Friday, January 5, 2007

Trojan Horse on the Public Square

This post was edited and significantly added to on Saturday morning, 6 January 2006, but its substance and arguments remain unchanged. There were a few deletions of some ad hominem statements in paragraphs two, three, and five. I also added significantly to paragraph five.

1. My first instinct was to entitle this post Shi***ing in Your Own Nest, but in a year in which I am trying to be open to God's further smoothing my rough edges, I relegated my would-be title to the first sentence of my post. As readers know, the First Things blog, On the Public Square: Observations and Contentions, is a fairly consistent point of departure for my own reflections when thinking and writing about the world in light of my Christian faith. I would be hard-pressed to remember when a post on that blog riled me up. I can point to plenty of posts with which I disagree, either in part or in whole. Until the day-before-yesterday, however, I cannot recall reading anything on that blog that got my dander up, to use a civilized cliché. In his post regarding the Holy See's condemnation, through its Press Office, of the execution of Saddam Hussein, Robert T. Miller managed a first.

2. Miller takes issue with the statement, given by Fr. Frederico Lombardi, S.J., the director of the Vatican Press Office, and, as such, is the Holy Father's press secretary. I do not mention this in order to fallaciously appeal to authority, which is what Miller thinks the Vatican is doing by commenting at all on the matter. Miller takes issue with Fr. Lombardi's assertion in two sentences of a four sentence statement that "To kill the guilty one is not the way to rebuild justice and to reconcile society. The risk also exists that, on the contrary, the spirit of vengeance will be fueled and new violence be sown". His post strikes me as an indirect attempt to dismiss the first assertion, that capital punishment neither does justice nor brings about societal reconciliation, by attacking the second assertion, namely that in the particular case of Iraq, Saddam's execution risks being a further cause for violence and societal division, which, as Miller points out, is an assertion subject to examination and empirical verification.

3. His overall argument seems to go against the organizing principle of First Things and The Institute on Religion and Public Life, which publishes the journal. That principle is the right of people of faith to bring our faith into the public square. Hence, First Things, for my money, is the vanguard in the fight against secularism and the attempt by secularists to impose what Fr. Neuhaus famously described as "The Naked Public Square". Back in 1986, he wrote a book that bears that title. What Miller seeks to do is to make an argument in favor of preventing bishops from speaking on anything except on what he describes as very narrowly defined, if abstract, issues of "faith and morals". To give an example, if Robert T. Miller ran the Vatican Press Office, the statement would be reduced to something like the last sentence: "At this dark time in the life of the Iraqi people, we cannot but hope that all those in charge truly make every effort to ensure that, in such a dramatic situation, hopes for reconciliation and peace are finally opened." It would be out-of-bounds, if Miller is to be taken seriously, for the Church, via her authentic teachers of the faith, her bishops, to comment on how certain actions may or may not be conducive to bringing this about. What if Pope John Paul II, whose teaching in Evangelium Vitae is the magisterial cornerstone of the Church's "practically absolute" rejection of the death penalty, had confined himself both as bishop and pope to such an ethereal approach regarding the evil system of Communism, or, for that matter, the death penalty?

4. I have three problems with Miller's line of reasoning. First, the first sentence of the press release of the two with which he takes issue, could be said of the vast majority of executions in the world and all executions in the United States, and is a teaching of faith and morals. Therefore, this statement serves as the premise for the second sentence in question, which is a simple case of applying Church teaching on a matter of faith and morals to a specific case. This is further demonstrated by the second sentence of the Vatican Press release, which asserts, "The position of the Catholic Church against the death penalty has often been reiterated". My second issue with Miller addresses his primary contention and flows from the case at hand (i.e., the Vatican Press Office statement). I have to vehemently disagree that bishops should never, as Fr. Lombardi did on behalf of the Holy See, when applying faith and morals to particular cases, speak out publicly, or, if they do, it should be so heavily caveated that the very point of speaking out is lost. Such a contention deprives the Church of her mission. This brings to mind the immediate cause for me choosing, after two days, to respond to Miller's post; Cardinal Egan's New Year interview, as reported by Rocco over at Whispers, which strikes me as a way of being a rather weak bishop. This is in stark contrast to his predecessor, the great John Cardinal O'Connor, who managed to be friends, or at least friendly, with politicians, but duly and publicly critical of them at the same time. Finally, I suspect that Miller disagrees with what the Church teaches regarding the death penalty and, like those at whom contributors to First Things regularly take rhetorical aim, seeks to keep the Church silent on matters about which he disagrees.
5. The Holy See's claim, as mentioned earlier, is subject to empirical verification. Has violence increased as a result of Saddam's execution? Did his hanging create more societal discord in Iraq, or has it furthered reconciliation among all groups in Iraq, which divisions existed before his hanging and were, indeed, tremendously exacerbated during his brutal thirty year dictatorship? Judging from the increasing number of Arab Sunnis visiting Saddam's grave and the Sunni demonstrations growing daily in both number and size in Iraq and elsewhere (the photo is from the New York Times and was taken in Amman, Jordan), which feature larger-than-life banners of the dead dictator, it seems that Saddam's execution and the sloppy and vengeful manner in which it was carried out have, at the very least, contributed to the further fragmentation of Iraqi society as well as contributing to the destabilization and siege mentality across the Middle East. I offer, on this day after my initial post, this article from the Times, entitled Images of Hanging Make Hussein a Martyr to Many.

6. One would think that, as a lawyer, Miller would pay more attention to what Fr. Lombardi actually said, which was not, as one might infer from Miller's overheated argument, that Saddam's execution would inevitably lead to more violence. Rather, he said: "The risk also exists that . . ." Such a cautious statement, which flows directly from essential Catholic teaching on faith and morals, hardly seems the occasion to call on the Pope, all bishops, and their designated spokespersons to vacate the public square. For an in-depth look at my assertion that what Fr. Lombardi expressed is a matter of faith and morals in the context of Saddam Hussein's execution, read John Allen's Friday Weekly Analyis on his All Things Catholic blog (formerly The Word from Rome), entitled Church opposition to execution 'practically' absolute.


  1. hi scott. pls don't think your 'conversations' are one sided at all... i enjoy them