Thursday, December 17, 2015

Just war and Christmas dinner conversations

Rod Dreher today warns the families of Harvard students that the kiddies are being sent home complete with a "placemat guide" on how to discuss sensitive issues with their families at the holiday dinner table. You really have to go here to read Rod's post and see the placemat image; no mere description can do it justice.

This gives me the perfect springboard for a post I've been planning for a while now; the person with whom I discussed this potential post (and who gave me the initial idea) knows who she is. :) The post idea came from the notion that while we always want to react as good Catholics to the less than Christian or charitable things that might get said around the Christmas dinner table, there may be natural limits to what we can say without escalating the situation.  I said that we really needed to apply Just War teaching to Christmas dinner table conversations, at which point this post went from being nebulous to inevitable.

To begin with, here, from Wikipedia, is a brief summary of the Catechism on Just War:
The just war doctrine of the Catholic Church - sometimes mistaken as a "just war theory"[16][17] - found in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2309, lists four strict conditions for "legitimate defense by military force":[18]
the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
there must be serious prospects of success;
the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated (the power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition).
Now, I don't in any way mean to take these principles lightly, but it occurred to me during my conversation with the person mentioned above that these are sound principles to apply to other situations as well, and in particular the situations that arise when, at a Christmas party or event of some kind, a relative or friend voices an opinion that is clearly outside of Christian teaching and thought.

Say, for instance, that the ordinarily kindly Uncle Isidore says, with a beam on his benevolent countenance, that all the refugees should be rounded up and sent home, or at least put into camps where they can't hurt anybody but each other. 

One's first impulse is going to be to engage dear Uncle Isidore in verbal combat--he is wrong, and you have Church teaching and quotes from the saints and your pastor's recent homily on the subject to back you up.

But perhaps discretion is the better part of valor? You decide to ponder the Just War principles as you make your decision:

1. Is the damage inflicted by Uncle Isidore's wrongheaded opinions going to be lasting, grave, or certain? Here we're not talking about the damage to Uncle Isidore himself, because when one of our brothers (or uncles, as the case might be) is wrong about something all the principles of fraternal correction argue in favor of a private conversation on the subject. We ourselves know that when we're wrong about an issue of moral significance we respond better to a one-on-one chat in an unthreatening environment, not an "all weapons fired" verbal assault at a family dinner party. Instead, we're talking about whether or not Uncle Isidore is doing damage to the other guests--the friends or neighbors who may not be Catholic, the young and impressionable, or even the other family members who though practicing Catholics are not all that well versed on what the Church teaches in regard to refugees or immigrants. If everybody knows Uncle Isidore well and takes all these things he says with an eye roll and a request for more gravy, we may have nothing to do. But suppose we have decided that, yes, our silence in the face of Uncle Isidore's statements may be taken as consent and that consent may scandalize somebody; it is now our duty to move on to:

2. Have all other means (apart from direct verbal engagement) been shown to be impractical or ineffective? It's one thing if Uncle Isidore is speaking during a moment of complete silence and if he clearly expects you personally to respond; but it's another if you can create reasonable doubt that you've even heard him, by asking Great-great Aunt Sophronia, perhaps, if the sweet potatoes are pureed enough for her, or by getting up to attend to something at the children's table (there's always something that needs to be attended to at the children's table!) or by waxing enthusiastic about your favorite Christmas carol that was sung last night at Midnight Mass (or earlier, provided that admitting you went to Mass before midnight on Christmas Eve won't be taken as a sign of the apocalypse by Cousin Justinian or somebody, which puts you right back in the hot seat). But what if dear sweet Uncle Isidore prefaced his remarks by insinuating that you've become a squishy liberal and has challenged you to respond? What if his remarks, in fact, were the throwing down of the verbal gauntlet? Do you charge? Not so fast--you still need to consider:

3.  Is there a serious prospect of success? If by "success" we mean actually getting Uncle Isidore to see that Church teaching sort of frowns on sending people who are desperately fleeing wars and violence back into the wars and violence, or (as an alternative) making them live in interment camps more or less permanently, then maybe not--at least not during a dinner table conversation (see the point about private fraternal correction above). But if by "success" we mean laying out those ideas for the others (who we reasonably think may be scandalized by Uncle Isidore's opinions) to consider while making it clear (though civilly) that we do not ourselves agree with him we may have a reasonable chance of succeeding. However, there's still one more step to consider:

4. Will our verbal engagement with Uncle Isidore lead to evils and disorders greater than the evil we're trying to eliminate (that is, the possibility that some may be confused or scandalized both by Uncle Isidore's statements and our apparent tacit consent to them)? This is where it really gets tricky, because as everybody who has ever participated in such a family dinner table discussion before knows that sides get taken, lines get drawn, feelings get hurt, and people who haven't thought deeply about refugees before this moment may be drawn by family loyalty or a host of other things to defend Uncle Isidore to the hilt. Now, it's also possible that Uncle Isidore will clarify and say that he only meant that those refugees who can't pass our screening tests should go back, or be kept under watch, which may even be a reasonable opinion, and we should consider the odds of an outcome like that as well, when we're making our calculations.

Of course, in the actual Just War doctrine, we know that some weapons are disproportionately harmful and we must not use them. I mention this in case anybody, in the midst of these calculations, is tempted to employ the nuclear option of asking Great-great Aunt Sophronia to recall a childhood Christmas memory. True, Great-great Aunt Sophronia will immediately launch into her favorite and oft-told anecdote about how her whole family crawled backwards on their knees up a snow-covered hill for two miles to get to Midnight Mass, and how her little brother Mickey, a new altar server that year, believed those awful Sullivan boys who told him that to receive at Midnight Mass he had to fast from 9 a.m. Christmas Eve day, with the result that when he knelt to receive Communion he fainted and bashed his head open on a marble protrusion, and had to get seventeen--or was it eighteen?--no, seventeen stitches and spend the rest of Christmas vacation in bed with a concussion. But this will lead to immediate and forceful arguing about topics ranging from public transportation to Vatican II to Communion fasts to receiving Communion on the tongue while kneeling vs. Communion in the hand while standing to affordable health care to whether relabeling Christmas Vacation "Winter Break" is yet another sign of the apocalypse. Thus, it is far better not to deploy this particular weapon at all, since it clearly leads to ills greater than the one we were trying originally to avoid. 


Siarlys Jenkins said...

Merry Christmas Erin!

Red Cardigan said...

Merry Christmas, Siarlys!