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

Monday, January 08, 2007


Over at Against the Grain, Christopher Blosser, son of Dr. Phil Blosser and rescuer of this blog when I first despaired of its layout—a dubious honor now belonging to Joshua Goforth—has posted an intriguing review article on the state of the questions of war and capital punishment in the Church. As he does me the honor of mentioning me in the same breath as John Allen, the only Catholic journalist I always learn by reading, I thought I should do Christopher the courtesty of admitting that, and explaining why, he's raised a question in my mind that I am not happy to confront.

Taking a cue from Allen, he argues that the Church has turned her teaching on war and capital punishment into "practical" as distinct from "ontic" absolutes. Examples of ontic absolutes would include the prohibition on the direct, voluntary killing of innocents (e.g., abortion) and the direct, voluntary interruption of the generative process (i.e., contraception). Such actions are of kinds that are always and intrinsically wrong irrespective of motive, circumstance, further intent, or consequences. A practical absolute, on the other hand, would be the full proscription of action-kinds that are not always and intrinsically wrong as a matter of principle, but are such that the conditions necessary for their liceity are never recognized as being satisfied. That appears, says Allen, to be where the magisterium is now about war and capital punishment. While acknowledging in theory that such actions can be licit, in practice the Catholic hierarchy never seems to find an instance of either of which they approve. Thus we now face, from the ordinary magisterium, "functional" pacifism about war and abolitionism about capital punishment.

Allen and Blosser are surely correct about capital punishment, though I'm not so sure about war. John Paul II was quite explicit that he was "not a pacifist," presumably because World War II, which so marked his youth, remained fresh in his mind. Benedict XVI, who as a teen had been pressed into service on the Eastern Front by the Wehrmacht, would presumably agree. And under both popes, I have found some willingness in the Vatican to entertain the idea of "humanitarian" military intervention, such as in Kosovo in the 90s or Darfur now, so long as such an action is supported by the "international community" through the UN. But offensive military action to unseat odious regimes (Gulf War II), or even to repel their aggressions against their neighbors (Gulf War I), appears to be out of favor at the very least.

These are developments, and they are developments I cannot see as binding on Catholics. Of course I am well aware of, and can hardly disapprove, what motivates them: a desire for a "consistent" ethic of life. If we're going to oppose abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research, and even IVF on the ground that they kill, then it seems natural, almost inevitable, that we take the same attitude toward any other sort of action that kills. And surely it cannot be gainsaid that due respect for the sanctity of life entails a presumption against war and capital punishment. But the fact remains that there is neither logical inconsistency nor doctrinal selectivity in approving some cases of war and capital punishment while always opposing, as intrinsic evils, the other kinds of action I cited. Accordingly, the "consistent ethic of life" is not so much a theoretical necessity as an evangelical program: the Church wants humanity to unlearn the habit of employing lethal violence as a means of solving problems. And well she should. But at what cost?

I have no great difficulty, in theory, with functional abolitionism about capital punishment. The fate of whole societies in no way hinges on whether this or that heinous criminal is executed or not. If certain people are outraged that some such criminals are not executed, then all I can say, for the reason already given, is that they have a habit to unlearn. And as I've already noted, the Vatican's keeping the door ajar for war as humanitarian intervention reassures me. But I am nonetheless uneasy. World War II kept the world from being Nazified; and that was an undertaking all popes since have admitted as just, while rightly rejecting as immoral the targeting of civilians. But how much and what kind of a threat does an aggressor have to pose today before one can approve of military action? As I've suggested lately in the case of capital punishment, the answer to that depends on empirical judgments that can sometimes be reasonably disputed. So, while the Vatican may be turning pacifism into a virtual practical absolute, that development depends on ways of looking at the world that do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility. Even when they happen to be right, the empirical judgments involved are necessarily matters of opinion. Hence there can be no requirement-in-conscience on Catholics to believe they are always right, any more than 19th-century Catholics could have been similarly required to accept Pius IX's thunderous condemnations of "liberal" regimes and the loss of the papal states.

What makes me uneasy about that result is not so much its content as the polemical handicap it incurs. Many Catholics who have no problem accepting the "practical absolutes" of pacifism and abolitionism, and who indeed seem to regard them as more than just matters of opinion, often have a very serious problem with ontic absolutes about, say, sexual behavior. In that respect, they are in a weaker position theologically than the "neocons" they disdain. But they can and do cover their polemical flank by tu quoque-ing the neocons about war and capital punishment, thus deflecting the charge of doctrinal selectivity from where it really is justified. Overcoming that is wearisome work; and so long as the Vatican carries on as it does about war and capital punishment, it is work that isn't going to end.
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