Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Torture, First Things, and that honorary degree

Not long ago, a hapless young man called me from my alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

I say “hapless,” because I had been dodging their telemarketing calls.  But as the calls increased in frequency, I realized that I would have to answer one sooner or later, because I once worked in the telemarketing office at Franciscan myself--so this hapless young man was the one on the other end when I at last picked up the phone.

I hated that job.  As I explained to the young man on the other end of the phone, telemarketing at Franciscan was the one job that made me think going back to cleaning restrooms for work/study would be preferable.  At least the restroom job was only physically dirty--telling cloistered nuns that their five dollars a year in spending money would be put to good use to help students, when in fact students like me who relied on heavy financial aid were becoming rarer and rarer while the nuns' spending money would go to help build the fancy new (back then) athletic center was dirtying my soul.  I got out as soon as a new job opened up, and I never looked back.

I also explained to the young man on the phone the other night that as a Catholic homeschooling family living on one income there was no way our own daughters could afford the $32,000 a year FUS now charges for students, and I’ve personally come to see it as morally problematic to let young people saddle themselves with fifty to a hundred thousand dollars in debt for a college education, even if that education is well-grounded in Catholic morality--so, no, I wouldn’t be contributing money that I knew perfectly well would go for new buildings or an expansion of the Austria program (I never went to Austria, myself) instead of helping scholarship kids.  What I didn’t tell him was that I no longer believe that an education at Franciscan University of Steubenville really grounds its graduates in Catholic morality.

I myself struggled with the Church’s teaching against torture when the issue first came up.  Gradually, thanks to the patience of people smarter and better educated than I was, I came to see that, no, we’re not allowed to hurt people who are completely in our power no matter how much we might justify it or wish to do so.  One would think that a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, a college that prides itself on its pro-life ethic, would not find it hard to understand that drowning people or depriving them of sleep to the point of hallucinations or otherwise harming them is morally evil.  But in casual conversations with fellow Catholic FUS grads, I found more than a few of of them willing to condone torture, to rationalize it, to insist that “pouring water on someone’s face” isn’t torture--and, hey, even if it is, terrorists are Bad Guys so they deserve it.  Against this backdrop, it wasn’t all that surprising--though quite horrifying--to realize my alma mater had awarded an apparently unrepentant torture apologist--ex-CIA director Michael Hayden--an honorary degree.

This was disheartening enough.  But J.D. Flynn’s recent piece in First Things (which I attempted to comment on, but my comment was apparently rejected) (UPDATE: my comment is there; I apologize for missing its approval) is even more so.  Flynn dances all around the issue of torture and comes up with the “heroic” conclusion that really, if Franciscan University were to revoke Michael Hayden’s honorary degree, it would somehow lose an opportunity for heroic witness to the value of human life:
Nevertheless, I’m not yet inclined to sign the petition asking that Mr. Hayden’s honorary degree be rescinded. I don’t know, as some have said, that the University should “repent” or denounce Hayden. By nature, I am uncomfortable with the idea of a post-facto denunciation. But Mr. Hayden is of little help to those who, like me, are inclined to counsel prudence. He disputes certain elements of the report, but his basic line of defense seems to be that barbarous acts were more effective than the Senate report admits. The utility of immorality is really not the question. The matter of the degree is a prudential judgment for the administration, and I trust that, if need be, the university will disavow his behavior with clarity. Disavowal, though, is probably the least important thing Franciscan University can do right now.
My admiration for Franciscan University comes down to her willingness to live the vocation of a prophetic witness. When it was commonly misunderstood, she witnessed to the power of the charismatic renewal. When it was openly mocked, the university witnessed to the authority and wisdom of Ex corde ecclesiae. And for more than forty years, she has witnessed to the dignity of every human life, created in the image of God. [...]
Even without commenting on the Senate report, Franciscan University might immediately offer a strong statement affirming real Catholic principles of just war, human dignity, and universal human rights. In the spirit of St. Francis, Fr. Scanlan, and Pope St. John Paul II, she could condemn the consequentialist practice of torture, by any administration or agency, and propose something far greater.
So: it wouldn’t be a good idea to rescind Mr. Hayden’s degree, and FUS doesn’t need to bother with disavowing his behavior, but in keeping with FUS’s tradition of pro-life witness, the university should issue a statement.  On just war, human dignity and torture.  But not mentioning the Senate report, or anything like that, for reasons which Mr. Flynn doesn’t mention, but which probably have to do with the potential of making the University’s Republican-voting donors uncomfortable.

Issuing such a statement would, in Mr. Flynn’s words, be “prophetic witness” in keeping with the University’s proud pro-life traditions.

Well, okay, then.

I’m not denigrating Franciscan University’s proud pro-life traditions.  My alma mater’s witness to the sanctity of human life and the evils of abortion are good things, and things that the University can justly be proud of.  But such a weak, milquetoast response on the evil of torture is not anything prophetic or much of a witness at all.  Mr. Flynn admits that he himself isn’t really sure where the lines should be drawn regarding torture, though I give him credit for accepting that waterboarding is torture.  The problem is that if you’re still trying to draw lines around torture, you are not that different from the person who thinks first-trimester abortions are okay--such a person is asking, “But when is it okay for me directly and intentionally to get rid of the contents of the womb?” and the torture-line-drawing person is asking, “But when is it okay for me directly and intentionally to harm the prisoner who is wholly in my power?” The answer to both questions is quite simple: Never.

It’s not all that different from my boss in the telemarketing department telling us work/study students who were doing telemarketing to stress whatever the person on the other end of the phone wanted to hear: if they want to believe that their money will go for scholarships, why, what’s the harm in that, especially when as far as you know some few dollars of it might actually go there?  But when you are (as I was, at the time) aware that the whole goal of the telemarketing department in our day was to raise money to build the kind of gym facility that the wealthy parents simply expected their kids to have access to--well, pretty soon your hopeful optimism about scholarships starts to sound like lying.  Which is another intrinsic evil, and one no Catholic university should condone, let alone encourage.


Daddio said...

I realize the financial issue is not the main point you're making here, but I'll say that one need not be Catholic or homeschooling (or even living on one income, really, depending on the incomes...) to be priced out of the market for Catholic higher ed.

One "advantage", I guess?, of having gone to Local State U, is that I don't have to identify with, or distance myself from, its politics. I went, I got my degree, I got a job. How utilitarian and sad, but now I'm supporting a little homeschooling family of our own.

And, thanks to the camaraderie of the other nerds at the Catholic Campus Center, I even stayed in the Church!

And, thanks to our fabulous local parish, there's plenty of opportunity to learn and study as an adult all those things I *might* have learned at a Catholic university. (If anyone finds their local parish lacking, there are plenty of courses of study for adults on the internet.) Some of us had to grow up before we started to actually enjoy learning. Maybe it would have come to me sooner at the Rome/Vienna/Paris Campus of some elite college. But here we are, and I expect it can work out well for my own kids, if they put forth a little effort.

Red Cardigan said...

Well said, Daddio. :)

Charlotte (WaltzingM) said...

You know, I went to a high priced Catholic college. I got a great education that I appreciated and valued. I worked two summer jobs for two straight summers to pay to fulfill my dream of spending a semester in Rome where I discovered by faith. I worked as an RA my last two years to pay for my room and board. I did work study and took out loans to cover what my scholarship didn't. My husband and I worked to pay off our student loans within a few years of being married using all of my income and the extra income from his paycheck once the bills were paid so that we wouldn't get used to living on two incomes. We still love and practice our faith and strive to educate ourselves even more, not just resting on our college laurels here. And my husband's career path is what it is today (supporting a family of 7) because of the work experience and jobs he took working to pay for his private education.

Why can't we acknowledge that there is no one right way to do things? Different people can and should have different paths. Why do we have to beat down private universities with "elite" European campuses in order to praise the practical, utilitarian State U?

Red Cardigan said...

Charlotte, I took Daddio’s comment as being specific to the situation at FUS, where the education costs 32K a year and is slipping away from Catholic principles (possibly even more than just on the torture issue, but I don’t have corroboration on other matters so won’t write about them).

I know you’d be disappointed if your alma mater started handing out honorary degrees to people who publicly dissent from important Church teachings or if the character of the University was changing in ways that you couldn’t support. That’s all I’m saying here.

Are there some Catholic colleges still holding the line? Of course there are, and we can all support that. But when I hear things about my alma mater that are seriously disappointing, or read about the situation at Marquette where a professor has been suspended for questioning a student-teacher who wouldn’t allow “anti-gay marriage” remarks in her ethics class, I wonder how many Catholic parents are paying top dollar for what they think is a real Catholic education but their kids are getting weaksauce and heresy. That’s a real problem out there for a lot of schools, and you can be justifiably proud that yours isn’t one of them.