Archive for the ‘Moral Theology’ Category
“For the United States, a Long-Sought Prize; for Obama, a Welcome Victory.” The New-York Times headline last week captures a critical truth about Bin Laden’s assassination: it carries more symbolic than strategic significance:
How much his death will affect Al Qaeda itself remains unclear. For years, as they failed to find him, American leaders have said that he was more symbolically important than operationally significant because he was on the run and hindered in any meaningful leadership role. And yet, he remained the most potent face of terrorism around the world and some of those who played down his role in recent years nonetheless celebrated his death.
Killing of any kind, even of someone as wicked as Osama bin Laden, should give us pause, as Patrick Clark observes over at catholicmoraltheology.com. In the Christian tradition, it is by no means a foregone conclusion that wicked people should be killed for their transgressions. Operative here are Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard it said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth fora tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.
Thomists, following Augustine, do not take this passage as commanding passivism or non-resistance. Aquinas holds that is just to kill sinners “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin . . . in order to safegard the common good” (II-II, Q. 64, art. 2). In a bit of a departure from Augustine, Thomas also allows for killing in self-defense:
It is not necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense in order to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one’s own life than of another’s. But as it is unlawful to take a man’s life, except for the public authority acting for the common good, as stated above (Article 3), it is not lawful for a man to intend killing a man in self-defense, except for such as have public authority, who while intending to kill a man in self-defense, refer this to the public good, as in the case of a soldier fighting against the foe, and in the minister of the judge struggling with robbers, although even these sin if they be moved by private animosity.
This passage forms the basis of the just war tradition which allows Christians to engage in warfare for the protection of the common good. There are, however, important limitations to the circumstances in which such killing might be justified, patricularly regarding proportionality and the protection of the innocent (II-II, Q. 64.2, ad. 1).
Thus, if killing Osama bin Laden was simply an act of self-defense, it would seem like a relatively unproblematic act in the Thomistic moral tradition. But it was not self-defense that most motivated his execution:
Mr. Obama called Mr. Bush on Sunday evening to tell him that Bin Laden had been killed. Shortly after Mr. Obama’s announcement at the White House, Mr. Bush issued a statement congratulating his successor, saying, “No matter how long it takes, justice will be done.”
What is this justice that has been done? I suggest it is rather vengeance that has been accomplished, “the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned,” as Aquinas defines it (II-II, Q. 108 art. 1). It is vengeance that has sent people dancing in the streets all over this country (or in the libraries as the case may be at my own Boston College, where amid celebrations, exams and papers still have to get done):
“I don’t know if it will make us safer, but it definitely sends a message to terrorists worldwide,” said Stacey Betsalel, standing in Times Square with her husband, exchanging high fives. “They will be caught and they will have to pay for their actions. You can’t mess with the United States for very long and get away with it.”
For Aquinas, vengeance is not evil in and of itself, but its moral evaluation depends on the mind of the avenger. If the intention of the avenger is evil of the person on whom she takes vengeance, the act is rendered unlawful,
because to take pleasure in another’s evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): “Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good.”
Vengeance is only justified when the intention is good, “for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored.” Moreover, vengeance, when motivated by an upright will, is actually a special virtue, reckoned under the virtue of justice: “Man resists harm by defending himself against wrongs, lest they be inflicted on him, or he avenges those which have already been inflicted on him, with the intention, not of harming, but of removing the harm done. . . Therefore vengeance is a special virtue” (II-II, Q. 108, art. 3).
I think there is a relatively good chance that a Thomist could justify vengeance in this case. Thomas even goes so far as to say that killing out of vengeance can be profitable to the common good. Notice, though, the contingency of these two sentences. Merely because vengeance can be justifiable does not mean it ought to be sought out. The justification of an act of vengeance depends on whether or not the act was prudent.
I want to suggest that in this case, killing Osama bin Laden was not prudent. First of all, it seems he was killed with relatively little resistance. With our highly-trained Navy Seals responsible for the mission, there is no reason that I can see that he could not have been captured and tried. Bin Laden’s capture could have prevented criticisms like the ones we see from his own family, published recently in the NYTimes:
If he has been summarily executed then, we question the propriety of such assassination where not only international law has been blatantly violated but USA has set a very different example whereby right to have a fair trial, and presumption of innocence until proven guilty by a court of law has been sacrificed on which western society is built and is standing when a trial of OBL was possible for any wrongdoing as that of Iraqi President Sadam Hussein and Serbian President Slobodan Miloševic’. We maintain that arbitrary killing is not a solution to political problems and crime’s adjudication as Justice must be seen to be done.
Moreover, Osama bin Laden’s execution resulted in the death of non-combatants, including a woman. The Christian tradition has a precedent that in executing vengeance, the “wheat should not be uprooted with the chaff,” and if the innocent suffer along with the guilty, vengeance ceases to be virtuous. Aquinas acknowledges that vengeance may be executed on a populace that bears a common guilt, thus providing a possible justification of the killing of a non-combatant in the execution, but again, only if in conformance with the demands of prudence:
On the other hand, if it is not the whole but only a part of the multitude that has sinned, then if the guilty can be separated from the innocent, vengeance should be wrought on them: provided, however, that this can be done without scandal to others; else the multitude should be spared and severity foregone. The same applies to the sovereign, whom the multitude follow. For his sin should be borne with, if it cannot be punished without scandal to the multitude: unless indeed his sin were such, that it would do more harm to the multitude, either spiritually or temporally, than would the scandal that was feared to arise from his punishment (II-II 108.1, ad. 5).
It is not clear to me that Osama bin Laden’s death has not caused a scandal, especially if the remarks made by his family are commonplace, as I suspect they are:
I Omar Ossama Binladin and my brothers the lawful children and heirs of the Ossama Binladin (OBL) have noted wide coverage of the news of the death of our father, but we are not convinced on the available evidence in the absence of dead body, photographs, and video evidence that our natural father is dead. Therefore, with this press statement, we seek such conclusive evidence to believe the stories published in relation to 2 May 2011 operation Geronimo as declared by the President of United States Barrack Hussein Obama in his speech that he authorized the said operation and killing of OBL and later confirmed his death. . .
In making this statement, we want to remind the world that Omar Ossam Binladin, the fourth-born son of our father, always disagreed with our father regarding any violence and always sent messages to our father, that he must change his ways and that no civilians should be attacked under any circumstances. Despite the difficulty of publicly disagreeing with our father, he never hesitated to condemn any violent attacks made by anyone, and expressed sorrow for the victims of any and all attacks. As he condemned our father, we now condemn the president of the United States for ordering the execution of unarmed men and women.
Relying on the political and moral realism of Aquinas, we don’t get clear answers to the justifiability of Bin Laden’s execution. We get no categorical statements like “Killing is always wrong” or “Christians should never pursue vengeance.” Both killing and vengeance have a place in Aquinas’ moral system. I am just not so sure they have a place in the recent execution of Osama Bin Laden. Regardless, as a Thomist, I am forced to sit uneasy with the president’s decision to call for his execution and not respond, as he did, with certainty about the justice of his actions.
For the finest Thomistic treatment of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, see John of St. Thomas’ Commentary on Thomas’ text in the Summa.
We don’t really talk about the gifts much anymore. Anybody in CCD or raised on the old Baltimore Catechism could probably rattle them off–wisdom, knowledge, understanding, counsel, piety, fortitude and fear of the Lord. The main scriptural passage in support of the gifts is Isaiah 11: 2-3:
The spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him: a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, A spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the LORD, and his delight shall be the fear of the LORD.
In general, the gifts are considered the works of grace of the Holy Spirit for the sanctification of souls. “Grace,” says St. Thomas, “is nothing but the beginning of eternal life in us.” (II-II 24.3.2). The gifts of the Holy Spirit might be considered the foretaste of eternal life. Everlasting life begins not when we die but the moment we receive grace in our soul.
More specifically, Aquinas considers the gifts habits (habitui) in a similar manner as virtues, but distinct from the virtues. Unlike the moral virtues, the gifts have the intellect and will as their subject. Unlike the theological virtues, save charity, the gifts remain in heaven. The gifts collaborate with the virtues, but a distinction remains.
The key word in talking about the gifts is love, defined as the “desire to be in union with the beloved.” The gifts unite a person to God and give her a participation in the divine life. This is not a transient thing, but a firm and stable disposition according to the intention of God (hence the identification of the gifts as habitui). Dominic Hughes provides an important clarification on this point in his introduction to John of St. Thomas’ commentary:
Looked at from the viewpoint of God and of the infused virtues themselves, man’s supernatural life is solid and stable; looked at from the viewpoint of weak human nature, the supernatural life is held in a fragile vessel that can be easily destroyed by moral sin.
Thus, the “blessed assurance” sung about in church exists only from the divine vantage point. Here on earth, things look a little more tenuous.
Nevertheless, the gifts dispose the Christian to receive immediate direction by the Holy Spirit who leads humans toward their ultimate telos–salvation. Progress in holiness is a matter of relinquishing greater and greater control to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. Again, progress in holiness is not something human beings are capable of–“no amount of instruction is sufficient for man to learn perfectly the ways of living in God,” writes Hughes.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit are, therefore, especially ordained to overcome the shortcomings of human knowledge. Even the person enlightened by faith sees “through a veil.” Faith allows one to believe, but belief is not the same as sight. In heaven, faith passes away because we will see God as God is, face to face. Here on earth, this vision is granted by the gifts which enlighten the intellect not to assent to belief, as with faith, but rather, to see. Accordingly,
the gift of understanding gives faith a greater penetration of its own principles, the revealed truths of tradition and Scripture; counsel perfects faith in its practical extension to the multiplicity of human action directed to the final end; it guides immediately the three affective gifts of piety, fortitude and fear of the Lord; the gifts of knowledge and wisdom perfect faith in its act of judgment, whether the judgment is concerned with creatures or with God Himself (Hughes, 17).
The key to the gifts is that they provide a knowledge through connaturality with divine things. Connatural knowledge is an affective union with an object that grants a sort of emotional “knowledge,” a knowledge by love, by inclination (per modum inclinationis) or from instinct (ex instinctu). Knowledge by connaturality is contrasted with the discursive knowledge of the intellect and in some ways is more perfect than intellectual or cognitive knowledge in that it leads to union with the loved object. Connatural knowledge transforms the knower (rather than transforming the object from material to immaterial in the case of cognitive knowledge), and it is in this way that the Holy Spirit works. The grace of the third person of the trinity instills the deep affective, connatural knowledge of God into the believer, thus inclining her toward God by a kind of instinctive movement. Sevais Pinckaers says the result of the gifts is a spiritual “instinct” (instinctus).
What is particularly great about the gifts of the Holy Spirit is that they reveal the great dignity and importance of the emotions in the moral and spiritual life. The gifts transform the emotions to love God, and grant a knowledge of God the intellect is itself incapable of. We should remember this when we try to intellectualize our faith and deny the importance of the emotions. Ss Hughes writes, “If we insist, consciously or unconsciously, on our own initiative, we are doomed to spiritual mediocrity. . . Reason is always valid while we are separated from God by the veil of faith. . . Love is always dissatisfied with the limitations of human knowledge, even when enlightened by faith.”
I had a conversation with a wonderful friend this afternoon about the experience of guilt, especially for things one is not directly responsible for. For example, if you need to buy a suit for work and you know that all the suits that you see in stores are made in sweatshops abroad, and even though you don’t want to support sweatshops, you buy a suit regardless because you need it for work, should you feel guilty? Or you know that our dependency on oil is unsustainable, and you know that oil companies operate in ways that are harmful to the environment, and you feel strongly that our need for oil has fostered an aggressive foreign policy in the Middle East that has lead to large numbers of civilians being killed, yet you still buy fuel for your car for a Memorial Day trip with friends. Or you think the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unjust, and you know that a large percentage of your tax dollars are being used to fund these wars, yet you still pay taxes. Should you feel guilty for these actions? More generally, should you feel guilty for actions you participate in that are less than ideal, or even the lesser of two evils, if you act as best as you can, especially considering you do not will the potential bad consequences of your act?
First of all, there are a number of distinctions to clarify. First, we have to explain how one might cooperate in evil without directly willing the evil action. Typically, one can cooperate either formally or materially in evil. In formal cooperation, one willingly and freely participates in the evil action (e.g., holding a person down to get tortured or driving the get-away car in a bank robbery). In material cooperation, one provides material resources like cash or supplies for the evil action. Material cooperation can be more or less immediate in terms of whether or not the evil action is willed by the one providing the material means. For example, immediate material cooperation involves willful material participation for the intention of the evil action (e.g. selling arms to terrorists). In mediate cooperation, material support is provided for an evil action that is not directly willed. A good example of this would be paying taxes in a nation involved in an unjust war. The intention in paying taxes is not to support the war effort, but rather to support the other worthy endeavors the nation is involved in like roads and public schools which are dependent on the contribution of taxes.
In addition to the ways in which we can participate in evil actions, we have to make a further distinction regarding the ways one can be responsible for the evil committed. For example, what if I cooperate materially in an act of terrorism by selling arms, but I didn’t know the materials I contributed were going to be used for evil. In other words, I was ignorant of the consequences of my actions. One can distinguish in such a case between vincible and invincible ignorance. Vincible ignorance is ignorance in which one should have known better, or ignorance that could have been remedied by proper inquiry. In the case of vincible ignorance, one is responsible for the evil one participates in. To return to the earlier example of the arms dealer selling arms to terrorists, if someone approaches a dealer in a vehicle covered with “Death to America” bumper stickers and asks to buy a couple of tons of TNT or some other potential weapon, the dealer has the responsibility to inquire about the use of the material being purchased, and to refuse sale for anything that might be used for an evil. Invincible ignorance is involuntary ignorance. It is ignorance that could not have been prevented with any reasonable amount of effort, and as such, the person involved in the evil is morally innocent, despite the fact that an evil action occurred. An example might be a doctor prescribing a drug for a person who later decides to use that drug to kill themselves. Presuming the doctor did everything in her power to make sure she was prescribing the drug responsibly, she is morally innocent, despite the fact a grave evil (suicide) occurred due in part to her influence. Another example might be a driver who is going the speed limit and obeying traffic laws, yet hits a child who out of nowhere ran into the road. This is a tragic incident, a horrible tragedy, and in some sense, a grave evil, but the person driving the car is in no way responsible for the evil committed.
So if you can cooperate in an action which you in no way intend, and indeed can even be ignorant of the evil being committed in the action, in what sense should you feel guilty? One might reasonably say that if a person does not intend an evil, and cannot even be held responsible for the evil committed, one has no reason to feel guilty. For Aquinas, however, the very fact that one was involved in sin implicates one in the guilt that is consequent. The reason is that sin itself is an evil, an act contrary to the will of God, or a disorder in God’s order of creation. Whether one wills the sin or not, the disorder remains.
Quoting Romans 2:9, Aquinas writes, “Tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that worketh evil.” But to work evil is to sin. Therefore sin incurs a punishment which is signified by the words “tribulation and anguish.” (II-II, 87.1). He goes on to say that sin may be considered in two ways: first, sin may be considered according to the act itself, and secondly, sin may be considered according to the consequent stain. According to the latter, he says,
Now it is evident that in all actual sins, when the act of sin has ceased, the guilt remains; because the act of sin makes man deserving of punishment, in so far as he transgresses the order of Divine justice, to which he cannot return except he pay some sort of penal compensation, which restores him to the equality of justice; so that, according to the order of Divine justice, he who has been too indulgent to his will, by transgressing God’s commandments, suffers, either willingly or unwillingly, something contrary to what he would wish. This restoration of the equality of justice by penal compensation is also to be observed in injuries done to one’s fellow men. Consequently it is evident that when the sinful or injurious act has ceased there still remains the debt of punishment. (II-II, 87.6)
Accordingly, every act of sin that one commits, whether willfully or not, still results in guilt, because every act of sin is an injury to self, neighbor, God, or creation, and thus demands recompense.
My friend, however, is not a Christian and so there is a sense in which Christian explanations of the “stain of sin” and even the language of “sin” and “evil” fall a little flat. Yet, there is a way to make this idea of guilt, even for unwilled evil actions or actions that have unwilled evil consequences, more widely accessible.
We can do so by turning to a more relational and less individualistic anthropology. The idea that one can only be guilty of evil actions that are directly willed is based on an a model of human nature which assumes that we have a very large degree of control over all of our actions. In other words, an individualistic anthropology assumes I and I alone am master of my actions. Consequently, if I intend to do something wrong, I am responsible. If I do something wrong which is unintentional, I am not responsible. I am guilty in the case of the former, and not in the case of the latter.
In a more relational anthropology, we understand human nature to be integrally intertwined with those whom one is in relationship. This includes family, friends, nation, economic community, church, etc. In this understanding of the human person, one has freedom, but one is not the complete master of his or her actions. Instead, we see ourselves intimately involved in the actions of others, often in unwilled ways. One example of this is a child born into an abusive home who subsequently becomes an abuser later on as an adult. Now, such a person is free, obviously, and many people in similar circumstances do not become abusers. Nevertheless, there is still something about the abused-child-turned-abuser scenario that illustrates how many of our actions, and many of our sins, are not something that we directly intend. We inherit sin, we are born into sinful systems, and we act in such a way that perpetuate those sinful systems (This is sometimes referred to as the “sins of the fathers” which incidentally is the motif Faulkner was fascinated by in crafting his fiction).
Take the example of buying a suit at a popular clothing store that surely makes its clothes overseas in sweatshops. In buying the suit, I don’t intend the evil, and I am not directly responsible for it, but I am participating in a network of evil, which through a complicated chain of people acting just like me causes innocent people abroad to suffer. I think one should feel guilt in such a situation. The guilt is a reminder that the we should not be content with the status quo, that evil exists, and that our world is still groaning for redemption. The guilt is also a reminder that I am a part of the evil, and as such, I need to do something to repay the debt the evil has caused, to fill in the privation. That feeling of guilt may incite one person to call the corporate headquarters and demand they stop using sweatshops; it may incite another person to write a letter to the editor raising awareness about sweatshops; it may incite another to write a political representative; it may incite another to make more conscientious decisions about which clothes to buy. But regardless, the guilt pricks our conscious, it makes us aware that the world we live in is not perfect, and it makes us aware that we ourselves are not perfect, even when we act as conscientiously and with the best intentions possible. Guilt makes us people who desire redemption.
From a theological point of view, such guilt can point us to God. We may realize in reflecting on the guilt we experience that the sinful systems we are a part of are far too big and complex to ever be fixed by humans. We may have inherited a propensity to abuse drugs or alcohol or food and realize that left to our own devices, we are unable to overcome our affliction. We may reflect on the lasting damage to the earth caused by a complex chain of human actions, like the oil spill in the Gulf, and realize that we can never, ever make amends for the wrongs done to the environment. And so this can compel to seek out a “Higher Power” as the A.A. programs refers to that is greater than the sum of human effort, and whose goodness is greater than the sum of human sin. In other words, by recognizing that we are a people who stand accused and guilty and unable to restore justice, we may become people on the God of both justice and mercy.
An article in today’s NYTimes online provocatively titled “The Gift of Life and It’s Price” discusses both the economic costs and emotional toll of the fertility industry. The issue of IVF is receiving renewed attention in light of the debate about healthcare and the significant costs that IVF children, particularly IVF-conceived twins who are frequently born premature with severe health problems, contribute to overall healthcare spending:
The hospitalization and doctor’s care for Ms. Hare and her son exceeded $1 million. Most of that, about $750,000 to $800,000, was for Carter. The bill was picked up by the self-funded health plan of the Trammell Crow Company, the Dallas real estate investment company where Ms. Hare worked.
“The following quarter during the earnings release, somebody asked why there was a sharp increase in medical costs,” Ms. Hare said. No one identified her, but Ms. Hare knew that her family had contributed heavily.
In Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hired an economist to predict what would happen if single embryo transfer were used in a large number of IVF cases.
Dr. Macaluso, the C.D.C. reproductive health official, estimates the patients, businesses and insurance providers would save more than $500 million annually, even taking into consideration the cost of extra in-vitro rounds, by lowering neonatal intensive care, special education and other costs of premature babies.
In an effort to be competitive in today’s fertility industry, clinics grant the maximum autonomy possible to clients in choosing how many fertilized embryos to transfer, despite the fact that higher implantation success rates means that multiple transfers is significantly more likely to lead to multiple births. Potential parents know the risk, but since IVF procedures frequently come out of their own pocket, most are unable to afford multiple rounds, and multiple embryo transfers makes it much more likely that the first round of IVF will lead to conception. Twins are much more likely than single births to have complications at birth.
According to one federal study, about 30 percent of all twins end up in a neonatal intensive care unit, with twins eight times as likely as single babies to be born below 3 pounds, 4 ounces. These are the babies who often need the longest hospital care and face the most sever health problems. Dr. Macaluso, the doctor featured in the article, calls them “million-dollar babies.”
The story does a good job balancing between discussing the extreme financial costs of IVF and multiple births with the more emotional side of the story. The parents discussed (and many of the ones weighing in with comments at the end of the article) are couples who want ever-so-badly to have children and are willing to bear any costs to make this a reality. Moreover, they are providing their children the gift of life, a gift that outweighs any financial burden.
This article brings to the mind of the everydaythomist the morality of choice, and in particular, a distinction made by the renowned Servais Pinckaers between freedom of indifference and freedom for excellence. Pickaers argues that in the contemporary period, we are accustomed to thinking of choice as a matter of choosing between what he calls “freedom of indifference” and “freedom of excellence.” Much of Pinckaers discussion of these two freedoms is a rhetorically charged jab at a caricature of nominalism, and particularly William of Occam (I am more inclined to blame Scotus for the sins of nominalism), but in essence, freedom of indifference is a conception of human freedom that reduces the matter of choice completely to the will’s ability to choose between contraries.
Essentially, freedom of indifference for Pinckaers is the freedom to do whatever is within the realm of possibility for human beings. Human beings have the ability to implant one or two or ten embryos into a woman’s uterus, thus, a woman has the freedom to decide how many embryos will get transferred. Freedom of indifference is the freedom of choice, the choice to say “yes” or “no” to whatever is possible.
Freedom for excellence is, on the contrary, a more limited construal of freedom. This conception of freedom is not one that focuses on the will’s ability to choose “yes” or “no” to whatever possible, but rather the will and intellect’s ability to choose “yes” to whatever is good. Freedom for excellence is a freedom limited to the telos of human flourishing. Choosing what is conducive to flourishing, both for the individual and the community, is an exercise of such freedom; choosing what is not conducive to flourishing, despite the fact that it may look like an exercise of freedom, is actually a mere expression of the will and reason’s enslavement to the passions, or custom, or some other power that prevents the person from becoming the person that God intended.
Freedom for excellence is not something that is simply given, but is rather something that humans need to develop through the exercise of virtuous external activities, and particularly through the development of the virtues. When I resist gorging myself on Halloween candy because I know it will make me feel sick and sluggish afterwards, I am exercising my freedom for excellence. When my husband and I choose not to buy a TV because we know that our default evening activity will be to veg out in front of the tube rather than engaging in more productive and life-giving activities, we are developing our freedom for excellence, despite the fact that we are limiting our ability to “choose” what to do each night.
Pinckaers distinction between the two freedoms is overly-simplistic, and my summary is even more so, but I think this distinction can illuminate an element of this debate about the cost, both financial and human, about fertility treatment. We think of the ability to choose whether or not to engage in fertility treatment as a foregone conclusion. After all, the technology is available, and much that is good is resultant of the use of this technology, namely the freedom for infertile couples to have their own children. Couples previously denied a choice concerning whether or not to have children now have their freedom to choose restored. This article discusses the cost of couples choosing whether or not to utilize this technology, but does not discuss the choice itself.
I am not so convinced that IVF and other fertility treatments are an authentic and moral exercise of human freedom. Consider this comment from one reader:
I’m sure I share many readers’ thoughts and feelings. Although I acknowledge people’s primal and mindless urges to procreate, in the world we share, “want” doesn’t equal “should have”. Our country and planet are places of finite resources of every kind. To squander them on IVF and its incredibly resource-intensive consequences is simply an outrage. There is no tenable argument in favor of IVF.
Many of the comments reflect this sentiment, and criticize the article for never mentioning adoption. The logic behind these comments is that it is more moral to choose adoption than to choose IVF.
Why wasn’t adoption ever mentioned in this article? Why do these women put themselves and their families through such risky procedures when there are so many children who could need loving, supportive families?
There are always options for adoption (although it is my understanding that this process can be equally time consuming, emotionally draining, and financially burdensome.
I think there is a case to be made for limiting the freedom to choose IVF, which is a restriction of one conception of freedom, in order to expand another conception of freedom. I think we need to bring the debate about IVF back down to the morality of the choice itself. Our society is limiting the ability to “choose” in all sorts of ways in order to make people “more free” in another way. We are taking coke and snack machines out of primary schools, for example, which is limiting the freedom our children have to choose between healthy and unhealthy dining options in order to make them more free by making them less disposed to obesity and diabetes as adults. In many cities across the US, including my own, it is illegal to smoke inside public buildings in order to make people more free to enjoy a meal or a drink without exposure to second-hand smoke.
We choose to limit our ability to choose in order to make us more free to make choices that are conducive to health, flourishing, and excellence. Why do we not do the same for IVF. Yes, in one sense, it is wonderful for parents who cannot conceive naturally to be able to conceive artificially, and there are many beautiful IVF success stories that serve as a testimony to its advantages. But are fertility procedures like IVF allowing individuals and society to make choices that are really conducive to excellence and flourishing?
This article points to one way in which IVF may be detracting from individual and societal flourishing by causing a huge burden to the health care system which is already over-stretched and under-accomplished. The comments about adoption point to another way in which the ability to choose IVF is not conducive to flourishing—it makes people more likely to choose IVF and less likely to choose adoption, leaving millions of kids unwanted in under-resourced foster care system. By restricting the freedom to choose IVF, we increase the freedom to choose adoption, in the same way that restricting the freedom to choose a treat from the snack machine increases the freedom to choose a healthy snack of veggies or whole grains.
Deep down, most of us are libertarians in some way. We want to maximize our choices as a way of maximizing our freedom. But most of us also recognize that on a society-wide scale, maximizing choices is not usually conducive to either making us more free or making us more happy. If given the choice to eat unhealthy snacks or a balanced lunch, most people are going to choose the latter. And we may say that it is a good in itself that they can make this choice, but when we get a society where over 30% of the population is obese, and we can’t provide adequate healthcare to all because the healthcare industry is already over-taxed in treating preventable illnesses like heart disease and obesity, we have to step back and ask whether the inherent ability to choose an unhealthy lifestyle is so good after all.
In a similar fashion, we might think it inherently good that couples at one time debilitated by the disease of infertility can now choose to bear a child of their own to love and care for. But when we get a bloated foster care system, and another giant strain on the healthcare system from couples having IVF babies demanding millions of dollars of expensive lifesaving treatments, maybe we have to step back again and ask whether the inherent ability to choose the IVF procedure is so good after all as well.
In New Wine, New Wineskins, Christopher Steck, SJ has an article entitled “Saintly Voyeurism: A Methodological Necessity for the Christian Ethicist?” In this essay, Steck notes the lack of attention to the personal qualities and character of the professional ethicist, and argues that contemporary Catholic moral theology should incorporate of his proposed method of “saintly voyeurism” into moral education. “Saintly voyeurism” according to Steck is a return to concrete models of Christian holiness as found in the stories of the saints in order to facilitate a neglected goal for the moral practitioner, namely, their own holiness.
Steck’s concern is that contemporary moral theologians are not sufficiently rooted in and transformed by the Christian story. On an institutional level, Steck complains that that there is insufficient support both from the church and the academy to support the development of catholic ethicists own development of Christian disciples as they practice their trade. He writes,
Achieving such a vision [of Christian discipleship for the professional ethicist] is complicated in the academic culture in which Catholic ethicists practice their trade. That culture is given shape by a constellation of values whose form does not align well with that of the field of Christian ethics, especially insofar as it is concerned with questions of what constitutes the holy life. This misalignment, I argue, is due in part to the dominance of rationalistic and acutely critical modes of contemporary research, along with a lack of concern for the personal moral character of the one engaging in research. . . More though needs to be given too how Catholic moral theologians can ‘form’ themselves into Christian ethicists and address issues of Christian discipleship and the holy life.
In essence, Steck’s concern is that not enough attention is being directed towards making ethicists more ethical, and within a Christian context, more holy. Instead, the virtues of the professional ethicists encouraged in the academy are the virtues which Steck identifies with scientific rationalism. They are
• Agorism: the virtue of argumentation and debate, or the “need to position one’s work in opposition to someone else’s and disprove others’ arguments in order to be original, [to] make a contribution and demonstrate intellectual ability” (28).
• Circumscription: the inclination against universalist or comprehensive claims
• Unmaking: a kind of hermeneutic of suspicion or “belief that truth claims conceal subtle and pernicious advancements of self-interest (whether personal, group, social, or institutional) and unconscious desires of power” (28-9).
Such critique-oriented rationalistic virtues have their advantages in the academy and particularly for scholarly research, but Steck worries that such virtues are not in themselves sufficient for the development of the scholar, and particularly the Catholic ethicist. That is, such virtues encourage intellectual competency but neglect other fundamental parts of the academician’s character. As Steck puts it, “Our ends [as scholars] are not just intellectual ones; they have to do with what brings us emotional well-being, psychological peach, and deep satisfaction about a life lived well” (30).
What we need in the academy, argues Steck, are spiritual practices that nurture a more comprehensive vision of the Christian life for the professional Catholic ethicist. That is, the Catholic academy needs institutionalized ways of encouraging Christian discipleship and Christian holiness among its professional ethicists.
What Steck recommends is a sort of “saintly voyeurism,” or as he describes it, “ethical reflection on the ordinary acts of a holy existence to better understand the demands of Christian discipleship” (36). Concretely, this takes the form of a kind of revised hagiography, a study of the lives and actions of the saints with an eye toward discerning which actions are most consonant with a saintly life. He quotes Richard McCormick who says “that the meaning of Christian discipleship is best gathered from the lives of the saints” (37):
Elizabeth of Hungary’s disobedience of her husband’s wishes in order to serve the poor, Elizabeth Ann Seton’s engagement with religious antagonism of her time, and Ignatius of Loyola’s apostolic choice to minister not only to the poor but to the powerful represent choices that raise interesting ethical issues for those wishing to better understand the saintly life.
Steck does not recommend an exact imitation of the saints, but rather a “casuistry at a distance,” that is, an observation of what sort of actions might be considered saintly in a given situation in order to train the ethicist’s own vision of holiness. This moral tutoring through hagiography can occur in five ways, according to Steck:
1. It can confirm for the ethicist the viability of the Christian vision, and strengthen the ethicist’s commitment to living as a Christian disciple even in the face of great adversity
2. Studying the lives of the saints can reemphasize the theological dimension of the Christian life by emphasizing such features as surrender, obedience, participation in the paschal mystery, and trust in the abiding power of love
3. The saints can offer new paradigms for how Christian discipleship can be lived out in changing historical situations
4. The lives of the saints can offer a context for examining how holiness can break through the trial and limitations of creaturely existence.
5. Finally, the saints challenge us always to respond to the situations we find ourselves in, rather than passively accepting the lot we are given. The saints give us options for our own lives for how to live out a life of holiness.
Christian moral theology is not simply a deductive or rationalistic science. It requires that its practitioner have a well-formed heart that is attuned to the Gospel and the values at its core. In an ideal world, Catholic moral theologians would be saints and scholars. However, Catholic ethicists now perform their trade in a context that often does not sustain the kind of Gospel vision associated with a saintly existence. The indifference of the academy toward traditional virtues and the loss of preconciliar spiritual practices within Catholicism leave Catholic moralists more susceptible than moralists of an earlier generation to an almost exclusively secular and narrowly rationalistic formation. . . . Scriptural mediation, prayer, devotional practices, and liturgical participation are just some of the practices that form the Christian into a disciple. But examining the lives of the saints, ordinary people achieving great moral character, is one practice that allows ethicists to practice their art—that is, scholarly reflection on human action—and thus represents a distinctive resource for moralists.
I think Steck is right on the money. I would recommend two developments to his argument. First, I think we need to accept the fact that much of the lives of the saints can be psychologized in today’s rationalistic environment, but that need not deter us from recognizing moments of great holiness or the fact that God has worked throughout history through very flawed individuals. My pet example is St. Catherine of Sienna who allegedly went seven years eating nothing but the Eucharist and occasionally some bitter herbs. Clearly, this part of her life seems psychologically unsound, and for good reason. However, the important point to be gleaned from a study of her life is that God inspired her to do great feats of holiness requiring great courage, like caring for victims of the plague and confronting the pope concerning matters of politics, despite the fact that she was a flawed, psychologically fragile and vulnerable individual. Clearly, a great lesson for us all.
Second, I would encourage Catholics to look beyond the boundaries of Catholicism to identify both historical and contemporary saints that were not necessarily a part of the Catholic faith. Due largely to my husband’s influence, I consider the Christian singer Rich Mullins a great saint. Mullins, inspired by the Christian message and anxious to live a life of Christian witness, gave his profits from his singing career to charity, and dedicated large portions of his life to charitable activities not associated at all with his career, like moving to a Native American reservation to teach the children there about music. When I listen to Rich Mullin’s music, I cannot help but be inspired by the vision of the Christian life he encourages both through his music and the story of his life. Clearly, Rich Mullins can be considered a contemporary saint for Catholics today.
I’m interested for all the professionals or soon-to-be professionals reading this post: (1) what role do the lives of the saints play in your own professional and personal life, and (2) what ways institutionally can you think of that you are encouraged to live a life of holiness within your profession, rather than a life of pure academic achievement?
Pope Benedict promulgated his third encyclical last week entitled “Caritas in Veritate” (Charity in Truth). It’s a lengthy encyclical but if you choose, you can read the full text here. Or you can just peruse this or this very useful summary.
The encyclical fits into the genre of “Catholic Social Teaching,” and in it, Benedict reemphasizes some prominent themes from that tradition: the protection of life, the protection of workers, the importance of the economy serving human beings and not the other way around, and the principle of subsidiarity for the organization of society.
There are lots of blog posts examining the encyclical, which I am not going to do here. My interest concerns rather a point made by Ross Douthat in the NYTimes op-ed column entitled “The Audacity of the Pope.” He writes:
Inevitably, liberal Catholics spent the past week touting its relevance to the Democratic Party’s policy positions. (A representative blast e-mail: “Pope’s Encyclical on Global Economy Supports the Principles of the Employee Free Choice Act.”) Just as inevitably, conservative Catholics hastened to explain that the encyclical “is not a political document” — to quote a statement co-authored by the House minority leader, John Boehner — and shouldn’t be read as “an endorsement of any political or economic agenda.”
Then, after acknowledging that the pope is neither a Republican or a Democrat, Douthat writes that “Benedict’s encyclical is nothing if not political. Caritas in Veritate promotes a vision of economic solidarity rooted in moral conservatism. It links the dignity of labor to the sanctity of marriage. It praises the redistribution of wealth while emphasizing the importance of decentralized governance. It connects the despoiling of the environment to the mass destruction of human embryos.”
What bothers me about the rest of the column is that Douthat tries to make the encyclical somehow “fit into” American conceptions of politics, recognizing that putting the pope’s recommendations into practice is challenging for Democrats and Republicans alike. “For liberals and conservatives alike, ‘Caritas in Veritate’ is an invitation to think anew about their alliances and litmus tests.”
Douthat is right that people want to take the encyclical as political when they agree with it, but when they don’t, the pope is just weighing in with his opinion. For the vast majority of people looking at the political implications of the encyclical, politics is a matter of debate, division, and voting. Politics is like a debate competition with winners and losers. Basically, politics is about what you do; morality is about what you believe. The pope can believe whatever he wants, but this has nothing to do with politics. Morality is a private issue; politics is public.
I think this understanding of politics stems from the idea that somehow morality is something separate from politics. I’m reminded of Al Gore’s speech at the Academy Awards where he said that climate change was “not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.” Gore’s comment makes it seem like politics is about power, or about making people do something. Morality on the other hand is about right and wrong.
Aristotle and Aquinas give us a very different understanding of politics. Politics is not about coercion and power, or even primarily about making laws and enforcing them. Politics for Aristotle and Aquinas is simply a branch of ethics. For Aristotle, “politics” is simply part two of his ethics. And Aquinas never even wrote a treatise on politics, though he did write about politics in his ethics found in the Secunda Pars of the Summa Theologica. In honor of Benedict’s very political encyclical, now is a good time to review what Aristotle and Aquinas take “political” to mean.
For Aristotle and Aquinas, human beings are political creatures, naturally inclined to live in society. Political society (civitas) emerges from the needs human nature and is in itself a purely natural and desirable. This is a stark contrast with a thinker like Thomas Hobbes who thought that political society was an artificial imposition established to curb the violence of human nature. For Hobbes, if human beings were virtuous, they would not need a political society; for Aquinas, political society is necessary for the full perfection of human existence. The political society is the social setting in which human beings find their fulfillment and flourishing.
The primary task of the political society, therefore, is to create good and virtuous citizens. Drawing on Aristotle, Aquinas says that a political society comes into being as a necessary component of human life, but it exists for the sake of living well (Commentary on the Politics, Book 1, Lesson 1).
So we see that ethics and politics has a similar end or purpose–the formation of good people. And in both ethics and politics, this process is a gradual process of development and progress over time. While political society might be completely natural, a good political society is not. In the same way that human beings must acquire moral virtue through education and habituation, even though they are naturally inclined to moral virtue in Aquinas’ system, so too must a political society be developed and fostered.
One of the ways this happens is through the natural law. The natural law, most basically, is the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law. The eternal law is the Divine Governance that is behind creation. For most of creation, the eternal law is pretty determinative. It is by God’s eternal law that the seasons change, the planets move, fire rises upward, and stones fall downward. It is by the eternal law that plants grow, and lions chase gazelles, and whales swim instead of fly. But rational creatures (i.e. humans), as Aquinas writes, are “subject to Divine Providence in the most excellent way, in so far as it partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself, and for others” (ST I-II, Q. 91, art. 2).
Human beings are not determined to specific actions like other parts of creation. Humans do have natural inclinations that come from the eternal law, but human beings have freedom and choice regarding how those inclinations will be directed. Thus, the natural law is about directing natural human inclinations towards the ultimate human good, which is flourishing. These natural inclinations include those inclinations that we share with all created things, namely, to keep ourselves in existence. They also include the inclinations that we share with other animals, namely to reproduce and educate offspring. And those natural inclinations include those distinctively human inclinations to form societies and seek out knowledge of God.
So the formation and regulation of society is a subject of study both for ethics and for politics. Laws are the natural outgrowth of the rational creature discerning how to live in order to flourish. Laws are not primarily about coercion (although they can and do have coercive effects). Laws are the product and outgrowth of the natural law. They are the embodiment of a community’s morality.
Politics, therefore, like ethics, is about discerning right from wrong in order to best live a good and flourishing life. So the pope’s encyclical, in so far as it is about morals, is political. But that does not mean that is primarily concerned with legislation. Determining how such moral values offered in the encyclical are to be enacted in legislation will vary from community to community. Aquinas explains how the process of creating laws is like craftsman who uses the “general form of a house” to build a particular house. Laws, in the same ways, are built on moral values (derived from natural law) but their specific form will vary depending on the needs of a given community.
Thus, different societies will have different ways of enforcing the precepts of natural law like prohibitions against murder or theft or laws regulating the best way to raise a family, protect the environment, or educate citizens. And different societies are going to have different ways of enacting the moral values espoused in Caritas et Veritate. The pope’s encyclical talks about the foundations for this process–the sort of moral values that all people of good will should espouse and all societies should take seriously in working to promote the common good. This is very much a political endeavor, or as the pope writes in his encyclical, it is the fruit of the “political path of charity.” (7)
No matter what you might think of the pope’s ideas, you cannot write off the encyclical as moral, but not political. But it isn’t political because the pope is taking sides or affirming the platform of any given party, or playing a political game. It is not political because the pope is coercing individuals or nations to act in any given way. It is political because the pope is talking about ethics, about the moral values that we act on that either contribute to or detract from the good life. It is political because the pope is inquiring after what human beings need in our changing world to flourish. As we debate the merits of the encyclical, let us not debate about whether it is political or not, and let us definitely not assume that simply because the pope wrote something political, he is out of line. Rather, let us allow the political process the pope started to continue as we examine the encyclical and reflect on what our society needs for its people to live good lives.
There is a human tendency to worship the works of our hands, to see moral and political and social progress as a human achievement. We worship our heritage, we worship human leaders, we worship our ideals. What we forget is how frail we human beings are, how readily we fall into selfish, hurtful, and wicked ways, and how frequently the good we do and the good we intend is mixed with evil motives and evil consequences. There is a song by Rich Mullins called “We are Not as Strong as We Think We Are” which beautifully captures the tragic beauty of our human condition:
We are frail
We are fearfully and wonderfully made.
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage.
And with these our hells and our heavens,
So few inches apart,
We must be awfully small,
And not as strong as we think we are.
The United States is celebrating the election of the first black president. Truly, this is something we can rejoice in, that in this country, the color of a man’s skin does not keep him from the nation’s highest office. What was wonderful about Barack Obama’s inauguration speech was that his triumph was a qualified by the fact that this nation still has so much work to do, and so much collective guilt that we have to atone for, both for what we have done domestically and abroad. As we welcome President Obama, our own rejoicing must be limited at this realization–that we, collectively, still bear the guilt of so much inhumanity, and that this human success, as with all our human success, is one which is interwoven with so much evil. The past racism of this country, and the racism that still exists, reveal something about humanity that is very much relevant to the Christian response to abortion.
13% of American women are black, yet 35% of abortions are procured by black women. The majority of Planned Parenthood clinics are still located in neighborhoods constituted by predominantly black and Hispanic populations. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece and outspoken opponent of abortion, has argued that racism and abortion are connected.
Abortion and racism are both symptoms of a fundamental human error. The error is thinking that when someone stands in the way of our wants, we can justify getting that person out of our lives. Abortion and racism stem from the same poisonous root, selfishness. We create the deceptions that the other person is less important, less worthy, less human. We are all fully human. When we face this truth, there is no justification for treating those who look different than us as lesser beings. If we simply treat other people the way we’d like to be treated, racism, abortion, and other forms of inhumanity will be things of the past.
The founder of Planned Parenthood herself was an outspoken advocate of eugenics, claiming that the sterilization of the ‘unfit’ would be the salvation of the American citizen. “The most serious charge that can be brought against modern ‘benevolence,’” Sanger argued in her work “The Function of Sterilization,” “is that it encourages the perpetuation of defectives, delinquents and dependents. These are the most dangerous elements in the world community, the most devastating curse on human progress and expression.”
Margaret Sanger thought that human beings could be divided into the fit and the unfit. This is the same mentality that exists behind racist agendas. What she and so many others fail to realize is that we are all unfit, that we are all frail, that we are all fearfully and wonderfully made, capable of amazing achievements and at the same time, terrifying horrors. We purchase peace with toilsome wars, we secure luxury by enslaving others, we expiate our sins by sending scapegoats out into the desert. Our triumphs and successes and victories never go without causalities.
One often hears the objection to the effort to outlaw abortion, “what about pregnancies that result from incest or rape or spousal abuse?” The assumption it is somehow inhuman to force an innocent woman to carry a child she is not responsible for. We assume it is better to terminate the pregnancy than to bring a child conceived in sin into the world. But we are all conceived in sin indicated by the fact that we bear our morality with us. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians:
We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you (4:7-12)
Rich Mullins puts it simpler: our heavens and our hells are always only inches apart.
What must keep in mind when we debate abortion is that we are always feeble and vulnerable and utterly dependent creatures. The child we see in the womb is our own reflection. To say that the child in the womb is liable to death is to condemn us all to death. No amount of inconvenience should lead us to treat any part of God’s creation, especially His frail, feeble image, with murderous contempt. And likewise, no amount of human mercy can change what abortion fundamentally is–a rebellious assertion of our will over God’s will. We, who are “dust and ashes,” cannot rely on our own plans, our own good intentions, and our own solutions. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “We are able to have children because our hope is in God, who makes it possible to do the absurd thing of having children. In a world of such terrible injustice, in a world of such terrible misery, in a world that may well be about the killing of our children, having children is an extraordinary act of faith and hope. But as Christians we can have a hope in God that urges us to welcome children. When that happens, it is an extraordinary testimony of faith.”
Augustine writes in his Confessions, “Aware of our own infirmity we are moved to compassion to help the indigent, assisting them in the same ways as we would wish to be helped if we were in the same distress-and not only in easy ways, like ‘the grass bearing seed’ but with the protection and aid given with a resolute determination like ‘the tree bearing fruit.’ This means such kindness as rescuing a person suffering injustice from the hand of the powerful and providing the shelter of protection by the mighty force of just judgment” (285). Our acts of mercies, in other words, are always grounded in the realization that we need mercy, and the realization that “we are awfully small, and not as strong as we think we are.”