 tons of clothes and footwear; 553 tons of milk powder and baby food.

    In a typical week the IDF coordinates the transfer of hundreds of trucks containing about 15,000 tons of supplies. During the week of May 18, 2010 there were more than 100 truckloads of animal food, 65 trucks of fruit and vegetables; 22 truckloads of sugar, some 27 truckloads of meat, poultry and fish; and 40 trucks of dairy products. At holiday times, Israel increases transfers. During the Muslim holy days of Ramadhan and Eid al-Adha, Israel shipped some 11,000 heads of cattle into the Strip.


    Israel's attempts to deliver the humanitarian aid were thwarted by Hamas, who refused to accept the cargo (CNN June 2, 2010):
    Palestinian sources confirmed that trucks that arrived from Israel at the Rafah terminal at the Israel-Gaza border were barred from delivering the aid.

    Ra'ed Fatooh, in charge of the crossings, and Jamal Khudari, head of a committee against the Gaza blockade, said Israel must release all flotilla detainees and that it will be accepted in the territory only by the Free Gaza Movement people who organized the flotilla.

    Israel said it had 20 trucks of aid found on the ships, such as expired medications, clothing, blankets, some medical equipment and toys.

    Israel has released all foreign flotilla detainees by Wednesday, but four Israeli Arabs remain in custody.

    Who really cares about Gazans? -- Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt and even Syria are cooperating with Israel to distribute humanitarian aid to Gaza.

    Hamas' refusal of aid to the Gazans is to be expected. As Der Spiegel reports, "International donations are not always welcome in Gaza" (June 4, 2010):

    "People who are not in with Hamas don't see any of the relief goods or the gifts of money," Khadar says. On the sand dune where his house once perched, there is now an emergency shelter. The shelter is made of concrete blocks that Khadar dug from the rubble, and the roof is the canvas of a tent that provided the family with shelter for the first summer after the war. "Hamas supporters get prefabricated housing, furnishings and paid work. We get nothing," Khadar complains.

    The reason his family receives nothing: Like many of his neighbors, Khadar is a die-hard supporter of the Fatah party, the sworn political enemy of the more radical Islamists in Hamas. [...]

    "We knew Hamas would take the goods for themselves and distribute them at their own discretion. For us, and for many of our friends, it doesn't make any difference whether the world is trying to help us. Our situation will only improve if the blockade is lifted," Khadar explains.

    On Saturday (May 5, 2010), IDF forces piloted the Rachel Corrie to the port of Ashdod after boarding the ship. The Jerusalem Post reports:

    None were harmed in the military operation as the international activists on the ship cooperated with the boarding party. The activists went as far as lowering a ladder to the soldiers patrol boat to allow them to board, army sources have revealed.

    The military said its forces boarded the 1,200-ton cargo ship from the sea, not helicopters. Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said Saturday's takeover took only a few minutes and that the vessel was being taken to Ashdod port.

    Prior to the takeover, three navy ships tailed the aid boat for several hours throughout the morning, a few dozen kilometers from the blockaded Strip. The army said it had contacted the boat four times and urged its passengers to divert to Ashdod, but the activists had repeatedly refused.

    Curiously, despite Gaza's need for assistance, The Free Gaza organization refused Israel's offers to facilitate the further distribution of aid from additional ships - Elder of Ziyon posts the radio exchanges btw/ ships and reports:

    The flotilla team repeatedly had said that the reason the refuse to go to Ashdod is because Israel would not allow some of their cargo to go to Gaza. Here. we hear that Israel not only offered to transfer the cement that would have been brought on the ship to Gaza, but also that it would allow a third party NGO to bring it into Gaza.

    Although their final response is not on this audio recording, Free Gaza evidently refused, although they were quite polite about it. They even helped the IDF soldiers get onto the ship.

    * * *

    I believe Israel has the right to protect its citizens from harm by way of a blockade of arms to Gaza (the controlling authority of which is Hamas, after all, an organization complicit in many terrorist acts against Israel's citizens and wholly committed to the eradication of Israel).

    However, this is not to say that Israel didn't act badly in this situation and make some grievous errors in judgement resulting in the needless deaths of Palestinians as well as its own troops. Let's admit it -- those who organized the Flotilla got what they wanted: to force the hand of Israel and achieve a major propaganda win for her enemies.

    Yaacov Lozowick (author of Right to Exist: A Moral Defense of Israel's Wars -- worth reading), has some pertinent thoughts on this matter. I agree with his conclusion: "It may have been justified, but it wasn't wise."
    Israel will not disappear, not now, not later. It is one of the most vital places on earth, bursting with creativity and hugely committed to success; this is also one of the better moments in 3000 years of Jewish history – a rather glum statement, that, but true. Yet Israel is not being wise, as the case of the flotilla shows.

    We all know that the threat from Hezbollah is greater than from Hamas, yet we don't blockade Lebanon. The price would be too high, so we grimly prepare for the next war in the hope that being prepared well enough will postpone it for a while, and in the meantime it's not an international detriment; on the contrary, perhaps we gain a measure of goodwill that we'll cash in on eventually. So why blockade Gaza? Is the blockade essential? Six months from now, or six years, we'll lift it, and Gaza will still be full of people who fervently wish for our destruction, just like in Lebanon: nu? At that point the defunct blockade will no longer be essential?

    Some military actions will always be unavoidable. Do we do our very best to ensure that when we apply force, we're doing so in the most brilliant way possible? Have we thought out every scenario, and formulated a response to every counter move our enemies will make? Couldn't we could have silently jammed the propellers of those ships, leaving them dead in the water and begging us to save them from the blistering heat? Instead of heroic victims they'd be the world's laughing stock. I'm a mere blogger, not a decision maker, so perhaps there were reasons not to go that way: but were all options considered? Was the fiasco we ended up with the sole alternative? We handed our enemies an epic propaganda victory on a silver platter: that can't have been the best option?

    See also: