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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Catholic Academics Challenge Boehner

Over at NCR, Michael Sean Winters has posted an open letter to Speaker Boehner from a number of prominent Catholic scholars (from a wide range of academic disciplines). A brief excerpt from the letter reads: Mr. Speaker, we urge you to use the occasion of this year’s commencement at The Catholic University of America to give fullest consideration to the teachings of your Church. We call upon you to join with your bishops and sign on to the “Circle of Protection.” It is your moral duty as a legislator to put the needs of the poor and most vulnerable foremost in your considerations. To assist you in this regard, we enclose a copy of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church. Published by the Vatican, this is the “catechism” for the Church’s ancient and growing teaching on a just society and Catholic obligations in public life. Catholic social doctrine is not merely a set of goals to be achieved by whatever means one chooses. It is also a way of proceeding, a set of principles that are derived from the truth of the human person. In Pope Benedict’s words: “Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way… the word “love” is abused and distorted, to the point where it comes to mean the opposite.” We commend to...

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Listening and Endurance: Readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts 2: 14, 36-41 Psalm 23 1 Peter 2:20-25 John 10:1-10 “Listen” is the first word of the Rule of St. Benedict, which he wrote for the monks of the 6th century and which is still the foundation of many monastic orders today – “Listen…with the ear of your heart.” Likewise, the theme of listening is repeated throughout the readings for this coming Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter.  In the reading from the Gospel of John the sheep recognize Jesus as their shepherd primarily through listening to his voice – “the sheep follow him because because they know his voice” (Jn 10:4).  We have seen that their are other ways of recognizing Jesus – such as the two disciples on the road to Emmaus who recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24) – but in this reading John emphasizes listening and hearing. The Gospel of John is rich in metaphorical language which the author of the Gospel repeatedly uses to tip his readers off to what is happening.  For example, the characters in the fourth Gospel are carefully distinguished between those who “know” and those who “do not know” the true identity of Jesus – when the Jews (presumably members of the Sanhedrin)  interrogate the man born blind whom Jesus healed they claim: “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this...

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The Epidemiological Insight and Infant Mortality

Paul Farmer, medical anthropologist and founder of Partners in Health, identifies what he calls the epidemiological insight – diseases make a preferential option for the poor; thus, healthcare workers must as well. Throughout Pathologies of Power: Health, Human Rights and the New War on the Poor, Farmer argues “To act as a physician in the service of poor or otherwise oppressed people is to prevent whenever possible, the diseases that  afflict them – but also to treat and if possible to cure” (145) Highlighting the need for innovation in healthcare, Farmer focuses not on high tech, expensive medicine but on attacking the connection between poverty and illness. What is needed, he argues is attention to public health and basic services  – public health must be made a priority. For Example, Infant Deaths Drop After Midwives Undergo Inexpensive Training offers concrete evidence of medical training programs in Zambia. Midwives from 18 Zambian clinics were taught a basic course in newborn care and encouraged to teach their colleagues as well. The course covers simple interventions like cleaning and warming a newborn, resuscitation, breast-feeding and diagnosing common illnesses. (Above, a birth attendant listened for a baby’s heartbeat with a clay stethoscope.) The midwives normally handled births that were expected to be uncomplicated, with women typically going home with heir babies after one night in the clinic. The researchers compared survival rates among...

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Articulating a Comprehensive Moral Response to HIV/AIDS in the Spirit of St. Damian of Molokai

Although it is a little late in the day to post this, today is the feast day of St. Damian Molokai, a Belgian priest of the Sacred Hearts Fathers who volunteered to be sent to Honolulu, Hawaii in 1873 to care for the lepers there. In his mission to the lepers in Hawaii, Fr. Damian contracted leprosy himself, which he died from in 1885. Today, Saint Damien is the patron saint of lepers and outcasts and the unofficial patron of those with HIV and AIDS. The world’s only Catholic chapel dedicated to who suffer from HIV/AIDS, the Église Saint-Pierre-Apôtre in Montreal, Quebec is consecrated to Saint Damien. The subject of HIV/AIDS is frequently invoked as an opportunity to criticize the Roman Catholic Church, particularly regarding the magisterial teaching against condom use. Particularly controversial are statements like those from the late Colombian Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo (the former president of the Pontifical Council for the Family) arguing that the distribution of condoms could make the AIDS epidemic worse by promoting sexual promiscuity despite the fact that condoms are not 100% effective at preventing the spread of the disease: “The Aids virus is roughly 450 times smaller than the spermatozoon. The spermatozoon can easily pass through the ‘net’ that is formed by the condom. “These margins of uncertainty… should represent an obligation on the part of the health ministries and all these...

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