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

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Why we needed to hear from Emily Rose

I shall not discuss The Exorcism of Emily Rose's quality as art, which has been amply evaluated elsewhere and on which my opinion would be just one among countless others. I want to discuss its significance, which I believe to be considerable and, naturally, so far overlooked in the media.

The significance I have in mind assumes that the film was realistic in essentials. Inasmuch as a veteran Catholic exorcist has said it was, I believe I'm justified in making that assumption. Given as much, the chief questions raised by the film are two: whether Fr. Moore, the exorcist, was culpable for Emily's death and, if so, what that says about the whole topic of demonology and exorcism.

Now I do believe that Moore broke the law by taking Emily off her psychotropic medications. He was overriding a medical prescription duly recognized by the state as important for the girl's welfare and thus taking risks in a field beyond his competence. The judge agreed; that alone was enough to convict Moore of negligent homicide; so we may say that Moore was legally culpable. Of course the defense sought to argue that Moore's move was needed to allow Emily to exercise free will and thus cooperate in the exorcism. The interesting thing is that that assertion was also true. Hence Moore was not morally culpable, given the requirements of his profession.

Journalists should have no trouble understanding that. Her colleagues largely support reporter Judith Miller for going to jail rather than revealing an anonymous source in an important story involving a murder. That's a clear case of professional ethics overriding legal obligations, and she paid the price accordingly. Fr. Moore was willing to do the same, and did. The question, therefore, is not whether one can be justified in allowing professional ethics to override legal obligations, but when that is justified.

The same MSM who support Miller generally don't support Moore. And the explanation is simple enough: most media types are secular-minded, and thus either don't believe that the devil is real or, if he is, that he possesses people in a manner clearly distinct from mental illness. Because cases of full-blown possession are rather rare, cases such as Emily's don't elicit quite the visceral outrage elicited by the Church's stand on condoms for the promiscuous. But the problem is actually the same. Because the Church's view of reality is not widely shared in the media, her moral prescriptions often make no sense to them. What that shows is that morality is, in part, a question of metaphysics. One can be justified in letting moral obligations override legal ones just in case one's view of the grand scheme of things is true in a way that explains the value of doing so.

That conclusion gives, or would give, secular liberals the willies. It seems a grand prescription for the intolerance and violence of religious fundamentalists. And I for one agree that such intolerance and violence should not be given sway by the state. So, for that as well as other reasons, there probably will always be cases when legal and moral obligations conflict. When they do, the latter should take precedence. But human, positive law could minimize such conflicts if it were passed and enforced by people who believe, with most Muslims and Christians, that evil is embodied not merely in human sins but in a cosmic, personal force that has been around for as long as time itself.
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