Monday, May 12, 2014

Kevin O'Brien on torture

Kevin O'Brien wrote a terrific piece against torture and dissent today:

The Torture Debate was the first issue I engaged at the time. The Torture Enthusiasts, who since they Dissent from Church Teaching I will henceforth call Dissenters (though clear terminology makes them furious - see below), were using this approach ...

  • They denied that the Church forbid Torture, or else they claimed that Church teaching forbidding Torture in any and all circumstances was not Magisterial or was still in flux.
  • They claimed that the act they were defending (in this case waterboarding) was not in fact Torture.

I later discovered that this handy template is the only one that's used by right wing Dissenters on all their precious issues. Just fill in the blank and you're good to go. And go and go and go. If you're a Dissenter and your opponent demonstrates that the Church forbids, for example, LYING in any and all circumstances, you can claim that the act you're defending is not LYING. If your opponent demonstrates that the act in question is undoubtedly LYING, you can jump back to claiming the Church does not forbid LYING. Or USURY, or TORTURE or what have you. And you keep this up ad nauseum, jumping from tactic one to tact two until your opponent gives up in frustration.

Read the whole thing here.

For me, the question of dissent is a simple one.  It boils down to the following:
  1. Dissenting from Church teaching is a bad thing to do.
  2. Discussing and arguing about Church teaching in order to understand it more fully, embrace it more deeply, and apply it more significantly to one's own life is a good thing to do.
  3. Discussing and arguing about Church teaching in order to come up with an excuse to keep doing something the Church clearly says is wrong is not the same as the second point above.

To illustrate, let's take a matter of merely Church law as an example.  The Church says that Catholics must go to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of obligation unless prevented for some serious reason.  It is perfectly acceptable to discuss this law, its meaning, and its ramifications; it is even okay to discuss what constitutes a valid reason to miss Mass without incurring any sin.  The Church doesn't give us a list of reasons; she expects us to figure this out, and to be capable of asking for our pastor's advice if necessary (e.g., ordinarily missing Mass because there are no evening Masses where one lives and one can't get up in the morning would not be a valid reason--but if one can't get up in the morning because one is struggling with persistent insomnia or because one takes a prescription medication that makes one too groggy to make it to the only Mass in the area or one must care for one's bedridden elderly parent who never falls asleep until 4 a.m. or something, one might be surprised to discover that one's pastor agrees that that is a valid reason to miss Sunday Mass for the time being).

However, if one discusses and argues with the law requiring Sunday Mass attendance with the purpose of trivializing it or declaring it outdated, or, on the other hand, insisting that one is not required to attend an Ordinary Form Mass because this Mass is an occasion of sin for one and therefore when one may not attend an E.F. Mass one is excused (an argument I've seen made, in fact) then there is no question that what one is doing is more like point #3 above--arguing and discussing only to find loopholes and excuses, not to embrace one's duty to obey the Church more fully.

I used an example of Church law in order to illustrate that this process we go through doesn't even depend on the thing being debated being an intrinsic evil.  We humans are simply quite good at convincing ourselves that what we want is good and what we don't want isn't binding.  Add intrinsic evil to that (torture, abortion, contraception, cheating one's employees, lying, etc.) and we become even better at twisting ourselves in knots to rationalize that the Church really didn't mean that this particular evil is really evil, not for us, not this time.

We've been doing this sort of thing since Eve ate the apple--and since Adam joined in that sin of his own free will.  You'd think we would know better by now.


Kirt Higdon said...

I think in the case of usury, there really is a definitional issue. In 16 years of Catholic school, almost all of it pre-Vatican II, I was taught that usury consisted in taking excessive interest on a loan. That made sense to me and still does. But on the internet, I encounter people who say that taking any interest at all on a loan is excessive and forbidden. If this were true, having a savings account or interest bearing checking account would be sinful since these are loans to the institution which pays the interest and in most cases are loans which are callable at any time. Other commenters make a distinction between secured and unsecured loans or between recourse and no recourse loans, although the theological distinction escapes me. One of my daughters is a bond trader so she would be up to her ears in usury all day long if any interest at all constitutes the sin of usury. For me, I'll stick with the excessive interest definition. Those nuns and priests who taught me in school couldn't all have been wrong.

Kirt Higdon

Gerard Plourde said...

Thanks for linking to a great article and introducing me to another blogger to add to my daily check-in list in bookmarks. Thanks also for your excellent additional comments. You're right that evasion of responsibility is the oldest documented effect of Original Sin.

Acerbica said...

I'm with you that torture is torture and is always wrong, but I'm not sure I follow the bit about lying/usuary. Isn't it a given that if lying is the only way to save the life of the person being hunted down by the gestapo, it's morally preferable to telling the truth? Usuary amounts to giving people the opportunity to buy a house when they might never otherwise be able to if they had to both pay rent and save up the full amount needed. The church does not forbid mortages. This article is a really interesting read on how the word usuary has meant different things to the Church, depending on market conditions. My point being, maybe lying/usuary are not good examples of things that are always forbidden; perhaps murder/fornication would have worked better.

Acerbica said...

I'm not sure that lying/usuary are the best parallels. There are abundant situations where lying isn't really lying and usuary really isn't usuary and neither are universally condemned as they can be weighed against a greater good. People who hid Jews during WWII were "lying" to their government, but they were right to do so. Mortgages can help working class families have safe and affordable housing that they could never obtain if they needed to both pay rent and save the full price of a house. I think murder/fornication would be better examples of sins that are never less evil than whatever counterpart may exist.

I found this article which is a fascinating read on how usuary has come to mean different things to the church depending on the market and whether it was fruitful or barren to money.