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Troubles With Consistency

by Tony M.

A certain man who has devoted his life to preaching the word of God had recent comments about human dignity. He said (with a few ellipses):

people must not be identified with our urges, our flaws, our status, our possessions, our utility, but each seen as a child of God, his creation, modeled in his own image, destined for eternity.

My identity, my personhood ... does not depend on whether or not I have a green card, a stock portfolio, a job, a home or even a college diploma. Nor does my identity depend upon whom I am sexually attracted to, or to race, religion, gender, social status, bank account, passport or health insurance, but on my essence as a child of God.

The doctrine of human dignity dictates the church's position on abortion, immigration and the death penalty, among other topics.

If the preborn baby in the womb, from the earliest moments of his or her conception, is a human person -- an 'is' that comes not from the catechism but from the biology textbook used by any sophomore in high school -- then that baby's life ought to be cherished and protected.

If an immigrant from Mexico is a child of God, ... then we ought to render him or her honor and a welcome, not a roar of hate, clenched fists and gritted teeth in response to the latest campaign slogan. If even a man on death row has a soul, is a human person, an 'is' that cannot be erased even by beastly crimes he may have committed, then we ought not to strap him to a gurney and inject him with poison.

So my question is this: is the speaker suggesting that abortion and immigration and the death penalty bear on the question of human dignity in the same way?

The speaker (let's call him Tim) appears to be saying that using the death penalty simply violates the human dignity of the criminal. The rationale given applies to all criminals everywhere, regardless of their crime or other condition: each one is a person, an 'is' that cannot be erased. This rationale does not seem to admit of alternatives or exceptions.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says this:

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

I submit that Tim and the Catechism are not really working well together on this. The Catechism clearly makes room for the death penalty, and Tim simply doesn't. One can suppose as a possibility that Tim merely omits the "exceptions" that apply, namely when we cannot keep people safe from the criminal. But that's an assumption that is not easy to draw out of what he does say, because his rationale against the death penalty doesn't provide any room for this exception. He seems to be saying that the "we ought not" rests on the personhood and that personhood establishes the point. in question without further consideration.

Tim is a person who would be horrified if someone authoritatively informed him that he was speaking in contradiction to the Catechism. He more than likely conceives of his position as merely adding to the formal teaching with a substructure that explains it more fully. But if all of the explanations that are used to support it are full of these little problems, what does that say for the consistency of the message?

Comments (23)

Tim isn't Christopher O. Tollefsen, by any chance, is he? That's a silly question, actually, because Tollefson doesn't write like that (and hasn't, to the best of my knowledge, "devoted his life to preaching the word of God"). But that's Tollefsen's argument: human dignity is indelible, human dignity is possessed by all humans, human dignity demands that its possessor not be killed, therefore all intentional killings (perhaps, maybe even certainly, all knowing killings?) are evil.

His syllogism is, shall we say, mildly supra-magisterial.

Furthermore, where does the immigration angle come from? One grows a little tired of the people who talk as if anyone opposed to amnesty and completely open borders advocated throwing bricks at all Mexicans. For Pete's sake, one can insist that a person obey the law and be sanctioned for failing to do so without hating that person.

Clearly, the issue isn't the human dignity of the illegal immigrants, but what treatment of them is in conformity with that dignity.

I don't see how arrest and deportment necessarily involves a disregard for or violation of that human dignity. Would "Tim" also object to the arrest and incarceration of any other criminal?

Is calling them "criminals" the problem? But what other word should we use for those who have violated the law?

human dignity is indelible, human dignity is possessed by all humans, human dignity demands that its possessor not be killed, therefore all intentional killings (perhaps, maybe even certainly, all knowing killings?) are evil.

So according to the logic of Tollefsen's position, absolute pacifism is the only true Christian position, even to the point of allowing an evil man to torture and murder your family before your very eyes, even if you could defend them by killing the murderer? That would seem to follow. Unless he thinks one just has to commit evil (or something similarly incoherent) in such a case.

Al, you are correct.

[Boy, you don't see me saying THAT very often, do you? :-) ]

The "Tim" is Archbishop Timothy Dolan of NY. And therefore the de facto leader of the American Catholic Church, insofar as that is not simply dioceses under Rome. And also the head of the USCCB, and therefore the de jure spokesman for the American Catholic Church, insofar as that exists, by vote of the bishops.

Lydia, I believe (though I can easily be wrong about Tollefsen), that his position does not entail absolute pacifism at least in his mind. The prohibition on "intentional killing" of a human precludes the death penalty, but is distinguished from visiting force upon a current transgressor to protect oneself or others, even harsh force that could kill. The possible result that your force kills him is not "intentional killing" in this view because the intent was, rather, to "stop the transgression" rather than "kill him." I believe that the underlying distinctions behind this theory does in fact have a place, but it is taken too far in this business of killing, because (a) I think it is an irrational argument when applied to warfare, as is invariably attempted, and (b) it also is problematic in the self-defense case of an innocent person whose only weapon is something of overwhelming power - he cannot separate out the "intent to stop" from the "intent to kill" when the force he is choosing to apply cannot help but kill because it isn't susceptible to being used only to incapacitate, it can only eradicate the opponent.

I also think that Tollefsen for sure, and Dolan probably (if only his thoughts are precise enough to be definite), is proposing a standard that directly violates 2000 years of Church teaching on the matter, and thus cannot be accepted as possible, much less as certain, by a devout Catholic. It also defies several millenia of Judaic thought, derived from the Noahite era and confirmed in the Mosaic law, as well as the firm stance of natural law philosophy for at least 2500 years if not more.

The immigrant thing is, of course, just as difficult to square with any rational stance about law. The American Catholic hierarchy appears to be simply on a definite, calculated, pre-planned campaign to overturn all rules limiting immigration. Why they think that this is demanded by the Gospel is something of a mystery, and I _don't_ mean that in the theological sense. Since they have yet to submit to our attention an argument worthy of the name, appealing instead to bumper sticker sloganeering, I have to assume that they aren't really motivated by anything approaching an argument or a rational perception of truth. It can be, then, either that they are being moved directly by the Spirit of God instilling within them a new perception without any rational support, or they are moving by an unreasoning motivation that partakes of sheer will and emotionalism. If spontaneous public acclamation proposed that these men have saintly holiness, there would be better reason to lean toward the former.

Since they have yet to submit to our attention an argument worthy of the name, appealing instead to bumper sticker sloganeering, I have to assume that they aren't really motivated by anything approaching an argument or a rational perception of truth. It can be, then, either that they are being moved directly by the Spirit of God instilling within them a new perception without any rational support, or they are moving by an unreasoning motivation that partakes of sheer will and emotionalism. If spontaneous public acclamation proposed that these men have saintly holiness, there would be better reason to lean toward the former.

When you say things like this, Tony, I really, really hope that you're trying to be humorous by deliberate tongue-in-cheek understatement. Because it _is_ funny, so I hope it's not accidental.

Definitely not accidental.

It's easy to understand why the Catholic Church pushes so hard for immigration. It's to fill the pews. White people don't really go to church anymore, so Mexicans have to keep it going.

But Matt, in this country, Hispanics go to church only a few % points higher than non-Hispanics, and not all of those are going to _Catholic_ churches. Furthermore, the amount of drain on the dioceses and parishes (to learn Spanish and do a Hispanic mass, confessions, etc) is non-trivial, possibly offsets completely the increase in the collection. As a matter of logistics and resource allocation, pumping for immigration doesn't seem to make a significant difference.

Something else odd about this quotation: At whom is the bit about "whom I am sexually attracted to" directed? "Tim" seems to be under the impression that he needs to lecture people to the effect that one's identity does not depend on this. Wonderful! Obviously, the group to whom he needs to tell this is _precisely_ the homosexual rights side of the spectrum. _They_ are the ones encouraging people to identify themselves with their sexual temptations and thus to demand that their sexual desires be accepted as normal as part of accepting them. Yet, let's admit it, this doesn't appear to be the group "Tim" is addressing in his remarks. One might be excused for guessing that he's asking people to be "nicer" to homosexuals and is making this appeal on the grounds that one's identity is not determined by one's sexual attractions. But it isn't those who are supposedly "not nice" to homosexuals who need that lecture. They are, in fact, the ones often making that point themselves. They are the ones who want to refuse to make that identification and therefore refuse to grant special victim-group status to groups on the basis of "sexual orientation."

It's pretty obvious to me that "Tim" is just bumper-sticker sloganeering on that issue as well. Abortion is the only issue in his grocery list that is not implicitly of the left. He seems driven to water down what, heaven forbid, might otherwise be called a "right-wing agenda" from the mention of abortion by surrounding the abortion issue with a lot of left-approved posturing. That this waters down the moral status, urgency, and truth of the abortion issue in the process, as well as creating "white noise" and confusion on the other issues as well, is evidently not terribly important to him.

Tony,

I thought Archbishop Dolan was on our (conservative, orthodox Catholics) side!!!!

The American Church is in trouble if we are being led by someone whose thought is on display here.

With respect to the Church and the dealth penalty, I just want to recommend former W4 blogger's Ed Feser's post on the subject, which I think is one of the best philosophical/theological treatments written from a Catholic point of view:

http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/2011/04/deadly-unserious.html

As for immigration...don't get me started.

Great post.

Jeff, way back in the late 70's and early 80's, there was a solid basis for a claim that Cardinal Bernardin was the head of the "American Catholic Church". One well-informed commentator I know was fond of saying "that might be true, but Cardinal O'Connor is the head of the Catholic Church in America." Thus making an interesting distinction.

There are a large number of people who think the Catholic Church in America is back moving in the right direction, is getting better. What they correctly see, however, is a series of micro-trends, not the overall movement. On the top of the ocean, a higher percentage of the appointments to influential sees is going toward more men who are somewhat more conservative - more than Cardinal Bernardin, that is. However, very few of these men would be considered "conservative" full stop. Perhaps it is because very few of them get in those positions without a lifetime career of making satisfied (or, appeasing) people of 30 different stripes, including those who are liberal, those who are Catholic in name only, and so on. They don't turn those habits off when they become archbishops. As far as I know there are only 5 bishops in America who have bothered to excommunicate anyone, and a good share of those were for actually starting opposing "church" organizations for crying out loud.

And under the level of the surface waves, the ocean current itself - the whole of the culture - has been moving steadily toward the culture of death with a few small, temporary slow-downs and very minor amounts of divergence from that overall direction. I feel that it is impossible that the gay rights agenda could have made such headway in 15 years without that underlying current.

There is only one bishop in America that I really think is wholly sound, Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, NE. There may be others, (probably priests from Lincoln NE that were made bishops) that I simply don't know about, but then I don't know about them, do I? The methodology in place to select new bishops is not really doing its job, and any top executive who wants to make a REAL change has to address that issue big time.

When the Imageo Dei can be rediculed as posturing, someone has jumped the rails.

And for the life of me I can't understand Mr Culbreath 's presence here. Surely he could find modernist misers in NoCal he could witness to in person?

Sounds like something Russell Moore might write.

Tony,

Thank you for this post.

An interesting reference on national identity/immigration is the Vat. II pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes. It clearly states that an important element of the common good is the preservation of each nation's own character, hence implying that immigration may properly be limited. Furthermore, it states that it is each man's duty, though he has a right to migrate, to use his talents and goods to help his own community--pointing out that mass immigration harms both sides.

In France, there was a similar issue a few years ago where the government rather strong-handedly kicked out a number of illegal immigrants, and many bishops reacted by saying that we should welcome them. It turned out that what they meant was not that they should indiscriminately allow anyone to stay in the country, but rather that the police interventions were too violent and that illegal immigrants "were people too". (A few months later, the Pope commented in a speech or a homily that immigration, ideally, should be limited and that countries have a right to determine who can and cannot enter. I don't know the references off the top of my head.)

I may well be mistaken, but perhaps this is also Archbishop Dolan's (ill-expressed) point?

As for the death penalty, once again, the phrasing would be awkward in this interpretation, but Bl. John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae that today, in most countries, cases where the death penalty could legitimately be applied in accordance with the Catechism were very rare. Perhaps this is what Archbishop Dolan wants to point out?

Mrs. McGrew,

I think the "sexual attraction" bit is in fact directed at the homosexual community. That is definitely how I interpreted it on first reading.


Merry Christmas to all.

Sorry--"homosexual community" meaning gay "rights" and lifestyle proponents. Awkward phrasing.

Jane

And yet, they won't excommunicate politicians who provide material aid to abortionists. It's times like this why I understand how my ex-Catholic family members passionately hate the Catholic Church. It's leadership is a bunch of seditious hypocrites.

When the Imageo Dei can be rediculed as posturing, someone has jumped the rails.

When the Imageo Dei becomes a basis on which to disregard just and reasonable laws passed in compliance with natural law, it too has jumped the rails.

[Deleted LM]


[Deleted LM]

George R. and Mike T., your comments are way over the top. Please knock it off. Tony, where are you?

I was merely making a point on style.

Sorry, my internet connection was down.

George, please make your points within the boundaries of good sense, good taste, and charitable conversation. Mike, you too. Thank you.


As for the death penalty, once again, the phrasing would be awkward in this interpretation, but Bl. John Paul II wrote in Evangelium Vitae that today, in most countries, cases where the death penalty could legitimately be applied in accordance with the Catechism were very rare. Perhaps this is what Archbishop Dolan wants to point out?

Jane, I suspect you are right that Archbishop Dolan believes his comments are right in line with Evangelium Vitae. But they aren't. EV makes room for the possibility of the death penalty, even in western countries that have good penal systems. Dolan's comments do not.

More importantly, JPII, in his comments about how much and how often the death penalty should be used, was giving what amounts to a personal opinion about the application of the general principle. The prudential determination of when the principles land this way rather than

that way belongs to the political authorities in question (using well-informed consciences), it is not a matter upon which the Church speaks definitively. Cardinal Avery Dulles made this perfectly clear in his clarification on the death penalty in 2004: The Pope's point was on a matter which is open to further debate.

Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied.

I happen to disagree with the Pope's prudential conclusion, even though I adhere steadfastly to all of the principles he taught.

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