Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Over the past several years, the exciting new moral theory of the “Simon Peter Says Strategem for Exoneration of All Evil” was pioneered by the staunch defenders of the doctrine that drowning somebody is not torture. The way the theory works is this: No act is immoral unless the Pope defines infallibly that it is. In particular, this moral theory holds that since the Pope has never defined waterboarding to be a species of torture, therefore it’s just fine. Zippy Catholic discusses this theory as the Appeal to Finer Detail:
Another fallacious mode of argument is Magisterial positivism, or more colloquially an appeal to finer detail. Waterboarding prisoners for information is not torture because the Magisterium has not specifically said that it is. But of course the Magisterium has not said that suction aspiration of a living fetus is an abortion either. On the one hand, the Magisterium imposes latae sententiae excommunication on anyone who procures or performs an abortion. On the other hand, how can we know that the person procured an abortion if the Magisterium hasn’t defined suction aspiration as abortion? The appeal to finer detail is one of those gifts that keep on giving: like a small child saying “why” over and over again, there is no answering it. Even if the Pope himself declared ex cathedra that waterboarding is torture, some Catholic would claim—indeed some Catholic has already claimed—that, you see, there is waterboarding, and then there is waterboarding. (Er, ok).
Some have pointed out that this sort of argument is no big deal since, hey, when has a government which grants itself the power to torture people ever abused that power? And although that is a mighty persuasive argument in light of the many just and benevolent actions carried out by the state in the 20th century, still it is worth noticing that, incredibly enough, this idea appears to have consequences extending beyond the immediate circumstance of political enthusiasts living in the myopia of the moment. For instance, armed with this sort of moral reasoning, others are now taking up the burden of justifiying other forms of evil. To take one example, in the long-suffering Ed Feser’s comboxes, one reader now offers the exciting new view that the deliberate incineration of thousands of children in their beds is not immoral in the slightest. How does he arrive at this remarkable conclusion?:
Paragraph 2314 of the Catechism
“every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.”
I have been searching the web for a day, and cannot find where the Catholic Church issued its “firm and unequivocal condemnation: of Hirshima and Nagasaki.
If indeed there is none, then the Catholic natural law is not as binding as this blog post implies, and the atomic bombings are not condemnable acts.
Sorry, Ed, but no condemnation, no immoral act.
You see how Simon Peter Says Strategem for the Exoneration of All Evil works? Step One: Acknowledge that Murder is a crime. Step Two: Ask in utter bafflement, “But what *is* murder?” Then declare that we can never know the answer to that question unless the Pope issues an encyclical to tell us whether the hopeless generality he condemns in the Catechism actually maps to a specific action committed by a specific person or persons. Is Charles Manson a “murderer”? Don’t get carried away with your Pharisaic more-Catholic-than-the-Pope insistence on applying the Catechism to Manson’s case when the Pope himself remains silent! Rome has never specifically pronounced on the matter of Charles Manson’s guilt so we have to acknowledge that nothing he did was immoral. No condemnation, no immoral act.
The great thing about this moral theory is that you can commit virtually any heinous sin or crime and completely escape condemnation! Has the Vatican remained pointedly silent about the supposed “butchery” of Dr. Gosnell? Clearly, the silence has to imply that no immorality has occurred. No condemnation, no immoral act. Why won’t the Pope specifically condemn suction aspiration as abortion? For the same reason it doesn’t define waterboarding as torture: because he clearly does not condemn these specific acts, or the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre if it comes to that, as immoral. The logic is impeccable. Unless Simon Peter Says a specific act not okay, it’s okay. And don’t forget the backup plan. Namely, if the Pope does condemn a specific act in the headlines, you can always say, “But was he speaking infallibly? If not, it’s just a private opinion and so we are still in the dark.”
Of course, some judgmental people will insist that those with the sense God gave a goose can figure out that suction aspiration is abortion anyway and that repeatedly subjecting somebody to drowning, or freezing them, or suffocating them is torture even without a papal encyclical. Catholics with the sense God gave a goose should be making loud noises about both, since the Obama Administration supports both abortion and torture (though hypocritical Lefties are largely now silent about the latter because they swoon in adoration of the President for his adamantine support of the former).
Catholics should be neither Left nor Right, but Catholic and should not make excuses for the favorite evils of their tribal leaders.