Friday, November 27, 2009

Justifying the Cherry Picking of a "Pro-Life" Stance.

From American Catholic, apparently the church is justified in deciding what lives are worth living, regardless of how arbitrary those decisions may be:

Ed Stoddard of Reuters’ religion blog Faithworld carries a roundup of the skirmish between Congressman Patrick Kennedy, the son of the late Senator Edward Kennedy, has claimed that Rhode Island Bishop Thomas Tobin.

In conclusion, Stoddard asks:

This leads to a question about the consistency of views in the U.S. Catholic Church leadership. The Church opposes abortion and therefore liberal politicians who support abortion rights risk being refused communion. The Church supports a healthcare overhaul that would make the system more equitable. So does a conservative Catholic politician who opposes this reform risk being denied communion for ignoring the Catholic social teaching that justifies it?

How about support for capital punishment, which the Vatican says is unjustified in almost all possible cases, or for war? In the build-up to the Iraq war, Pope John Paul was so opposed to the plan that he sent a personal envoy to Washington to argue against it. Did bishops threaten any measures against Catholic politicians who energetically supported that war despite Vatican opposition?

The author’s questions reveal an elementary ignorance concerning the moral issues in question and their relationship to varying levels of Church teaching. While I am disappointed by his answer (Faithworld is generally one of the better and more educational “religion blogs” in the secular media), it is understandable — as even many Catholics find themselves confused on this matter.

The basic difference between abortion and capital punishment (or the waging of armed force) is that the Church has firmly and explicitly taught that the former is an intrinsic evil: the direct taking of innocent human life to be opposed everywhere and at all times, while the moral worth of the latter two measures are contingent upon specific criteria and circumstance.

In the case of capital punishment, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s discussion of the fifth commandment, specifically the matter of “legitimate defense” (sections #2263-2267); on the matter of the waging of armed force, the Catholic tradition’s criteria for a “just war” (sections#2307-2317).

But is it not true that the Church has explicitly opposed contemporary instances of capital punishment or war? — If so, why have the Bishops not sought to impose similar restrictions on communion on those officials in public life favoring the use of capital punishment, or expressing their support of U.S. foreign policy in Iraq — a conflict on which both Pope John Paul II and even our present Pope (then-Cardinal Ratzinger) made their opposition known? Aren’t such figures not in open dissent and in a state of obstinate sin against the Church as well?

It seems to me that the response lies in the following teaching of theCatechism on the delineation of responsibility:

With regards to the determination of moral criteria, the Catechism maintains “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.”

As to the nature of “prudential judgment”, Russell Shaw — himself a vehement critic and opponent of the Iraq War — provided the following explanation in “Iraq, Weigel and the Pope” (Catholic Exchange. March 31, 2003 — defending the ‘Catholic neocons’ legitimate right to disagree with John Paul II):

The notion of prudential judgment may need explaining. “Prudential” refers to prudence, and prudence these days has a bad name with people for whom it signifies lack of courage and failure of nerve. In the tradition, however, prudence is one of the cardinal virtues upon which other virtues depend. The function of prudence in this sense is to keep us in touch with morally relevant facts.

Given the limits of human knowledge, even prudential judgments by prudent people can be mistaken. In the present instance, the pope and Catholics who differed with him — conscientious and informed people like Novak, Weigel and Hudson — based their stands on an assessment of likely consequences of different courses of action. Since the assessments of what was more or less likely to happen in the future were different, so were the conclusions about what course of action to take.

To disagree with the pope in this manner is not dissent. It’s not as if Pope John Paul II had taught a definitive moral principle (e.g., direct attacks on noncombatants are ruled out) which the disagreeing Catholics rejected. They agreed with the principle. They disagreed about something contingent and by no means certain: what the future outcome of complex, competing scenarios was likely to be.

I believe that such an exercise of prudential judgment could equally be made in the exercise of capital punishment — where, for example, aCatholic public prosecutor might be compelled to respectfully disagree with a bishop in judgment of the means required in legitimate defense of society.

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