Sunday, September 30, 2012

Intrinsic Evils and Grave Sins

Don't get me wrong:  The platform of the Democratic Party does indeed endorse evils that are both intrinsic and grave.  Any politician (of either party) who endorses such evils forfeits my vote, and a politician who belongs to a party that endorses them, especially if he fails to state his objections to his party's platform, must be regarded with profound suspicion, at the very least.

But.... The word the Church uses to describe something as most seriously wrong is not "intrinsic", but "grave".  For a sin to be mortal -- the kind that can send one to Hell -- it need not be an intrinsic evil, but it must involve grave matter

So, for example, it is not intrinsically evil to fight a war.  There are times when it is not only permissible, it is mandatory.  However, to choose to fight a war in violation of the Just War criteria is not only wrong, it is gravely wrong.

This is important enough that we might as well see how the Catechism explains Just War.

2309 The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous conditions of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time: 
  • the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain; 
  • all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective; 
  • there must be serious prospects of success; 
  • the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modem means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition. 
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the "just war" doctrine. 

The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good.
It is impossible for a serious, rational adult to honestly conclude that the Bush administration's decision to initiate war with Iraq met these requirements.  We can look at this in detail if someone wants, but for now I will simply state the obvious:  It is easier to make a case that "at one and the same time" each of those conditions is violated than that each of those conditions is simultaneously fulfilled.

"Wait a minute!" someone will say, "Doesn't the Catechism say that the moral legitimacy of a war is known only to the leader and to God, and that it is not our place to question it?"  (This is a paraphrase of what some people said a decade ago.)  The answer is clearly no.
  1. At least in a free republic, every citizen has a responsibility for the public good.
  2. Nothing in the passage above said that government leaders are not answerable to the citizenry for their prudential judgments.
  3. Nothing in the passage above said that the rectitude of a war can be judged only by those with the authority to conduct it.  Having authority is not the same as having "secret information" that turns every conclusion on its head -- especially when the leaders themselves claim to be acting not on knowledge, but on the ignorance of their adversaries' true capabilities.
  4. Maybe an analogy would help here:  We grant medical doctors the authority to diagnose and treat their patients, but that doesn't mean that doctors are immune from malpractice suits if they act negligently or from prosecution if they act with malice -- as judged by a jury of their fellow-citizens.
All of this might seem like beating a dead horse.  After all, Bush is no longer in office, and the Iraq war has wrapped up.  However, it is clear that many Republicans, including those most likely to occupy cabinet positions in a Romney administration, do not distinguish between patriotism and support for Bush-era policies.  Given the opportunity, they assure us they would do the same things.  Well, the situation in the Middle East today, with Egypt unsure of its future, Syria at war with itself, Iran about to have nuclear weapons and exchanging threats with already nuclear-armed Israel, to say nothing of what's happening in Pakistan -- with all these problems, the "opportunity" for armed intervention will surely present itself again in the next presidential term.

Yeah, but why bring this up?  And what does this have to do with the first paragraph? 

Just this:  Over the past few days, I have seen references to a column by Bishop Paprocki of Springfield, IL.  The bishop says that the Democratic platform endorses grave and intrinsic sins, and that this is something that should give pause to Catholic voters.  This is true.  He also says, "I have read the Republican Party Platform and there is nothing in it that supports or promotes an intrinsic evil or a serious sin."  Well, OK.  Presumably the closing prayers at both conventions also have "nothing in [them] that supports or promotes an intrinsic evil or a serious sin," since both were written and delivered by Cardinal Dolan.  To know what the individual candidates plan to do, or are open to doing, one must go farther than just the platforms of their parties: one must pay attention to their speeches, their past actions, and the sponsors and associates they choose. 

As a result, it is scarcely relevant that the grave sins supported by one party are intrinsic, whereas the sins supported by the other party are only grave sins because of their circumstances. By all means, hold the Democrats responsible for endorsing abortion, which is always wrong, but don't give the Republicans a pass on the war they want us to fight just because some other war, fought under other conditions, might be just.

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