Thoughts in Solitude - Thomas Merton

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” † † †
-Thoughts in Solitude
© Abbey of Gethsemani
"Your way of acting should be different from the world's way"...Rule of St. Benedict.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Stem cell breakthrough gets closer to the clinic

CHICAGO (AFP) — The technology for versatile, grow-in-a-dish transplant tissue took a step toward clinical use Thursday when researchers announced they have found a safe way to turn skin cells into stem cells.

Researchers say the method is so promising they hope to apply for approval to begin clinic trials by the middle of next year.

"This is the first safe method of generating patient specific stem cells," said study author Robert Lanza, the chief scientific officer at Stem Cell & Regenerative Medicine International.

"This technology will soon allow us to expand the range of possible stem cell therapies for the entire human body," Lanza told AFP.

"This allows us to generate the raw material to solve the problem of rejection (by the immune system) so this is really going to accelerate the field of regenerative medicine."

The research builds on an award-winning breakthrough in 2007 by Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University.

Yamanaka and his team introduced four genes into skin cells, reprogramming them so that they became indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells.

That achievement conjured the distant vision of an almost limitless source of transplant material that would be free of controversy, as it would entail no cells derived from embryos.

But the downside of the technique for creating these so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) is that the genes are delivered by a "Trojan horse" virus.

Reprogramming cells using a virus modifies their DNA in such a way that they cannot be given to patients without boosting the risk of cancer and genetic mutation.

Other researchers have succeeded in delivering the genes with a method called DNA transfection or using a chemical wash, but these techniques also posed health risks.

Lanza and the team led by Kwang Soo Kim of Harvard University succeeded in delivering the genes by fusing them with a cell penetrating peptide which does not pose the risk of genetic mutation.

While this method took twice as long to generate pluripotent stem cells, Lanza said he believes his team can increase the efficiency of the transmission by purifying the protein.

The study was published in the online edition of Cell Stem Cell.

Stem cells have excited huge interest over the past decade.

Promoters say this material could reverse cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's and other diseases and also allow researchers to grow patient-specific organ and tissue transplants which will not require harmful anti-rejection drugs.

But the dynamic has been sapped by opposition from religious conservatives, who argue that research on embryos -- the prime source of stem cells so far -- destroys human life.

Generating stem cells from skin cells bypasses the controversy and also dramatically increases the availability of patient-specific stem cells.

Copyright © 2009 AFP. All rights reserved

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Is Mary the "Coredemptrix" of Humanity?

May 26, 2009

by Francis X. Rocca
Religion News Service

VATICAN CITY -- When Pope Benedict XVI told a crowd in St. Peter's Square in April that the Virgin Mary "silently followed her son Jesus to Calvary, taking part with great suffering in his sacrifice, thus cooperating in the mystery of redemption and becoming mother of all believers," most listeners probably heard nothing remarkable in the statement.

After all, devotion to Mary is a pervasive element of the Catholic faith, and one of the features that most clearly distinguishes it from Protestantism.

Yet for one group of devotees, Benedict's statement was a milestone -- a sign that he had moved one step closer to granting their wish for a new dogma on Mary's contribution to human salvation.

At least 7 million Catholics from more than 170 countries, including hundreds of bishops and cardinals, have reportedly signed petitions urging the pope to proclaim Mary "the Spiritual Mother of All Humanity, the coredemptrix with Jesus the redeemer, mediatrix of all graces with Jesus the one mediator, and advocate with Jesus Christ on behalf of the human race."

In other words, the Virgin Mary -- though always subordinate to and dependent on the will of Christ -- plays an active, unique and irreplaceable role in helping her son deliver mankind from sin and death.

Proponents say that such a statement would represent the culmination of the church's traditional teaching on Jesus' mother, and bring the world untold spiritual and material benefits.

But critics of the proposed dogma say it would exaggerate Mary's true importance and undermine efforts toward unity with other Christian denominations.

The idea of Mary as Christ's collaborator in the redemption of humanity is deeply rooted in Catholic tradition, said Monsignor Arthur B. Calkins, an American priest working at the Vatican who has written extensively on the subject.

"The church has been meditating on this role for two millennia," Calkins said in an interview, "and so the Holy Spirit continues to draw forth what is there already in seed."

According to Mark Miravalle, a professor of theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, the new dogma would mean the "climax of the `Age of Mary'," a period that began in 1830 with apparitions of the Virgin in France, and witnessed papal proclamations of her Immaculate Conception (1854) and bodily Assumption into heaven (1950).

Supporters of the dogma of Mary Coredemptrix began petitioning the Holy See in the 1920s, Miravalle said, but it was in the 1990s that the movement drew millions of supporters and its goal began to appear within reach.

Pope John Paul II publicly used the term "Coredemptrix" at least six times in his pontificate, and at one point Miravalle predicted that he would proclaim the dogma before the millennial year of 2000.

The professor now believes that John Paul was persuaded not to act by advisers who feared that the new dogma would pose an obstacle to ecumenical dialogue.

At least one non-Catholic participant in that dialogue says such fears were well-founded.

"Anglicans require that any dogma be provable from Scripture," said the Rev. William Franklin, academic fellow at the Anglican Centre in Rome and a visiting professor at the Vatican's Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

Anglican ecumenists are still struggling to reconcile their beliefs with the papal dogmas of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption, Franklin said. "Making a new Marian dogma would complicate the journey toward full communion between our two churches," he said.

Proponents of the dogma insist that it would actually promote ecumenism by dispelling any ambiguities about Catholic doctrine.

"This would bring new clarity that Catholics do not adore Mary as a goddess," Miravalle said. "It would underscore what Catholics do believe
-- that she is your spiritual mother -- but at the same time that she is not the fourth person of the Blessed Trinity."

By far the most significant criticism, if only on account of its source, has been that of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict.

Ratzinger told a German interviewer in 2000 that the "formula `Co-redemptrix' departs to too great an extent from the language of Scripture and of the (church) Fathers and therefore gives rise to misunderstandings," threatening to "obscure" the status of Christ as the source of all redemption.

"I do not think there will be any compliance with this demand (for papal proclamation of the dogma) within the foreseeable future," he said at the time.

But Benedict has shown increasing openness to the dogma in the years since, proponents say, even though he has never used the word "Coredemptrix" as pope.

"Joseph Ratzinger has never been more Marian than since he became Benedict XVI," Miravalle said.

Calkins, who carefully tracks the pope's statements on "Mary's role in the work of our redemption," said Benedict's words on the subject already fill up 25 pages.

Most of the church's academic experts on Mary continue to oppose the dogma, however, deeming it unnecessary to encourage a proper devotion to Christ's mother.

"To give Mary honor, I would institute a new feast, or a special title," said the Rev. Johann G. Roten, director of the International Marian Research Institute in Dayton, Ohio, and a member of a Vatican panel that unanimously advised against the new dogma in 1996.

Yet Miravalle says papal recognition of Mary as Coredemptrix would be more than a formality; it would lead to an "outpouring of grace," helping to dispel a range of contemporary problems, including abortion, terrorism and natural disasters.

"To the extent that we acknowledge Our Lady's roles, to that extent God allows her to fully exercise those roles," he said. "And we can use some extra grace at this time."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Angels and Demons - Dan Brown's America

May 19, 2009
Op-Ed Columnist

The movie treatment of his novel, “Angels and Demons,” is cleaning up at the box office this week. The sequel to “The DaVinci Code,” due out in November, might buoy the publishing industry through the recession. And if you want to understand the state of American religion, you need to understand why so many people love Dan Brown.

It isn’t just that he knows how to keep the pages turning. That’s what it takes to sell a million novels. But if you want to sell a 100 million, you need to preach as well as entertain — to present a fiction that can be read as fact, and that promises to unlock the secrets of history, the universe and God along the way.

Brown is explicit about this mission. He isn’t a serious novelist, but he’s a deadly serious writer: His thrilling plots, he’s said, are there to make the books’ didacticism go down easy, so that readers don’t realize till the end “how much they are learning along the way.” He’s working in the same genre as Harlan Coben and James Patterson, but his real competitors are ideologues like Ayn Rand, and spiritual gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Deepak Chopra. He’s writing thrillers, but he’s selling a theology.

Brown’s message has been called anti-Catholic, but that’s only part of the story. True, his depiction of the Roman Church’s past constitutes a greatest hits of anti-Catholicism, with slurs invented by 19th-century Protestants jostling for space alongside libels fabricated by 20th-century Wiccans. (If he targeted Judaism or Islam this way, one suspects that no publisher would touch him.)

But Brown doesn’t have the soul of a true-believing Enemy of the Faith. Deep down, he has a fondness for the ordinary, well-meaning sort of Catholic, his libels against their ancestors notwithstanding. He’s even sympathetic to the religious yearnings of his Catholic villains — including, yes, the murderous albino monks.

This explains why both “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” end with a big anti-Catholic reveal (Jesus had kids with Mary Magdalene! That terrorist plot against the Vatican was actually launched by an archconservative priest!) followed by a big cover-up. A small elect (Tom Hanks and company, in the movies) gets to know what really happened, but the mass of believers remain in the dark, lest their spiritual questing be derailed by disillusionment and scandal. Having dismissed Catholicism’s truth claims and demonized its most sincere defenders, Brown pats believers on the head and bids them go on fingering their rosary beads.

In the Brownian worldview, all religions — even Roman Catholicism — have the potential to be wonderful, so long as we can get over the idea that any one of them might be particularly true. It’s a message perfectly tailored for 21st-century America, where the most important religious trend is neither swelling unbelief nor rising fundamentalism, but the emergence of a generalized “religiousness” detached from the claims of any specific faith tradition.

The polls that show more Americans abandoning organized religion don’t suggest a dramatic uptick in atheism: They reveal the growth of do-it-yourself spirituality, with traditional religion’s dogmas and moral requirements shorn away. The same trend is at work within organized faiths as well, where both liberal and conservative believers often encounter a God who’s too busy validating their particular version of the American Dream to raise a peep about, say, how much money they’re making or how many times they’ve been married.

These are Dan Brown’s kind of readers. Piggybacking on the fascination with lost gospels and alternative Christianities, he serves up a Jesus who’s a thoroughly modern sort of messiah — sexy, worldly, and Goddess-worshiping, with a wife and kids, a house in the Galilean suburbs, and no delusions about his own divinity.

But the success of this message — which also shows up in the work of Brown’s many thriller-writing imitators — can’t be separated from its dishonesty. The “secret” history of Christendom that unspools in “The Da Vinci Code” is false from start to finish. The lost gospels are real enough, but they neither confirm the portrait of Christ that Brown is peddling — they’re far, far weirder than that — nor provide a persuasive alternative to the New Testament account. The Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — jealous, demanding, apocalyptic — may not be congenial to contemporary sensibilities, but he’s the only historically-plausible Jesus there is.

For millions of readers, Brown’s novels have helped smooth over the tension between ancient Christianity and modern American faith. But the tension endures. You can have Jesus or Dan Brown. But you can’t have both.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Obama Scored Big at Notre Dame

Seldom does dawn rise on an America where the morning's New York Times displays a more intuitive grasp of a story than the New York Post. The coverage of Barack Obama's commencement address at Notre Dame, however, was such a day. Where the Post headlined an inside spread with "Obama In the Lions' Den," the Times front page was dominated by a color photograph of a beaming president, resplendent in his blue-and-gold Notre Dame academic gown, reaching out to graduates eager to shake his hand or just touch his robe.

It was precisely the message President Obama wanted to send: How bad can he be on abortion if Notre Dame is willing to honor him?

We cannot blame the president for this one. During his campaign for president, Mr. Obama spoke honestly about the aggressive pro-choice agenda he intended to pursue -- as he assured Planned Parenthood, he was "about playing offense," not defense -- and his actions have been consistent with that pledge. If only our nation's premier Catholic university were as forthright in advancing its principles as Mr. Obama has been for his.

In a letter to Notre Dame's Class of 2009, the university's president, the Rev. John Jenkins, stated that the honors for Mr. Obama do not indicate any "ambiguity" about Notre Dame's commitment to Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life. The reality is that it was this ambiguity that the White House was counting on; this ambiguity that was furthered by the adoring reaction to Mr. Obama's visit; and this ambiguity that disheartens those working for an America that respects the dignity of life inside the womb.

We've been here before. In his response to an inquiry from this reporter, Dennis Brown, the university's spokesman, wisely ignored a question asking whether "ambiguity" would be the word to describe a similar decision in 1984 to give Mario Cuomo, then governor of New York, the Notre Dame platform he so famously used to advance his personally-opposed-but argument. Or the decision a few years later to bestow its highest Catholic award on Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another supporter of legal abortion. It seems that whenever Democratic leaders find themselves in trouble over their party's abortion record, some Notre Dame honor or platform will be forthcoming to provide the needed cover.

Probably Notre Dame is rich enough that it can safely thumb its institutional nose at the 70 or so bishops who publicly challenged the university for flouting their guidelines on such invitations. Nor can we expect much from Notre Dame's trustees. At a time when Americans all across this country have declared themselves "yea" or "nay" on the Obama invite, the reaction of Notre Dame's board is less the roar of the lion than the silence of the lambs.

Pro-lifers are used to this. They know their stand makes them unglamorous. They find themselves a stumbling block to Democratic progressives -- and unwelcome at the Republican country club. And they are especially desperate for the support of institutions willing to engage in the clear, thoughtful and unembarrassed way that even Mr. Obama says we should.

With its billions in endowment and its prestigious name, Notre Dame ought to be in the lead here. But when asked for examples illuminating the university's unambiguous support for unborn life, Mr. Brown could provide only four: help for pregnant students who want to carry their babies to term, student volunteer work for pregnant women at local shelters, prayer mentions at campus Masses, and lectures such as a seminar on life issues.

These are all well and good, but they also highlight the poverty of Notre Dame's institutional witness. At Notre Dame today, there is no pro-life organization -- in size, in funding, in prestige -- that compares with the many centers, institutes and so forth dedicated to other important issues ranging from peace and justice to protecting the environment. Perhaps this explains why a number of pro-life professors tell me they must not be quoted by name, lest they face career retaliation.

The one institute that does put the culture of life at the heart of its work, moreover -- the Center for Ethics and Culture -- doesn't even merit a link under the "Faith and Service" section on the university's Web site. The point is this: When Notre Dame doesn't dress for the game, the field is left to those like Randall Terry who create a spectacle and declare their contempt for civil and respectful witness.

In the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian, there is a wonderful photograph of Father Ted Hesburgh -- then Notre Dame president -- linking hands with Martin Luther King Jr. at a 1964 civil-rights rally at Chicago's Soldier Field. Today, nearly four decades and 50 million abortions after Roe v. Wade, there is no photograph of similar prominence of any Notre Dame president taking a lead at any of the annual marches for life.

Father Jenkins is right: That's not ambiguity. That's a statement.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Guest Commentary: The Bishops Who Speak... And Those Who Don't

By Deal W. Hudson, Ph.D

Inside Catholic

As Catholics face important issues today, many are looking to the bishops to speak out. Both the bishops who are speaking out on issues as well as those who do not may be saying something about the Catholic Church in the United States.

WASHINGTON (Inside Catholic) - A popular pastime among Catholic commentators lately could be called "counting the bishops." In the last election, we counted the bishops who spoke out regarding their document on voting, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship," or on the qualifications of Barack Obama as a Catholic candidate. With the latest controversy over the upcoming Notre Dame commencement, another count is underway: 68 bishops have criticized the choice of President Obama to receive an honorary degree.

This is a noteworthy trend in the postconciliar Church that doesn't go back far: Between the late 1960s and the 1990s, it was very unusual for a bishop to address an issue (outside the collective voice of the bishops' conference) that had either national significance or tacitly challenged brother bishops to greater action.

The exceptions to this rule are few: John Cardinal O'Connor and Bernard Cardinal Law during the pro-life skirmishes of the 1980s; and from the left and right of the Church, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton and Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz. There were often consequences for bishops who ignored the code of collegiality -- isolation or, sadly, retribution.

The reticence of bishops to put aside collegiality started to diminish during the 2004 presidential campaign. Many prelates began going public to defend Archbishop Raymond Burke, then from St. Louis, who was being hotly criticized for his comments to the St. Louis Post Dispatch that presidential candidate John Kerry "should not present himself for communion."

More than 20 bishops made statements that supported Archbishop Burke's position, and among them some familiar names: Chaput, Wenski, Aquila, Smith, Olmsted, Sheridan, Saltarelli, Harrington, Hughes, Boland, Finn, Gracida, Gossman, and Myers. (One significant preview of what lay ahead in 2004 was Bishop William Weigand's warning to Gov. Rick Davis in January 2003 not to receive communion.)

The bishops' growing willingness to speak individually has blunted the power of official statements issued by the USCCB. The commitment to collegiality had given greater authority to conference statements, but often at the cost of sending a forthright and prophetic message about the growing acceptance of abortion. The latest document, "Faithful Citizenship," is an example of how a "compromise statement," representing all the bishops, can contain language which is confusing at best and, at worst, subversive of pro-life aims.

Now that "counting the bishops" has become a factor in determining the direction of the Church, it will be necessary to count those who do not speak. Or, at least, it is important to consider the meaning in the silence of those bishops. The 2008 election did produce one episode that suggests what the silence means for some bishops.

The Sunday before the election, Mass was held by the bishop of a major Midwestern city, one of the key war zones between McCain's and Obama's Catholic supporters. (It is not necessary for me to reveal the name of the bishop.) After Mass, the bishop held a question-and-answer session, which became quite heated when he did not answer questions about the priority of life issues to the satisfaction of some present.

One of those dissatisfied waited to speak with the bishop after the session was over. She asked him why his comments sounded so out of line with the many bishops who had spoken publicly to underscore the importance of voting pro-life. The bishop replied testily, "Well, there are many of us who are not speaking out," then turned and walked away.

In other words, there were bishops in the 2008 election who purposely did not speak out, and who did not agree with those who did. Their silence implied consent to the way Catholic teaching was being construed by Obama supporters like Doug Kmiec and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend.

What does this tell us about the silence of the remaining bishops on the upcoming commencement at Notre Dame? Certainly there are those who agree with the 68 who have gone on the record against his selection. Perhaps they think the issue has been sufficiently flogged, especially with the public statement by USCCB President Francis Cardinal George.

But how many simply disagree with those bishops and think Notre Dame is doing the right thing by honoring President Obama? Is this the meaning of their silence? Do the majority of U.S. bishops agree with Notre Dame? If so, that may well be one of the reasons Notre Dame's officials felt free to issue the invitation in the first place.


Deal W. Hudson is the director of and the author of Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon and Schuster).

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Torture Memos

What Catholic Teaching Has to Say


WASHINGTON — The release of an official memorandum outlining U.S. government-approved torture of suspected al-Qaida operatives has provoked a national debate on the use of harsh interrogation techniques.

Yet, the ensuing political firestorm not only reveals widespread confusion and disagreements regarding the morality, lawfulness and effectiveness of torture; it also exposes fissures within the Catholic community regarding the relationship between the moral prohibition against torture and Church teaching on other life issues.

While experts debate whether or not water boarding constitutes torture, many Catholics suggest that in cases of imminent threat, the “ends justify the means.”

Seeking to educate their flock and influence public policy, the U.S. Catholic bishops have presented the moral foundations of the Church’s position on torture in statements issued over the last year.

At a January press conference organized by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, John Carr, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development, reviewed the fundamental moral principles at work.

“Pope Benedict XVI has said that the prohibition against torture ‘cannot be contravened under any circumstances.’ Simply put, torture is a classic moral case of ends and means,” said Carr. “Good ends cannot legitimize immoral means. In the context of torture, we cannot defend our life and dignity by threatening the lives and attacking the dignity of others.”

But recent polls signaling increased support for the use of torture during times of national crisis suggest Church leaders will have to work harder to impart Catholic teaching, particularly when they seek to influence a debate that has become deeply politicized.

“The teaching of the Catholic Church could not be more clear,” said Notre Dame law professor Mary Ellen O’Connell. “In Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), one of the central documents of the Second Vatican Council, in Veritatis Splendor (Pope John Paul II’s encyclical The Splendor of Truth), and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, physical and mental torture are deemed intrinsically evil.”

The Church, said O’Connell, is in the forefront of supporting the principles that provide the foundation for international law, including the Geneva Conventions and the U.N. “Convention Against Torture.” “Universal law and moral principles bind us as a community,” she noted.

A legal expert on interrogations married to a former military interrogator, O’Connell describes torture as “always immoral, unlawful and impractical.”

In her classroom, however, some students question this assessment, arguing that torture “works” and helps keep America safe. O’Connell said it can be a struggle for students to understand that “as Catholics, we should resist attempts to place the United States, or any state, above the law.”

‘A Nation of Laws’

When the Department of Justice released the four classified memos on the interrogation of suspected terrorists issued by the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel between 2002 and 2005, President Obama issued a statement outlining a number of practical reasons for releasing the memos and for prohibiting the application of techniques that “undermine our moral authority and do not make us safer.”

“Enlisting our values in the protection of our people makes us stronger and more secure,” Obama said. “A democracy as resilient as ours must reject the false choice between our security and our ideals.”

The president’s statement affirmed that the “United States is a nation of laws. My administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals.”

Then, during a visit to the CIA designed to reassure intelligence officers and field agents that he backed their efforts, the president went a step further and acknowledged that his anti-torture policy carried a measure of risk.

“I’m sure that sometimes it seems as if that means we’re operating with one hand tied behind our back or that those who would argue for a higher standard are naive,” he told agents. But “what makes the United States special … is precisely the fact that we are willing to uphold our values and our ideals even when it’s hard, not just when it’s easy.”

The president’s implicit acknowledgement that — with regards to torture — the ends do not justify the means, earned approval from Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. bishops’ Pro-life Secretariat.

“It was a good statement against a utilitarian approach to the government’s treatment of human beings,” said Doerflinger. “Logically, these values and ideals should be applied in all contexts and across the entire spectrum of human life.”

A pro-life activist who spends a good deal of time drafting statements opposing Obama’s policies on abortion and embryo-killing stem-cell research, Doerflinger has long observed the inconsistent application of moral principles on Capitol Hill. “Each society and political faction has its exceptions and its blind spots,” he said. “But the Church is against any attack on the dignity of the human person.”

During one week in January, he recalled, the U.S. bishops issued statements applauding Obama’s executive order banning torture and criticizing his reversal of the Mexico City Policy banning U.S. funds for abortion advocacy abroad. “A cynic might say that the president should respect embryos with the same commitment that he respects suspected terrorists,” observed Doerflinger.

Practical and Moral

In fact, while Obama has remained an outspoken opponent of the use of torture, his recent public statements have not specified the precise national “ideals” or moral principles violated by the Bush policy condoning the coercive interrogation of three terrorist suspects from 2002 to 2005.

Further, judging from the “memos” and other recent news stories retracing the internal debate within the Bush administration and the CIA regarding the use of coercive interrogation techniques, the Office of Legal Counsel also kept the focus on “the facts” that provided the necessary context for evaluating the utility and legality of the methods under review.

Patrick Buchanan, the conservative commentator and author, understands why the memos focused on “the facts” that provide the context for the interrogations, though he is cautious about endorsing or repudiating the legal counsel they supply.

“I don’t like the term, ‘torture.’ I’d rather focus on the moral action itself. If it is moral at times to take human life in self-defense, then it may be moral, at times, to do something much less serious — inflict pain for the purpose of saving the lives of thousands from an imminent terrorist attack.”

Buchanan says he would like the “people who recommended this policy to stand up and defend their decision.” But the spectacle of Bush-era lawyers publicly defending their legal judgment appears unlikely, to say the least. Republicans worry that the memos’ release has harmed national security, but they also fear that politically dominant Democrats may prosecute Bush administration officials who provided legal approval for torture.

Michael Novak, the theologian and author, questions whether critics of the Bush White House have fully considered the moral and practical complexities attendant in the post-9/11 era. “I respect those moralists who say, ‘never,’ and I believe we must come as close to ‘never’ as the extremities of some human situations allow,” said Novak, “and even in such extremities, great legal, medical and moral care must be used so as not to do lasting harm to the one interrogated.”

After a moment’s reflection, Novak proffers, “a test case for every moralist to answer truthfully: Would they allow such strictly limited interrogation in order to save the lives of the 10 or 12 people they love the most, or would they allow those people to perish for want of timely information? Either way, each moralist is complicit in the outcome.”

Clearly, some Catholics believe it is unjust to condemn as “torturers” government officials who issued legal judgments intended to protect American lives.

But Thomas Romig, the dean of Washburn University School of Law and the former judge advocate general of the U.S. Army from 2001 to 2005, wants the public to grasp the strong connection between the moral and practical reasons for prohibiting torture.

“It’s a very slippery slope when you make an exception to the ban on torture. Once the word got out that we were making exceptions, it caused serious confusion in detention centers,” Romig recalled.

“We have always been the gold standard in the treatment of detainees and people captured on the battlefield,” he said. “If we want to see treaties enforced, we have to live up to a high standard.”

Joan Frawley Desmond writes

from Chevy Chase, Maryland.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Torture - The Catholic Response

The following is a posting from Vox Nova - a Catholic Blog. It raises some interesting points concerning torture that need our attention.

Recently, a comment showed up on Vox Nova signed by Judie Brown, linking to the American Life League. We have no reason to doubt that she left the comment, though we did attempt to contact her to verify. She did not return our emails. The comment is regarding M.Z.’s post on EWTN’s cowardice in not condemning torture and not affirming the clear teaching of the Catholic Church.

I am posting Brown’s comment in full along with my own interpolations:

Dear Friends and Foes, Torture of prisoners can be approved in some cases when there are specific reasons for doing so, but my belief is that in the case of torture, we have to examine first and foremost the case of the innocent preborn child. His limbs can be ripped off and noone calls that torture. His head can be crused with forceps and noone calls that torture.

I am not sure who Judie Brown’s foes are at Vox Nova or why she feels compelled to presume that there are, indeed, persons inimical toward her here. In fact, we have had a link to the American Life League since the Vox Nova was first initiated, and we certainly have made no effort to conceal it (it occupies the top place in our alphabetical list of Catholic Organizations, Institutes and Ministries in the right sidebar).

More apropos of the matter at hand, I want to direct your attention to the very first line of Brown’s comment. She affirms unequivocally that torture of prisoners (i)can be approved in (ii)some cases when there are (iii)specific reasons for doing so.

As to (i), whose approval is needed? Brown doesn’t say. We know, obviously, that the act of government-sponsored torture, which is the sort we have been discussing at length at Vox Nova, needs only the approval of the Executive Branch of government without the consent of the legislature or the American people in order to be performed. But Brown seems to want to say more than that since, after all, she left her comment on a post that discusses the moral legitimacy of torture from the Catholic prospective. Is Brown suggesting that torture of prisoners may be approved of according to the magisterium of the Catholic Church? If she is, she is dead wrong. This is well-traveled terrain at Vox Nova, but it bears repeating that the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II, whose teaching authority unquestionably extends to morals, both condemned torture as intrinsically evil without qualification (i.e., under no conditions is an act of torture morally licit). For those teachings, see Gaudium et spes 27 and Veritatis Splendor 80.

As to (ii), we have already ruled out from the Catholic stance any circumstances in which an act of torture may be morally licit. So Brown’s suggestions that there are “some cases” where torture can be approved are well outside Catholic boundaries. What is less astonishing, but no less irresponsible, is that Brown blithely mentions “some cases,” but leaves us only with an indeterminate idea. To which cases is she referring? It seems to me the Brown herself does not know.

As to (iii), once more Brown short-changes her friends and foes by neglecting to indicate which and whose reasons may be supplied to justify morally an act of torture. Such vagueness is reprehensible, especially in discussions about what the Church considers a grave human rights violation. It seems to me that, in her haste to justify torture, Brown has not thought about the matter in any depth. In the absence of reasons, we can only desire that something be true. Does Brown desire torture to be legitimate and morally acceptable in some way? If so, her belief stems from an inordinate will, not from responsible, pro-life reasoning.

Brown continues her thought:

…but my belief is that in the case of torture, we have to examine first and foremost the case of the innocent preborn child. His limbs can be ripped off and noone calls that torture. His head can be crused with forceps and noone calls that torture.

Indeed, the description of certain methods of abortion that Brown provides is horrific and accurate. And, indeed, I do acknowledge that the pain inflicted on the child is indescribably cruel and abominable. But all Brown is suggesting is that in common parlance we extend our talk of torture to the pain and suffering inflicted on a human fetus. This in no way advances a case for torture.

There are many other examples I could provide but I think you get the picture.

I do.

When you write about torturing someone guilty of murdering innocent soldiers, civilians and the like and you compare that with what is being done to preborn babies under cover of law, I have to say … no contest.

The safeguarding of human rights and the condemnation of an intrinsic evil is never a contest. We are not in the business as Catholics of cashing out intrinsic evils in some sort of comparative or competitive enterprise.

In this one line, Brown shows her true colors. She submits that the pain inflicted upon a “guilty” person through torture is not in the same moral realm as the pain inflicted on the unborn through abortion. First, from a logical point of view, this a red herring (fallacy of relevance). The introduction of the pain inflicted on aborted children does not change the reality or status of any other intrinsic evil, be it torture or euthanasia. Furthermore, noting the pain and suffering involved in abortion does not establish Brown’s previous point about torture being morally licit in “some cases” for “specific reasons.” In other words, Brown is not making any sort of point here, but is instead distracting from the relevant discussion. Again, in the absence of reasons, Brown’s case is just a matter of hand-waving.

Also telling is Brown’s assumption (unsubstantiated and empirically false) that those who are torture are “guilty” of murdering innocent soldiers and civilians (can we really talk about the innocence of soldiers in the same way as we do the innocence of civilians?). First, torture can be done (and has been done) on human persons who have not been judged guilty by any tribunal or court. Second, torture can be done (and has been done) on human persons who have not murdered innocent persons. So the concept of torture in no way contains the idea of “guilt” as one of its essential features. Rather, torture is defined without respect to guilt or retribution. Now, torture can, indeed, be done on those who are found guilty of murder or other crimes, but this is only a contingent connection, not a necessary one. One of the hallmarks of Catholic teaching on morals specifically, and logical analysis generally, is precision in analytic description. We are able to conduct ourselves morally in view of Catholic teaching because we understand its moral concepts. That’s what makes morality, according to Aquinas, reasonable. The prohibition on torture extends to all cases without respect to specific reasons to torture, no matter if the human person who is to be tortured is innocent or guilty.

In her last gasp to make a cogent argument, Brown turns to the Catechism:

As for the Catechism, this might interest those of you with a logical thought process:

2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.

Brown wants us to utilize our “logical thought process.” She then quotes the Catechism, which paraphrases the teachings of the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II. This passage condemns torture as contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. The “logical thought process” is not Brown’s. She contradicts her earlier comments about torturing being legitimate in “some cases” and for “specific reasons” by citing this passage, which in turn draws from the teachings of Vatican II and John Paul II. The truth of the matter is, Brown has no argument from morality and no argument from the Church’s teaching to support her claim. She is right, however, to put a premium on logical thought process, and she would do well to employ it herself.

To close, allow me to post the paragraph in the Catechism that immediately follows the paragraph Brown quotes, which she conveniently omitted:

In times past, cruel practices were commonly used by legitimate governments to maintain law and order, often without protest from the Pastors of the Church, who themselves adopted in their own tribunals the prescriptions of Roman law concerning torture. Regrettable as these facts are, the Church always taught the duty of clemency and mercy. She forbade clerics to shed blood. In recent times it has become evident that these cruel practices were neither necessary for public order, nor in conformity with the legitimate rights of the human person. On the contrary, these practices led to ones even more degrading. It is necessary to work for their abolition. We must pray for the victims and their tormentors. (CCC 2298)

The Catechism itself states that the practices of torture that were overlooked or permitted by clerics in the past were cruel and out of conformity with the rights of the human person. Furthermore, we are to work for the abolition of torture (notice the Catechism switches from a reference to the past to a present imperative).

I do not doubt the sincerity of people like Judie Brown, David Carlin, and Deal Hudson in promoting respect for the unborn. But they have shown themselves to be in deep need of catechesis and moral formation on the issue of torture. And as long as they continue to try to find loopholes in the Church’s doctrine (such as Brown’s emphasizing that the victims of torture are guilty or Hudson’s outrageous claim that torture can be permissible when subsumed as a measure of a just war), they remain at odds with the Church. They very well may be the “foes” of certain Catholic moral principles that Brown acknowledged in her comment.