Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Torture, Sin and The Law

Fr. Neuhaus of First Things has an interesting take (second item down) on Charles Krauthammer's much debated article on torture in the Weekly Standard, in which Krauthammer asserts that in certain extreme circumstances the use of torture might be not only morally acceptable, but necessary.

It strikes me that one of the things that is often lost of us in our modern age, even on many good Catholics, is the dichotomy between being "of this world" and being "of the next". In Dante's Purgatorio, he encounters in ante-purgatory the valley of the pre-occupied, many of them political and military leaders.

The souls in ante-purgatory are those who, while in the end choosing God, not only need to purge away their sins from this world, but before they can even begin the process of purification must reorient themselves toward God -- something which, whether through sloth, late repentance or distraction they failed to do in this life. (Those who died under excommunication occupy a lower level of ante-purgatory, and must wait a period of time determined by their period of unrepentant excommunication before they can be admitted to the higher levels.)

It was commonly agreed upon in Dante's time that devoting one's energy to being a good ruler might well detract from one's ability to be a good person. With the advent of a great emphasis on Church social teaching and improving the lot of the residents of this world, this view seems to have lost emphasis, if not been totally discarded.

On the one had, people assert that as a Christian a ruler should in all cases do that which is morally right -- even if the results for his secular charge (the state) are negative. On the other hand, others assert that whatever doing whatever is best for one's country must in and of itself be moral.

According to Neuhaus, McCain seems to have avoided both of these approaches and hearkened back to a more medieval approach. In interviews, McCain has said that although he believes that interrogation tactics that fall under or close to the definition of torture should be illegal, he nonetheless expects that should the oft-suggested "ticking bomb" circumstance come about, that government officials would in fact authorize tactics in violation of his proposed law. The point, he feels, is that in such a circumstance the officials in question should have to weigh the likelihood of gaining truly essential information that might save millions of lives against the possible repercussions of breaking the law.

I agree with Neuhaus that McCain is probably on the right track here. (I'm not speaking necessarily about the details of his proposed amendment, on which I'm not an expert, but rather on the general principle that torture should be universally illegal.) Torturing a suspect, even someone you're sure is guilty and has information that could save countless lives is nonetheless morally wrong. To the extent that it is a moral good for the laws of our country to reflect the moral law, we should therefore outlaw the use of torture in such a situation.

And yet, it is unquestionably true that someone who is entirely devoted to the good of the state (even to the possible exclusion of the good of his soul) would ignore this law under truly extreme circumstances. Depending on what this person did and whether he was right, it may well be that the country and God would choose to forgive that person for his crime rather than punishing him. Although a wrong done for a good cause is no less wrong, it is more readily forgivable than a wrong done for the sake of doing wrong.

This is the dichotomy that Dante deals with in describing the valley of the pre-occupied. These are the people who devoted themselves primarily to preserving mortal lives and mortal institutions, even when the means necessary to do so were contrary to God's laws. They set their sights on worldly goods rather than eternal goods. They sacrificed their time, their energy and even in many cases their lives for goods that were not the highest good, using means that were not the highest means.

The sacrifices such people make "to protect and to serve" worldy institutions should not be underestimated. And they deserve respect for what they do. But it is at the same time essential to remember that just because an action is the best or only possible way to preserve a country or a life does not necessarily mean that it is the right thing to do. Sometimes we are placed in situations where following God's law means giving up one's land, power, or life. This is when we are faces with the difficult truth of Christ's statement that a man cannot serve two masters.

Dante's solution to is to affirm that serving the good of the state can mean neglecting God's law, yet at the same time seeing that true faithfulness even to a worldly master is still pleasing to God, though imperfect and in need of purification.

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