Wednesday, May 11, 2005

President Bush is more Catholic than John Paul II was?

No, but Mr Oderberg's argument is interesting. Though I disagree with his overall premise, his insights are thought provoking.

UPDATE: Good reading over at Mystery Achievement on this piece. This was the kind of discussion I was hoping for. Instead, we have some disturbed folks who feel I am more partisan than I am Catholic. They have posted their comments (and I have responded) below.

Teaching Tradition
When it comes to traditional morality, President Bush — not John Paul II — has it right.

By David S. Oderberg

In the wave of well-deserved adulation and admiration that has swept the world since the death of John Paul II, one observation has continually been made as a characterization of his pontificate. Love him or hate him, agree with or oppose him, one thing is universally accepted as true: John Paul II stood up for “traditional morality.” In a world obsessed with the “culture of death,” John Paul stood resolutely for traditional ethics and for the “culture of life” that made him such a sign of opposition to the prevailing drift of people and governments.

But just how traditional was his morality? He opposed contraception — that, to be sure, is traditional. Until the 20th century, no one endorsed contraceptive use; and even then, among people of all classes — except a handful in the intelligentsia — no one believed in it until the 1960s. Not only did every religion condemn it, but even the Anglicans didn’t approve it until 1931. So on that score, John Paul II taught traditional morality.

The same, of course, goes for abortion. Pagan aberrations aside (though we must sometimes remember to distinguish between what people do and what they believe), the previous paragraph applies to this practice as well. When it comes to euthanasia, ancient history can be discordant, but it’s pretty safe to say that opposition to it is also a part of traditional morality. No problem on that score for John Paul II.

But once we get past contraception, abortion, and euthanasia, things start to get sticky. For belief in the permissibility of the death penalty is a part of traditional morality, as is belief in the justifiability of war. And yet whilst the president of the United States, for one, steadfastly supports both capital punishment and the concept of just war, John Paul II seemed resolute in his virtual opposition to both. I say “virtual” because, though he never condemned either explicitly, everything he said and did made clear that he regarded them as all but unreasonable and inapplicable in the modern age. Here it looks like George W. Bush’s morality is far more traditional — and I would argue more defensible — than John Paul’s.

Defenders of the latter, however, will respond than the late pontiff never taught that war or capital punishment were wrong per se. Indeed, to take war first, some have said that John Paul II never even explicitly opposed the 2003 Iraq war. This is contentious, however, since in an interview with the Catholic news agency Zenit on May 2, 2003, then Cardinal Ratzinger made it quite plain that John Paul opposed the invasion: “The Pope expressed his thought with great clarity [that] there were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq.” The more important matter of principle, however, is that John Paul did allow that sufficient reasons to go to war might exist.

How traditional is this position? Official teaching such as the Catechism of 1992/1997 allows the possibility of war justified by the right of self-defence or perhaps the defence of another country. But the traditional view has always been broader than this: Actual physical aggression or the threat thereof is one potential jus ad bellum (ground for war), but so, according to the standard moral theology manuals of the 1950s, are freedom from tyranny and liberation from religious oppression whereby a nation is prevented from worshipping God. Even a grave dishonor to a country can be a good reason for going to war. And the standard pre-1960s theology books also teach that it might be an act of charity for a nation to go to war to bring orderly government to a country in chaos.

These textbooks are merely echoing the centuries-old teaching of the Catholic Church as embodied in its greatest minds, such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. To be sure, the textbooks agree that war is a horrendous thing, only to be justified in serious circumstances. But they are at some remove from John Paul, who never seems to have met a war he didn’t abhor.

The same goes for capital punishment, where, even more egregiously, John Paul denounced what the Church has taught for centuries. Lest there be any doubt, the 1992 version of the new Catechism, at para. 2266, includes the death penalty as legitimate punishment “in cases of extreme gravity.” In the 1997 revised version, however, this has been replaced in para. 2267 by the statement that capital punishment may be inflicted as “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” But then it goes on to say that any such case, in contemporary society, would be “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” repeating what John Paul said in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

Again, traditional teaching, which is quite some way from this highly restrictive position, is summed up by Aquinas: He says, “if any man is dangerous to the community and is subverting it by some sin, the treatment to be commended is his execution in order to preserve the common good, for a little leaven sours the whole lump.” Far less restrictive, one can see, unless “some sin” is distorted to mean “the worst possible sin in the world” or some such.

Indeed it is somewhat amazing that John Paul seems to have remained so unmoved by the unrelenting violence, sexual decadence, and drug-fuelled vice of modern materialist society (the very society he chastised over and over for its naked greed) as never once to have advocated executing some of the criminals who make contemporary life such a misery for so many people.

The plain fact is that John Paul II’s moral teaching (at least on life-and-death issues) is far less traditional than George Bush’s. For traditional ethics relies on the fundamental distinction between guilt and innocence: It is at the heart of the traditional support for just war and capital punishment and opposition to abortion and euthanasia. The president clearly recognizes this; all he is doing is reflecting a moral position that only a few decades ago, and for millennia before that, people used to drink in with their mothers’ milk.

Without the distinction between guilt and innocence there can be no conceptual basis for distinguishing punishment from protection. And without that, morality collapses into incoherence.

Opposition to abortion and euthanasia on the one hand, and support for just war and the death penalty on the other, are not conceptual enemies. They aren’t even uneasy bedfellows. They belong together, and in a way each side justifies the other. Together they provide the traditional ethics at the heart of all mainstream moral thinking until the 1960s cultural revolution. It is clear that George W. Bush has made that thinking his own. It is the late pontiff, on the other hand, who struck off in a novel direction. When it comes to applying tradition to life-and-death moral issues, Bush 43 wins hands down over John Paul II.

— David S. Oderberg is professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, England, and the author of books and articles on moral philosophy, such as Moral Theory (Blackwell, 2000) and Applied Ethics (Blackwell, 2000).

7 Comments:

Blogger Matt said...

So the little retard across the pond is more catholic than the late Pope? Pope George W Bush, eh? haha..

Actually its not funny at all. Apart from that fact that I am not anymore apalled by how Protestant the catholics in the Us have become, and how much more baser they are, this was only to be expected.

Because, you see, you actually have a point. President George Bush is more a champion of classical, traditional morality than Pope John Paul is. Was there ever any doubt?

I am surprised only because, dude, where did you hear that the Cathoic Church is traditional? Your momma gave it to you with the mother's milk? Your momma was a goner too, then. But Christianity is not about anything traditional, and so she will be saved, dont worry.

Traditional morality said, an eye for an eye. Traditional morality still says so. Christianity and catholicicms didnt say so, and neither did the last Pope.

Traditional morality said, violence in the defence of nation, honour, ego is fine. Christianity does not say so.

The entire idea behind the new religion which Jesus gave us was to break free from the commonsense, mothers milk variety of Christianity.

It wasn't about Goerge W Bush sitting there with his nukes and army. You don't need tobe Christian to do that. Or Catholic. An Osama says, kill. A Bush says, kill. Jesus did not say that, he said conquer it with love.

Anybody remember that bit about 'showing your other cheek'? Was there ever anything more untraditional?

Little minds, across the pond. Litel frogs, in the pond. What mroe can I say? I suggest you convert and become Muslims, a religion that is more amenable to your kind of discourse, traditional morality etc.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Earl said...

However one judges the relative merits of Dr. Oderberg's case--and I tend to agree with David--it is evident that dancewithshadows is a stranger not only to tradition but common civility, as evidenced by his use of a bigoted epithet denigrating persons with disabilities to slander a distinguished and conscientious professor simply for raising a reasonable argument in a reasonable manner.

As for Tradition, an intelligent Catholic, to use dws'frame of referense, would surely know that Tradition is a pillar of the Church founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ, which is scarcely the Revolution at prayer.

Tenes traditiones!

8:41 PM  
Blogger Tim Huegerich said...

Perhaps you could explain where you find value in this article? I just find the article pretty ridiculous. And I find your decision to post it here pretty revealing about the nature of "Catholics for Bush." It seems to me you are allowing your allegiance to Bush define what your Catholicism means. Or perhaps it is more that Bush represents your views, and you continue to cling to those views rather than allow yourself to be shaped by the Church.

Tell me if I am just misunderstanding here, though. Could you be more clear about which parts of the article's argument you agree and disagree with?

2:35 PM  
Blogger David said...

The value Tim, is that it is a thought provoking article about the issues of war and capital punishment. As I stated already, I disagree with the premise, but I thought it an interesting piece on Catholics and the president and it was worth posting to the 'Catholics for Bush' blog.

You tend to look too deeply into my motives here as you have done in the past. As you may know, I was for the war in Iraq and still am. And I have serious misgivings on the use of the death penalty as carried out in the United States today. Though you may not like the idea, these issues are ones Catholics can disagree on. I respect the views you have on economics and the war as reflected by your Catholic faith. I disagree with them, but understand how you faith shaped them. Why is it difficult for some to respect the views of Catholics who support the war, capital punishment, tax cuts, etc?

4:42 AM  
Blogger Earl said...

Tim announces his revelation: "It seems to me you are allowing your allegiance to Bush define what your Catholicism means. Or perhaps it is more that Bush represents your views, and you continue to cling to those views rather than allow yourself to be shaped by the Church."

But, as Tim notes in his preceding sentence, this blog's name is "Catholics for Bush," not "Catholicism for Bush," in other words, Catholics who support the president in the public square.

While I am not a Catholic for Bush, simply one who voted for him in the last election (for the first time), I opposed the initial decision to go to war in Iraq, and I oppose, in practice, the use of capital punishment by the present Culture of Death.

That being said, the principles of just war and capital punishment are grounded in the faith, and reasonable Catholics may differ in the prudential matter of their application, as David rightly notes.

Of course, if you want to sew the crazy patchwork of the "Seamless Garment" as a burial shroud for the Culture of Life, you will want to confuse such issues with moral absolutes such as abortion and euthanasia, so that you can pitch John Kerry as more "pro-life" than George Bush, which brings me back to my vote and the end of these rambling thoughts.

6:12 AM  
Blogger Tim Huegerich said...

Earl, you frame the issue well: is this a blog by a Catholic who happened to prefer Bush over the other candidates and therefore voted for him, or is this a blog that uncritically tries to legitimize every single position and action of Pres. Bush in Catholic terms? My sincere assessment is that it seems to be the latter.

This has nothing to do with Bush v. Kerry. I respect both of your votes for Bush. But it is also a clear Catholic teaching that when a Catholic votes for a morally flawed candidate, he must make clear publicly that he does not support the immoral positions of that candidate. David, I did not feel you did that in this post, although you vaguely indicated you disagreed with something in the article.

I think you should state publicly that it was wrong for then Gov. Bush to execute 152 people. Can you possibly think that these all met the stringent conditions for capital punishment specified in a papal encyclical and the Catechism?

Earl: "...the principles of just war and capital punishment are grounded in the faith, and reasonable Catholics may differ in the prudential matter of their application, as David rightly notes."

Will you please acknowledge that there is a difference between "prudential judgment" in the application of the teaching, and neglect of the actual content of the teaching? Pres. Bush has clearly indicated that he does not consider himself bound by the conditions of just war doctrine. And have either of you ever explicitly applied Catholic teaching on capital punishment to the executions Pres. Bush allowed as governor and president?

David: "You tend to look too deeply into my motives here as you have done in the past."

What can I say? I think you don't look deeply enough at your own motives, frankly. In the past, I would have addressed concerns about motives with you privately instead, as we agree is ideal, but you have chosen to cut off private communication.

The fact is, I honestly believe you both pick and choose among Catholic teachings to suit your prior political views, and I will continue to call you on it. Yet, this is understandable to an extent because the flawed party system in this country makes it difficult not to. I once again invite you to participate in my web site so we can help remedy this.

7:04 AM  
Blogger David said...

Tim, you assume too much. I am a cradle Roman Catholic. My Faith effects all that I am and all that I do. My political views are molded by my Faith, not the other way around as you suggest.

Now, I could get into where I disagree with the President, but I won't. I think it is enough to say that I do not agree with the President on all his positions (past and present) and not have to get into all the details. And I would challenge you to point out where I have legitimized "every single position and action" of the president's. Not publically expressing any disagreement is not the same as legitimizing every position.

If my general acknowledgement of disagreement is not good enough for you, I apologize, but the idea behind this blog was not to point out differences I had with President Bush, rather it was to point out how the president shares many of the same values Catholics do and that many of his decisions and positions are in line with Catholic teachings. This is a man Catholics can and I believe should support.

This blog was to be, and hope it still is, a show of support for President Bush from this one humble Catholic. Other Catholics were invited to share their thoughts, views, and support or criticism in the comments and in the Yahoo! Group. There is enough criticism of the president from other sources (including CfD) that I decided I personally would not add to it. Because of this, am I taken less seriously by folks like you, Nathan Nelson, Ono Ekeh, et al? Does it make me a less credible voice on the Catholic blogosphere? Probably, but so what? At its peak this blog got only 200 hits a day. Now it is a dozen or so. I am happy with the very small role I play here and at Catholics in the Public Square. I am not really sure why you think I should lay out my disagreements with the President. I believe there is much more that he and Catholics can agree on and that is and will continue to be my focus.

2:58 PM  

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