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.
... is not hate, according to Pope John Paul II. The opposite of love is use. Indeed, one very serviceable definition of sin is “Treating persons like things and things like persons. So idolatry is treating a think like the persons of the Trinity. Murder reduces persons to things called corpses. Theft exalts a thing above the person who owns it. When people stop being persons and become things to use, we are treating them with contempt and are a million miles from the love of Christ.
Conservative Catholics get this when it comes to the Church’s teaching on sexuality. Pornography is wrong because it reduces people to objects. As C.S. Lewis observed, the lustful man does not want a woman. He wants an experience for which a woman happens to be the necessary apparatus. Much of our sexual culture is ordered toward making people treat each other as things, as well as inviting others to treat us as things. As a friend of mine once said of Madonna: “Under all that voluptuous flesh is the soul of an accountant.’
For the same reason, contraception is, in the final analysis, an attempt to treat a thing (sexual pleasure) as more important than persons (both the person you are having sex with and the children who are naturally expected of such a union).
Conservatives get this—about sex.
But when it comes to reducing persons to things in war it’s a whole ‘nother thing.
Catholic Just War doctrine is ordered first and foremost to the fact that Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said “Love your enemies.” By “enemies” Jesus meant “enemies,” not “charming rogues that, gosh darn it, you kinda like even though they are a bit mistaken.” He meant “people you feel strongly tempted to hate and fear.” Those people.
Because Jesus commanded us to love our enemies, the Church’s Just War teaching is specially designed to make it as hard as possible to go to war. It puts various conditions down that (as we noted previously in this space) throw spanner after spanner into the works when we feel that overwhelming itch to just kill those jerks.
The problem is that many people do not treat Just War doctrine as a series of checks designed to make it as hard as possible to kill, or as a system of thought founded on the bedrock principle that man—even the man who is your mortal enemy—is in the image and likeness of God. Instead, they treat it as a sort of trigger system. If you can just pass all the criteria for Just War, or tilt your head and squint through one eye and game the system to pretend to yourself that you have met the criteria, then you *get* to go to war and, once you are at war, you can unleash all holy hell since “war is hell.” And so, for instance, we are routinely instructed in comboxes that reducing persons called children to a pile of ashes at Hiroshima is okay, because, hey! It’s war after all!
All this came to the fore again in recent weeks because the GOP, in a bid to horn in on some glory for the death of bin Laden, started spreading the lie that their vaunted torture policies were crucial in getting him. This is, indeed, a documented lie, told by the authorizers and paid apologists for these policies in order to save their own skins. In fact, the evidence shows that torture is not only immoral, it is also stupid and counter-productive, slowing down the hunt for bin Laden and wasting our limited resources on wild goose chases, according to professional interrogators from every branch of the service. When it’s the word of people who know what they are talking about vs. that of derriere-covering politicians, trust the people who know what they are talking about every time.
Yet, when it comes to torture, conservatives suddenly become as credulous toward the the word of the government as an MSNBC reporter drooling over the word of Nancy Pelosi that Augustine would be just fine with abortion. It goes without saying that the “all bets are off when it’s war” school of thought tends to dismiss both the word of the interrogators and of Catholic teaching as wildly impractical and unrealistic while citing a fantasy like “24” as a sober basis for realistic policy. And so we have had, for years, the shocking spectacle of allegedly “conservative” Catholics approving of torture in greater percentages than the general population. And, with the election cycle ginning up, we have the spectacle of a fresh crop of GOP candidates raising their hands for the expedient of counter-productive, immoral and stupid torture just as we shall again have the spectacle of Obama raising his hand for abortion and unjust wars.
At this point, it is customary to quibble over euphemisms like “enhanced interrogation” (which is a weasel word for “torture”). Fine shades of distinction are adduced for just *how* the human beings in question are being reduced to objects. People seriously write things to justify waterboarding (the most cinematic but by no means only form of torture), etc. Yet all sorts of things follow in this train of consequentialist reasoning if you really believe the “war means all bets are off” philosophy (a philosophy which directly contradicts the Church’s teaching, by the way). After all, if you’ve already agreed
1. Since we kill in war, torturing in war is okay; and,
2. That deliberately incinerating children in their beds at Hiroshima is heroic since “war is hell”; and
3. inducing panic and terror in a helpless prisoner by subjecting them to drowning is not even torture
... then the first and most obvious conclusion is that we should subject the *children* of those we want to interrogate to drowning and the various other tortures we have devised and jiggered our consciences to square with Catholic teaching. After all, millions of lives are (allegedly) at stake! Men who will endure much and remain silent when they view themselves as martyrs will quickly capitulate when it is their little girl who is screaming (between submersions). So are you going to tell me we can’t use that girl to make her father squeal?
At this point torture supporters, uncomfortable with where their own premises inexorably lead, will try to protest that this is absurd, since the little girl is innocent.
But, of course, so were the children of Hiroshima, and we are already agreed that innocent children can be sacrificed in order to save millions of lives, aren’t we? And what is more, we are agreed that, heck!, this isn’t even torture! Just a little good clean dunking (according to former VP Dick Cheney)! What is more, what’s with the whole “innocence” thing? I thought tor—, I’m sorry, enhanced interrogation, was not about punishing people but about the cool clinical technological efficient pursuit of information necessary for saving lives. Well, if all that is so, then it would seem that the quickest most efficient conclusion from all these premises is that we do what the CIA did in interrogating Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and not just subject adults to drowning but induce panic and terror in the children of our interrogation subjects, too.
That’s where the tormented logic of Catholic justifications for torture lead, just as the tormented logic of Catholic justifications for contraception lead to abortion. In both cases, they begin with the conviction that, under special circumstances, we can ignore the obligation to love persons and instead use them as means to some other end. Consequentialism and using people go hand in hand. Once people become things to use, the genie is out of the bottle. The temptation to use more and more of them in service of some supposed greater good will not limit itself merely to bad guys. It’s not, after all, like this hasn’t happened a million times before in human history. We are not exempt from the fall. That is why we have things like the rule of law—and the teaching of the Church.