Thinking Theologically about the Pro-Life Label?

Over at the Faith in Public Life blog, recent entries (like this one on Rick Santorum and torture) manifest a new, interesting rhetorical strategy: to take the language of “pro-life” away from the abortion issue, and apply it more broadly to a range of issues, many of which also involve bodily harm and potential death. To say Rick Santorum or John Boehner are “not really pro-life” has become a way to complicate the discourse. “Life” is not just abortion. I think this is all to the good, though I leave it to folks like those at FPL to assess whether such a strategy works or not! My interest as a moral theologian is in the term “life” – a term that may go even further than is currently thought. We heard at last Sunday’s mass the passage from John’s gospel where Jesus promises that He “came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” The reference here is to a “zoe” sort of life, the kind of fullness that Pope Benedict XVI describes in Spe Salvi: Our paradoxical attitude gives rise to a deeper question: what in fact is “life”? And what does “eternity” really mean? There are moments when it suddenly seems clear to us: yes, this is what true “life” is—this is what it should be like. Besides, what we call “life” in our everyday language...

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A Church Big Enough For All Types

Reflections for May 22, 2011 We are good at labels: conservative versus liberal, red state versus blue state, pro-life versus pro-choice. These labels are often reductive and lacking nuance, and even more often, such labels create unnecessary antagonism in a community, and yet we still use them. As human beings, we are prone to this unfortunate tendency of seeing the world in terms of white and black, either/or, us versus them. One of the goals of this blog is to overcome such dualistic tendencies as you can see in our mission statement: We recognize that we as a group will have disagreements, but want to avoid the standard “liberal /conservative” divide that often characterizes contemporary conversation, as well as the bitterly divisive tone of so much ethical discussion (particularly on the internet). We therefore endeavor to converse with each other and others in a spirit of respect, charity, and humility. In the Catholic Church today, we have some new operative labels fracturing the community. There is a tension between what we might call “traditional” or “evangelical Catholics” and “social justice Catholics.” We saw just how divisive these labels were last year when Glenn Beck told his listeners that if they found the words “social justice” or “economic justice” on their church’s website, they should leave their church. For Beck and for many of his supporters, “social justice” was a...

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‘Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer’ at Oxford this Week

Later today I get a on flight to the UK for one of those events that come around once in a lifetime.  The McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Policy at Christ Church, Oxford is putting on a historic conference this Thursday and Friday called ‘Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer.’ My friend and colleague John Perry (check out his  new book  on Political Theology from OUP here) has been working very hard planning an event  which is bringing together heavyweights from both Europe and the United States who have decided that it is time for these approaches to ethics to have serious conversation. Christian ethicists like Lisa Cahill, John Hare, Eric Gregory, and Nigel Biggar will be engaging with utilitarians like Julian Savulescu, Tim Mulgan, Toby Ord, and Peter Singer himself…discussing everything from our duties to the poor, to various understandings of non-human animals, to differences between utilitarianism and a Christian focus on the common good.  Singer and I will be giving the opening papers on Thursday morning (UK time) to set the stage for the rest of the conference, so please keep all of us in your thoughts and prayers. In some ways, it is strange that this kind of interaction hasn’t happened until now.  After all, Singer’s work in applied ethics (as an analytic philosopher) has made him arguably the most influential living intellectual for many...

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The Use of Torture

In his May 6th Wall Street Journal essay, Mr. Mukasy, the former Attorney General, claims that the much of the information that led to the killing of bin Laden was the result of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Consider how the intelligence that led to bin Laden came to hand. It began with a disclosure from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), who broke like a dam under the pressure of harsh interrogation techniques that included waterboarding. He loosed a torrent of information—including eventually the nickname of a trusted courier of bin Laden. Moreover, these approaches were used discriminately. The harsh techniques themselves were used selectively against only a small number of hard-core prisoners who successfully resisted other forms of interrogation, and then only with the explicit authorization of the director of the CIA. Of the thousands of unlawful combatants captured by the U.S., fewer than 100 were detained and questioned in the CIA program. Of those, fewer than one-third were subjected to any of these techniques. Senator McCain disputed Mr. Mukasey claim in a May 11th Washington Post op/ed piece, writing that Mukasey’s account was “false”. The trail to bin Laden did not begin with a disclosure from Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times. The first mention of Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti — the nickname of the al-Qaeda courier who ultimately led us to bin Laden — as well as a...

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Boston College Subpoena Raises Ethical Questions About Confidentiality and the Common Good

Federal prosecutors have issued a subpoena to my very own Boston College, ordering the school to turn over the tapes of two interviews from two former soldiers of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, one of whom is still living, which may contain important information about the killing and disappearances of people in the 1970s who were thought to be British informants. The tapes could implicate Gerry Adams, the Sinn Fein president, who has always denied being a member of the IRA. BC is said to have granted a firm promise of confidentiality until the death of the two interviewees, Brendan Hughes (who died in 2008) and Dolours Price (still living). In the tape, Mr. Hughes is asked about the confidentiality agreement, to be used only after he dies: “I don’t have a problem with that,” Mr. Hughes replied. “If I did have a problem with that, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking into the microphone. I think a lot of the stuff I’m saying here, I’m saying it on trust, because I have a trust in you. I have never, ever, ever admitted to being a member of the I.R.A. — never — and I’ve just done it here.” In order to abide by the promise of confidentiality, BC may have to destroy the tapes rather than cooperate with the subpoena. BC now faces a significant ethical dilemma. Do...

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Of Nazi Guards, Justice, and Personal Identity Over Time

John Demjanjuk was found guilty this past Thursday of 28,060 counts of accessory to murder for serving as a guard at the Nazi’s Sobibor death camp.   He is now 91 years old, and the alleged crimes (the case is under appeal…other courts have found him to be a victim of mistaken identity with regard to other charges) took place more than 70 years ago when he was boy. Here’s my basic question: assuming that they have convicted the correct human organism, is John Demjanjuk the same person who committed those crimes?  Surely he is numerically identical with the human organism that did participate in these atrocities, but are we justly punishing a 91-year-old man for what the 20-year-old John Demjanjuk did?  I’m not making a point about mercy here, I’m asking a question about justice. The important philosopher Derek Parfit famously argues that this kind of punishment would not  be just.  Persons, at least in the moral sense, are just collections of interests.  These interests change over time…and especially from age 20 to age 90.  The person Demjanjuk was when he was 20 is radically different from the person he is now.  (One interesting upshot of this understanding is that making decisions based on one’s distant future is form of charity for another person.)  Parfit would say that it makes little sense to punish Demjanjuk now…indeed, because he is...

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In Defense of Flogging?

. . . Or just skeptical of the justice of the criminal justice system? Peter Moskos’ new book In Defense of Flogging appears to be less about flogging and more about the failure of the contemporary prison system. My defense of flogging—whipping, caning, lashing, call it what you will—is meant to be provocative, but only because something extreme is needed to shatter the status quo. We are in denial about the brutality of the uniquely American invention of mass incarceration. In 1970, before the war on drugs and a plethora of get-tough laws increased sentence lengths and the number of nonviolent offenders in prison, 338,000 Americans were incarcerated. There was even hope that prisons would simply fade into the dustbin of history. That didn’t happen. From 1970 to 1990, crime rose while we locked up a million more people. Since then we’ve locked up another million and crime has gone down. In truth there is very little correlation between incarceration and the crime rate. Is there something so special about that second million behind bars? Were they the only ones who were “real criminals”? Did we simply get it wrong with the first 1.3 million we locked up? If so, should we let them out? America now has more prisoners, 2.3 million, than any other country in the world. Ever. Our rate of incarceration is roughly seven times that...

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Overcoming Extremes – Four Practices

It is no real surprise that United States’ politics is polarized. (See the recent Pew Study). It is a bit surprising that people have started to reshape their religious beliefs to fit into these political extremes. As Robert Putnam concludes in American Grace, “The ranks of religious conservatives and secular liberals have swelled, leaving a dwindling group of religious moderates in between.” Catholic moral theologians must refuse to rely on these categories, especially the versions of them that have dominated our own discipline for the past forty years. Among the many problems these binary extremes create (think lack of charity for one), they threaten the very heart of our enterprise by compromising our attentiveness, insights, and judgments.  Below are four practices that I hope can overcome these extremes. 1.  Avoid Relying on Liberal and Conservative Categories: Part of the weakness of these categories is that they oversimplify analysis of and solutions to problems. As a practice, avoiding these categories would entail actions like:  Checking our resources to make sure they are diverse, not just drawing on one school of thought Reexamining our conclusions to ensure that they are warranted on their own merits and not just the default conservative or liberal response. Checking our methodology to make sure it is not just an application of a conservative or liberal approach. Refusing to use the terms to define ourselves or...

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Sixteen Years of Catholic Education without Hearing about Distributive Justice?

Appearing with Stephen Schneck on the O\’Reilly Factor, Vincent Miller pointed out to Bill O’Reilly that the “Catholic church speaks about distributive justice.” O’Reilly then said, “The Catholic church teaches about distributive justice. I’ve never heard that. I went to sixteen years of Catholic school. I never heard that.” Oh, really, O’Reilly? If that’s the case, then someone fumbled the ball when he attended Chaminade High and Marist College. It would be interesting to find the textbooks that were used during the 1950s and 1960s when he was in school. Textbooks that were used in Catholic high schools and colleges earlier in the twentieth century–on morality, politics, economics, social reconstruction–by the likes of John A. Ryan and Virgil Michel, OSB typically devoted a chapter to justice, with subheadings referring to commutative justice, distributive justice, retributive justice, legal justice, and social justice. Quotes on the topic are also frequently found in these texts from papal encyclicals, including Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum: “Among the many and grave duties of rulers who would do their best for their people, the first and chief is to act with justice–with that justice which is called in the Schools distributive–towards each and every class” (no. 27, emphasis in original, quoted in John A. Ryan and Francis J. Bolland, CSC, Catholic Principles of Politics, rev. ed. [Macmillan Co., 1958], p....

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Does Catholic social doctrine allow us to say that bin Laden deserved death?

Barack Obama gave an interview to 60 Minutes this past Sunday to talk about the attack on Osama bin Laden. It made absolutely compelling television, and the president was particularly sterling. The most intriguing question, I thought, came at the end, when Steve Kroft asked the President, “Is this the first time that you’ve ever ordered someone killed?”  Obama’s response pointed to the power and gravity of the presidential office: “Well, keep in mind that, you know, every time I make a decision about launching a missile, every time I make a decision about sending troops into battle, you know, I understand that this will result in people being killed. And that is a sobering fact. But it is one that comes with the job.” Kroft did not let the question go: “This was one man. This is somebody who’s cast a shadow in this place, in the White House for almost a decade.” Obama then said something that I found rather shocking: “As nervous as I was about this whole process, the one thing I didn’t lose sleep over was the possibility of taking bin Laden out. Justice was done. And I think that anyone who would question that the perpetrator of mass murder on American soil didn’t deserve what he got needs to have their head examined.” Perhaps I need to have my head examined, but does it not seem a little disturbing that our President feels it...

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