Saturday, December 20, 2014

Abortion: When does a person become a person?

When does human life begin? Does it begin at conception? When does conception occur? Is there a "moment" of conception?

According to the teaching of the Catholic Church, "Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception" (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par 2270). I suppose there is some ambiguity as to when "the moment of conception" occurs. However, given what is at stake, namely the inherent sanctity and dignity of each and every human being created in the image of God, the Church, if she is to err, does so on the side of caution. Hence, when the sperm fertilizes the egg would be the earliest "moment." In natural terms, a lot can happen to a fertilized egg both before and after it implants on the uterine wall and cell division begins. Nonetheless, to willfully kill a fertilized egg (as with taking the so-called "morning-after-pill") is a gravely sinful act.

It is our duty to protect each human life from the "moment" of conception until natural death. Now, natural death can occur pretty early as many pregnancies end quite early as the result of what are usually called natural, spontaneous abortions. In these instances, due to purely natural reasons beyond anyone's control, the new life ends. For moral purposes, these surely count as natural deaths.

Speaking of moral purposes, when it comes to abortion, that is, when someone intends and then deliberately ends a pregnancy, the most important question is about whether one is terminating a "what" or a "who." If it's a "who" then what I like to call the Dr Seuss principle applies: "A person's a person, no matter how small." In other words, if abortion is about taking the life of an innocent person, then it can in no way be morally countenanced. This strikes me as obviously true even for people without particularly strong religious convictions. Stated differently, such a view is the application of right reason, which does not require divine revelation.

Pope Francis, who trained as a chemist, obtaining a master's degree, before beginning priestly formation, speaking just last month, expressed something he's expressed before, namely that the Church opposes abortion not only as a matter of faith, or even of philosophical principle, but as a question of science: "Many times in my life as a priest, I have heard objections. 'Tell me, why, for example, does the Church oppose abortion? Is it a religious problem?' — 'No, no. It’s not a religious problem' — 'Is it a philosophical problem?' — 'No, it’s not a philosophical problem.' It is a scientific problem, because there is a human life there and it is not licit to eliminate a human life to resolve a problem."

For those who profess belief in and seek to be faithful to the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the latter of whom was given the name Israel by God (Gen 35:10), we have as one of the Ten Commandments- "You shall not kill" (Exo 20:13). Right now, we are in the time of Advent during which the Church recites the O Antiphons. Here is the antiphon for 18 December: O Adonai and Ruler of the House of Israel, you appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and on Mount Sinai gave him your law. Come, and with outstretched arm redeem us. Divine revelation often serves to bolster what is available to us by our right use of reason.

All of this brings me, via the long route, to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints official statement on abortion (you can access the statement here), issued in April 2011. In their official statement the LDS Church allows for "possible exceptions," as opposed to "automatic" exceptions, to its general prohibition on abortion for three reasons:
Pregnancy results from rape or incest, or

A competent physician determines that the life or health of the mother is in serious jeopardy, or

A competent physician determines that the fetus has severe defects that will not allow the baby to survive beyond birth
I don't want to be derogatory in any way, but if we adhere to the axiom that a person's a person no matter how small, or, stated more seriously, that life in utero is human life, then how can exceptions, even in these admittedly distressing cases, be considered moral as opposed to just being expedient? How would having an abortion in these situations not be a violation of God's commandment not to kill? As Pope Francis said in the same speech cited above: "Listen, in the old and the modern schools of thought, the word kill means the same thing!"

Given the rapid approach of our celebration of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, this is a timely reflection, especially when we consider that the circumstances in which He was conceived were far from ideal, at least from a worldly point-of-view. Clearly, from a Divine perspective, the situation was ideal, as St Paul bore witness: "But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to ransom those under the law, so that we might receive adoption" (Gal 4:4-5).

Friday, December 19, 2014

"There's a room where the light won't find you"

It's important, a service to humanity, to make fun of evil dictators precisely because they tend to take themselves so seriously. I still love watching Charlie Chaplin in 'The Great Dictator.' Adam Taylor's apologetic puff piece in Wapo is just that, puffy, notwithstanding.

Then that's the trouble with most foreign affairs journalists, they, too, tend to take themselves too seriously and they're usually wrong. If our foreign policy was guided by this largely incoherent lot, we'd be in even worse trouble than we're presently in, which is a lot. Just gauge their enthusiasm for the so-called "Arab Spring."

In honor of all this, our Friday traditio this week is Tears for Fears' "Everybody Wants to Rule the World":

There's a room where the light won't find you
Holding hands while
The walls come tumbling down
When they do, I'll be right behind you

There's an Advent tie in all this, which I will make by citing Tolstoy's well-known observation, made in his pamphlet, published in 1900, "Three Methods Of Reform": "There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one; the regeneration of the inner man. How is this revolution to take place? Nobody knows how it will take place in humanity, but every man feels it clearly in himself. And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself."

At least for me, that leaves the matter too vague. So let's turn to Pope Benedict's address to the young people of Lebanon, made on his final Apostolic Journey outside Italy:
Be thoughtful, upright and pure of heart! In the words of Blessed John Paul II, I say to you: “Do not be afraid! Open the doors of your minds and hearts to Christ!” An encounter with Jesus “gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, 1). In Christ you will find the strength and courage to advance along the paths of life, and to overcome difficulties and suffering. In him you will find the source of joy. Christ says to you: سَلامي أُعطيكُم – My peace I give to you! (Jn 14:27). This is the true revolution brought by Christ: that of love

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Torture, yet again

In light of some on-going conversations in the wake of the Senate report on C.I.A. interrogation techniques, I offer a few more thoughts.

Firstly, I think it is important when faced with things like this report to recognize that these are not new issues and we're not the first ones to grapple with them. 

Second, classic Just War theory gives us good guidance, in terms of principles, as to when it is licit, perhaps even obligatory, to engage in war (jus ad bellum), and just conduct of war (jus in bello). Interrogating prisoners, which is fine and even necessary in war, clearly falls under the latter.

Third, I want to, once again, suggest that the distinction between intrinsically evil acts and extrinsically evil acts is most useful. The former consists of actions that are always wrong for everyone regardless of intention or circumstance (i.e., they may never justly or rightly be done). Few knowledgeable people would argue against the proposition, the Catholic Church teaches that torture is intrinsically evil. The latter are actions that, while normally to be avoided, can be justified under certain circumstances, like killing other people who are legitimate combatants in battle, etc.

Fourth, this brings me back to the definition of torture. On the one hand, torture cannot be defined so broadly that interrogating an enemy combatant or criminal suspect is precluded. On the other hand, it's wrong to brutally beat, or drown, or starve, information from a captured combatant or criminal suspect. When it comes to torture then, the question becomes, "How far is too far?" What I think many people, including me, find disturbing about many of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" cataloged in the Senate report is that they go too far by deliberately and systematically violating human dignity in grotesque ways. Besides, if we aren't morally superior to enemies like al-Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL/IS, then what's the point? There is also the issue of the relatively (not absolutely) indiscriminate use of these "techniques" even on innocent persons, not to mention that torture is often a terribly unreliable way of gaining useful information. In this case, these kinds of activities are also a cause of radicalization of many more young men. In other words, it's probably self-defeating.

Perhaps right now, at least for Catholics, the best we can do is to borrow and adapt the words used by the late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in a case concerning hardcore pornography: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it."

A brief follow-up on torture

In thinking more about my recent post on torture (see "What is torture"), it occurred to me that what we very often lose sight of in discussions about torture, as well as discussions on crime and punishment, is the inherent and ineradicable dignity and integrity of each and every human being, who bears the imago dei.

Anything that is contrary to this inherent, that is, God-given, human dignity is intrinsically evil. It seems to me that this is the principle the Church's magisterium gives us to apply when approaching these matters. Hence, it seems clear to me that many, even most, of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" described in the Senate report on the C.I.A., none of which the C.I.A. denies using, constitute torture.

As Artur Rosman noted in his post on this subject, William Cavanaugh, in his book Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, observed: "Where torture is an anti-liturgy for the realization of the state’s power on the bodies of others, the Eucharist is the realization of Christ’s suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of His followers."

Privatus Dei Filio

It seems to me that observing Advent in our present cultural context, above all other aspects of truly Christian praxis, is a way for followers of Jesus Christ to resist so many things that are, to state it bluntly, contrary to authentic Christianity. It is a way to resist Western hedonistic consumerism, which, due to skillfully manipulative marketing over decades, has largely succeeded in reducing Christmas to an orgy of buying and self-indulgence. Increasingly how we commemorate "Christmas season," all of which happens and comes to an end on Christmas day (i.e., the true beginning of Christmas), is by looking back longingly on ad campaigns of old. This is what often counts for us as tradition because it's what we deem worth handing on. "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" and all that...

I firmly believe that observing Advent in a quiet, prayerful manner, engaging in acts of charity, born of faith, through which we make manifest the hope we have for the day of our Lord Jesus Christ, along with penitential acts, like fasting, are effective ways to counter the grotesque sentimentalization of faith, which is the reduction that follows from allowing ourselves to be spiritually co-opted.

Christ in Glory, by Agostino Carracci, 1597-98

Veni, veni Emmanuel,
Captivum solve Israel,
Qui gemit in exilio
Privatus Dei Filio

It bears noting that "Privatus Dei Filio," which we traditionally translate as "until the Son of God appear," is more accurately translated, "deprived of God's Son." Now, there's an Advent point-of-reflection.

How we (fail to) observe Advent clearly shows that Israel is captive today as of old, perhaps more enslaved now than then, due to our failure to recognize the bonds that constrain us, the realization of which would surely cause us now, as it did Israel then, to turn to God as the one, true source of hope. Hence, we need to be ransomed by the only One who can pay the price. This is the true message of Christmas, as Dickens' A Christmas Carol, for those who deign to actually read it rather than have it culturally filtered and sentimentalized for them, can see.

Here's what Dickens wrote as the preface to A Christmas Carol:
I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.

Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D.
December, 1843
My prayer is that we may allow ourselves to be so haunted, not by taking a sentimental stroll down memory lane, which is what the culturally-filtered versions of Dickens' novella usually bids us do, but by pondering the true meaning and significance of the Incarnation of the Son of God, which has been described as an event "so earth-shattering that it enacts something akin to the psychoanalytic concept of trauma" (Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology 7).

Jacob Marley, by Rose Colligan

To be clear, I am not a kill-joy. Christmas is well-worth a full-fledged, joy-filled celebration, but only after waking from the kind of slumber out of which Ebenezer Scrooge was stirred. My point is, our celebration is made much more joy-filled by fruitful preparation. In my view, Scrooge actually experiences Purgatory. Advent bids us do what the old comedic line when something is about to happen does- Waaaaiiiitttt for it ... There is a joy in the journey.

So, at least for me, it's either Advent or Festivus. In terms of Fesitivus, perhaps this counts as an aired grievance of sorts.

"They'll carry you on 'til morning"

Ever since I discovered it a week or so ago, I have been compulsively watching the BBC series Ashes to Ashes. I won't ruin for anyone, or bore you to tears describing the program. I will just note that, having just finished the first season, I am enjoying it tremendously, not least of which because it is set in London in 1981. As one might expect, the music for the series is marvelous.

Chris and "Shazz," supporting characters in Ashes to Ashes

What is best about the music is that it tends to eschew all the powerhouse popular stuff that has survived through the years without completely ignoring it. Instead, the music tends to be the very good, less popular music that, frankly, is more characteristic of the time. This week's very late Friday traditio, which I am posting on Saturday, is one of those songs: Marshall Hain's "Dancing in the City." This is the song that plays at the end of episode seven, season one

Can you feel the darkness call
Let the street have their way
They'll carry you on 'til morning
And steal your soul away.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What is torture?

The entire internet, including that part of it that constitutes the Catholic blogo-trapezoid, is awash with commentary on the Senate report on the C.I.A.'s detention and interrogation program. Much of the commentary strikes me as quite hysterical, which is why, in addition to apologizing in advance for weighing in, it is important to take up what we mean when we use the word "torture," which the magisterium of the Catholic Church condemns as intrinsically evil. While torture is unambiguously condemned by the Church in the Catechism and elsewhere, like in Gaudium et Spes (par. 27) and Veritatis Splendor (par. 80), Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (par 404), it is not precisely defined.

But an imprecise definition is still a definition: "Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity" (par 2297). Because torture is contrary to human dignity, that is, the dignity of the human person, it is intrinsically, as opposed to extrinsically, evil (more on this distinction to follow). An act that is intrinsically evil is an act that is always morally wrong for everyone regardless of intention or circumstance. On other hand, perhaps what we are given in the Catechism are criteria by which to judge acts.

It bears noting that it is her objective understanding of the nature of morality that most often puts the Church at odds with an increasingly relativistic world that, being what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, in his still highly relevant book After Virtue, described as "emotivist," typically judges acts based on intention and/or consequences. In this regard, I cannot help but note that, at least when it comes to torture, many people who usually laugh at those of us who employ the moral category "intrinsically evil" do so now with great relish. But then ideology requires incoherence.

Judging from how both are treated in the Catechism, it seems that torture is as well-defined by the magisterium as pornography, which the Catechsim tells us, "consists in removing real or simulated sexual acts from the intimacy of the partners, in order to display them deliberately to third parties" (par 2354).

In my view it seems clear that most of the "enhanced interrogation techniques" described in the Senate report meet the definition of torture. The trouble is, given how wide the net is cast, so do many other acts that are not as extreme. At least for me, it would be interesting to analyze all of this through lens of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's ethics, which has always struck me as quite consequentialist in nature.

As previously noted, acts that are intrinsically evil may never be morally done by anyone, regardless of one's intention or the circumstances. Ends do not justify means and we may never do evil that good may come of it. By contrast, an extrinsically evil act is an act that is normally to be eschewed, but, under certain circumstances, may be justified. I think understanding this distinction is necessary, though not sufficient of itself, to arriving at any workable definition of torture. If some "enhanced interrogation technique" can, at least under certain circumstances, be justified, then it simply fails to meet the Church's definition of torture.

Given that torture is intrinsically evil, I do not think that how one defines it can be a matter of prudential judgment.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Remembering my Dad

It's probably because I attended the funeral of a neighbor yesterday that I have been thinking about my Dad. Well, that and seeing a picture of my Dad, our oldest son, and me in our first apartment, which my lovely wife had out in our kitchen this morning. Whenever I despair about the state of masculinity today, I look at a picture of my Dad for inspiration. What he taught about being a man is not that being a man entails being mean and ornery, but that it means to live for others and not yourself, especially for your wife and children, and when you commit to something, like marriage, you commit, you're in, it's irrevocable.

You see, my Dad basically grew up without a Dad (his Dad left my grandma for a younger woman). I remember my Dad giving the eulogy at his brother Harry's funeral. He said, choking back tears (my Dad never cried), "Harry taught me how to be a man." I am blessed to be able to say, "My Dad taught me how to be a man." I have no doubt that my Dad puzzled, for many years, about how his only son could be so unlike him. We were very different people. I cherish how close we grew after I married and had children.

The only "Scripture" I remember being recited at Harry's funeral was by my cousin, Danny, his son: "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil because I am the meanest son-of-a-bitch in the valley." If you knew Harry, like I knew Harry, this was no idle boast.

For the past few years, Johnny Cash singing this U2 song speaks, not just Advent, but particularly the Second Sunday, John the Baptist Sunday, to me:

I went out searching
Looking for one good man
A spirit who would not bend or break
Who would sit at his father's right hand
I went out walking
With a bible and a gun
The word of God lay heavy on my heart

This song, along with all Johnny Cash songs, makes me think of my Dad, too. Until the resurrection, nobody dies until you forget them. God remembers everyone, which is why we say, "May his memory be eternal."


Friday, December 5, 2014

"Is what was true now no longer so?"

For reasons I'll keep to myself, our Friday traditio is Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros with "Johnny Appleseed"

Joe Strummer was briefly the singer for The Pogues, during a time when Shane MacGowan's drinking got the better of him. So, well, yeah, okay...

Lord, there goes a Buick forty-nine
Black sheep of the angels riding, riding down the line
We think there is a soul, we don't know
That soul is hard to find

Monday, December 1, 2014

Advent, hope, and abuse in the Church

A week ago Friday I posted REM's "Don't Go Back to Rockville" as our Friday traditio ( see "Going where nobody says hello"). Later that same day someone anonymously posted the following comment on that post:
Hi- I would like to request prayers for the victims of rape and abuse by members of the Catholic Church. Many of them were children when they were attacked or abused. This is also an ongoing crisis, with new victims each year, worldwide. I will remember them and their stories forever, but for the healing to truly take place, it will take the voices and efforts of many. To paraphrase a poem by an Indian schoolgirl, "Too many Catholics, in too many countries, speak the same language-- of silence." Thank you
As both of my readers know, I am not a fan of anonymous comments. After dealing far too much and too often with one or two genuine trolls earlier in my blogging career, I no longer publish negatively critical comments posted anonymously. I think being on-line all-too-often plays to our natural, sinful, tendency to be passive aggressive. I don't want to encourage or facilitate such cowardly behavior. Anonymous posts that are positive, insightful, neutral, or perhaps even constructively and charitably critical, I may well post. This is my blog and so these matters are at my discretion.

Dave Manthei, who blogs over at "A Humble Servant's Catholic Blog," who received the same comment on one of his posts, did some looking into the matter. He discovered that this same comment was made on at least nine Catholic blogs. He spent some time putting together a response: "The Sex-Abuse Crisis: What are Christians Doing About It?"

On the whole, I appreciate Dave's post. It is important, as he noted, for our society to deal with this vexing issue across the board, meaning in any and every institution that such evils have occurred and have been swept under the rug. Given the prevalence of pornography-driven perversion, such efforts seem to me more important that ever!

I have no idea who wrote the comment in question. Hence, I have no idea what her/his intentions or motives are. While I can understand how someone might construe the comment as an attack on or attempt to smear the Church, I think there are other ways of taking it. I certainly plan to continue praying for those who have been raped and sexually abused by members of the Catholic Church. I always pray for these evils to stop, especially within the Church, but in other institutions too.

I am well aware that there are other institutions, like the ones Dave mentions, that are guilty of the same evils and perhaps at even higher rates. But as someone who has pastorally assisted people who were victims of sexual abuse, both within and outside the Church, I feel I need to note that this is not an issue that can be dealt with justly or compassionately by using statistics. It is no consolation at all to someone who was sexually abused by, say, a priest that someone else, perhaps many others, were sexually abused by, say, public school teachers.

Not too long ago, I drew the ire of a good friend, who is a great guy, for complaining about all the Facebook posts I read whenever someone outside the Church was found to have sexually abused children that snarkily asserted something like "If only news anchors were allowed to marry." I get the point and feel the tug of such temptations myself. But I don't want to ever downplay the evils that occurred or be seen to minimize the painful, devastating experience of someone who was abused by a person in the Church, let alone attempt to relativize such grotesque evil.

I like that Dave noted how important it is for victims of rape and sexual abuse not to remain silent no matter what, no matter where it occurred, or who did it. In this, we agree with the person who made the anonymous comment. I also appreciate that he highlighted the tremendous effort the Catholic Church, at least in the U.S. and most of Western Europe, has put into identifying, apologizing to, and helping bring about the healing of those people who were violated in Church institutions by members of the Church and for putting measures in place aimed at reducing and eliminating, as far as possible, these atrocities. It's nice to believe we have put this all behind us, but no sooner do we think that than something else is brought from the dark into the light. As painful as such revelations are, we should thank God that what was hidden has now come to light.

When I consider the sad reality of sexual abuse in the Church I can't help but think of what then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his reflection for the Ninth Station of the Stations of the Cross he composed back in 2005: "How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to him!"

Since Advent is a season of hope, I can't leave it there. So I point to the response by Communion & Liberation to these matters in the wake of Pope Benedict XVI's Letter to the Catholics of Ireland (see "Greater than sin"): "Alongside all the limitations and within the Church’s wounded humanity, is there or is there not something greater than sin, something radically greater than sin? Is there something that can shatter the inexorable weight of our evil?" These question strike me as most useful points of reflection during Advent.