Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Catholic Politicians and Moral Responsibility (Torture)

As a further contribution to the ongoing discussion about the responsibilities of Catholic politicians, of both parties and from both ends of the spectrum, and with particular attention to the question of torture and the provocative piece by J. Peter Nixon in Commonweal, I post below (with his permission) some additional thoughts by Prof. John O'Callaghan of Notre Dame. [Note also Professor O'Callaghan's mention of the upcoming conference here at the University of St. Thomas School of Law on Pro-Life Progressivism, which promises to be most interesting and rewarding investment of scholarly attention.]

"Here is a nice piece in Commonweal. The author revisits the question of the role that Catholic teaching should play in the lives of Catholic voters. This return to the question after the election is welcome. One of the points I tried to make in my own post on this question, Sacred Monkeys, just prior to the election, is that very often Catholics only think about these issues as the election cycle heats up. As a result, our reflection is quite often hurried and thus weakened in the heat of the moment. But questions involving the governance of the common good are important enough that we should be reflecting upon them regularly, and when we are not caught up in the maelstrom of our political passions during an election.

I think that the case of the Attorney General and torture is a very good one for the author to raise, and for us to reflect upon. We are accustomed to thinking mostly of abortion and its political ramifications. When in Veritatis Splendor* the pope included torture among abortion and other types of action that may never be done in any circumstance or for any goal, it never occurred to me that in this day and age I would have to face the possibility of my own country engaging in it as a result of government sanction. One ought not to be naive, and think isolated instances of torture will not take place in wartime, just as murder, theft, and all sorts of other crimes are committed by our troops as rare and isolated events. It is, among other things, why we have the Judge Advocate General. But the extent to which some of the abuses that have taken place may have been sanctioned by our government is appalling. I recall that when the scandal broke I thought, as I continue to think, that the Secretary of Defense should resign or be fired because these things happened under his watch. It was enough that they happened on the scale that they did. At that point I did not dream that some of them may have been officially sanctioned, or that there would have been any policy and legal discussions of our government in which they were even contemplated. So much for my own naivete.

I think the author is correct to point out that Catholic Republicans should have raised a voice of concern, if not outright rejection of a candidate for Attorney General involved in the government sanction of some forms of torture. One might of course claim that what was argued was that the various types of acts do not count as torture, and therefore no one was actually advocating what they understood to be torture as such. But this is where we have to recall that with regard to most types of human action neither law nor conscious inner intention creates their kind and moral character, but has to reflect it. The corsair may claim that he is merely testing the sharpness of his blade on the sailor's neck. But of course we know that he is wrong in the "merely." These Republicans lost the opportunity to demonstrate that they are not in the back pocket of their party in the way in which pro-abortion Catholic Democrats are in their own.

In charity, one would want to point out that the Republican party does not have a thirty year history of supporting government sanctioned torture, does not have a plank in their platform supporting torture, does not have a history of a litmus test for national office involving the support of torture, does not have leaders appearing at pro-torture conventions seeking political and financial support, and does not yet have numerous Catholic politicians abdicating their responsibility for political leadership while privatizing their opposition to torture. To the best of my knowledge neither of the senators mentioned said, "I am personally opposed to torture, but...." In addition, the response of the government and the Republican party to this scandal was not to suddenly start advocating all these things, but to correct the abuse. As the Center for Ethics and Culture's Alasdair MacIntyre has argued at length, one of the features of a healthy tradition is its ability to engage in self-critque, and reform in the face of the problems that arise within it. I think it is fair to say that on abortion, there is little or no such health in my own Democratic party. These sorts of differences should also weigh upon our political judgments. And yet one fears that here on the confirmation of the Attorney General, given his role in the formation of policy that allowed for torture, the failure of Catholic Republicans to even raise an eyebrow could be the first step down the road to their own pathology.

If there is a place where I think the author stumbles it is where he simply throws in "collective action-progressive taxation, Social Security, labor unions," and so on. Neither what he wrote before this point, nor after, appears to justify simply throwing these issues in for good measure. It was a concern of my Sacred Monkeys that this sort of move expressed a tendency toward a kind of policy utilitarianism where we lump in all political questions together, as if they differ only in degree, and weigh them for what we perceive to be the optimal benefit. In the Catholic case we end up with a kind of vague sense of overall fit with Catholic teaching, or to pursue the famous metaphor a rather dull, drab, and undistinguished seamless garment, rather than something that is vibrant, colorful, and distinctive, in which absolute commitment to the protection of the life of the innocent is not simply part of the weave, but, rather, the thread that is woven. As I see it, these other questions are matters of political prudence quite distinct from such matters of principle as abortion and torture. It was after all the New Democrats under the leadership of Bill Clinton who tried to make the Democratic party as indistinguishable as possible from the Republicans on these types of issues, ending welfare as we know it, increasing the number of federal crimes punishable by death, and so on, in order to gain political power. "Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss." We won't be fooled again.

Happily, I think I will try to address that tendency at "Can the Seamless Garment be Sewn? The Future of Pro-Life Progressivism". Little did I think that when I wrote my doctoral thesis "Mental Representation: St. Thomas and the De Interpretatione" that the love of wisdom would lead me here.

Such is love.

John [O'Callaghan]

*"Whatever is hostile to life itself, such as any kind of homicide, genocide, abortion, euthanasia and voluntary suicide; whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, PHYSICAL AND MENTAL TORTURE AND ATTEMPTS TO COERCE THE SPIRIT; whatever is offensive to human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution and trafficking in women and children; degrading conditions of work which treat labourers as mere instruments of profit, and not as free responsible persons: all these and the like are a disgrace, and so long as they infect human civilization they contaminate those who inflict them more than those who suffer injustice, and they are a negation of the honour due to the Creator".(Veritatis Splendor #80) "

Originally posted on the blog for the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture [link here].


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