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.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Nomenclature of Atrocities and Catholic Legal Theory




Over the last several days a number of MOJ contributors have offered some significant reflections on the use of language regarding atrocities that punctuate human history in this country and around the world. For their contributions and most helpful insights, I will remain grateful. I appreciate, moreover, the analogies that exist in the moral concerns and the outrage as well as the principles of Catholic teachings that apply to the Holocaust, slavery, abortion, genocide, and other atrocities that demand our attention and response so that these events will never happen again.


It is relevant and important for our discussion, debate, and deliberation to keep in mind what makes these atrocities similar and what makes them different if we are to learn from them so that they are never repeated and so that the word atrocity may become a word infrequently used to explain what has happened in present days and the future.


The Holocaust was a particular genocide against the Jewish people that National Socialism had devised to eliminate the Jews from the face of the earth. That was a singular event that has parallels with other plans for mass extermination but was directed to a particular people. We can properly recall the similarities, but we must not forget the differences.


National Socialism also targeted others in its design for mass extermination, especially the Poles. We do not have a name for this other genocide. It, too, was horrendous, and the numbers of human lives sacrificed was also enormous. But, the reasons for this hideous event were not the same as the dehumanizing events and policies that consumed the Jewish people. Each has parallels with the other, but each is also very different.


The targeting of another people for destruction, the Armenians, is another dark chapter of human history. The taking of life of enormous numbers of this people, the Armenians, has parallels with the two previous genocides I have mentioned, but this was also a different aspect of our dark human history that possesses its distinctions.


The existence of slavery, while not necessarily a destruction of human life, was an extraordinary dehumanization of peoples based on race or ethnicity. In our country of the United States, it has taken a toll hundreds of thousands of African Americans. While it has sometimes be given a name—our Peculiar Institution—it has parallels with the dehumanizations that I have already mentioned, but we must not forget the great differences of slavery from what happened to the Jews, the Poles, and the Armenians.


There are other unfortunate and inexcusable episodes of the dark side of human history that I could add to my catalog, such as the mass exterminations under Stalinism. Each of these additional tragic, unnecessary, and gravely wrong episodes has parallels with those I have mentioned, but each retains differences that must not be forgotten.


And then we come to abortion. This relatively new “peculiar institution” has a certain parallel with those I have already mentioned, i.e., the massive extinguishing of human life, but it also has extraordinary differences. In spite of analogies that we may properly draw, it must not be confused with the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the destruction of the Poles, the annihilation policies of Josef Stalin, the dehumanization of slavery, etc. And these differences we must not forget. And what distinguishes abortion from these other atrocities? I shall mention two here. The first is that the death count attributable to abortion is approaching fifty million human lives since this national “peculiar institution” of abortion was recognized and institutionalized in 1973. The second is that this atrocity is still taking place, thereby increasing the number of its victims. What name should we give it? Something that “reduces costs”? A woman’s “right”? A “human right”?


No, these names do not work, nor are they appropriate. Moreover, it is not the Holocaust, notwithstanding the parallels. It is not the Armenian genocide, despite the parallels. It is not what happened in Rwanda or Yugoslavia, despite the parallels. It is not what happened in Stalin’s death camps, despite the parallels. Regarding abortion, it is not the name that is important. What is important is that while we seemed to have learned the lessons of these other tragic episodes that I have mentioned and arrested them, the institution of abortion is still on course and increasing multifold the number of its innocent victims, regardless of the analogies it possesses with those circumstances that human civilization has correctly and resoundingly condemned and arrested.



RJA sj



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