Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Lepers Among Us—Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle B)

Lev. 13:1–2, 44–46; 1 Cor. 10:31–11:1; Mark 1:40–45

We live in an era in which our fears are constantly pricked by the mainstream media, in which we must constantly be on guard for all those little catastrophes that were accepted as the lot of humans in history. Whether it's a measles outbreak at Disneyland or whooping cough at the whooping crane preserve, the media makes sure that we are constantly at the peak of anxiety about every potential threat to our well being, regardless of how remote. A bad case of eczema in our neighbor could send anyone of us into a paranoid paroxysm of pugilistic pugnacity.
My alliteration aside, our current tendency to anxiety mirrors with some fidelity the fears of ancient Israel. In our first reading from Leviticus, the law concerning the treatment of those with leprosy is stark and cold. Those who have any indication of uncleanliness must be set apart and must identify themselves as unclean. Now, it's important to note that leprosy was not a clearly defined condition. Bad acne, baldness, eczema, or skin cancer might all be categorized under that label in ancient times because they had no means by which to distinguish such ailments from a deadly contagion.
And it was a horrifying categorization! The people who were outcast were likely to be condemned to live with those who were seriously ill! Imagine if you had seasonal allergies or a head cold and you were forced to live as exiles among people with bubonic plague. That was the plight of anyone with a noticeable blemish under the old dispensation.
Now the intent of the Law was merciful. They wanted to contain contagion and to corral corruption. But it came at the cost of isolation. The people who most needed to be healed were made to wait until healing was no longer necessary. So the Law was merciful in theory, but in harsh practice. Instead of carefully investigating the nature of the illness these people suffered, the Jewish priests of that time simply declared such people unclean, and they were outcast until they could present themselves to be otherwise. They were separated and alone.
I don't think it takes much of a stretch for us to look at the outcast among us and see the same dilemma. We have, most notably, the homeless. But we also have the chronically ill, the disabled. As difficult as it is in our eyes to reach out to them, they are the easy cases. We know we are commanded—not requested, but commanded by Christ—to visit the sick and imprisoned. I have to admit that in my Christian life, I have not put this into practice as I should, not for any lack of opportunity but for a lack of conscious effort. And for that I had better make up for lost time, or I will have to answer why I did not visit Christ when he was sick or imprisoned.
Notice in our gospel reading that Jesus sets aside the ritual law. The ritual law was erected to put a fence around the Jews, to protect them from ritual impurity and moral error, but it did nothing to reconcile Jews with each other. In fact, the way that different sects in the 1st century interpreted the law—and there were many of them, from the Pharisees, to the Sadducees, to the Essenes and others—they separated themselves from the Gentiles and the Hebrew am haaretz or people of the land—the other Jews who were not considered righteous. They erected walls between themselves and anyone who thought or lived differently from them. The story of the good Samaritan exemplifies this separation and isolation, when the priest and Levite cross the road to avoid the man who appears to be dead in fear of becoming ritually impure. So the desire for purity overrides the recognition of a clear need for compassion.
That thought should give us all pause. Don't we often avoid the sick? Don't we also often avoid people of differing religious or political opinions as if their beliefs might somehow taint us or make us unclean? Don't some of us in the Church do the same to our separated brethren in other denominations or even to Catholics who have a different understanding of the faith?
The gospel, though, shows a very different approach by Jesus.
We might not have a Heaven on Earth, but we can choose to be heavenly on Earth. St. Paul tells us how in 1 Corinthians—by being imitators of Christ—by looking at others with a compassion that will not let us hold back from someone who is hurting.
Jesus did just that. In numerous places in the gospels, we see the clause, "And Jesus looked on him with compassion" or "looked on her" or "looked on them." The God-man who healed the blind could do so because He was not blind to their need. The God-man who cast out demons from the possessed could do so because He did not deny their possession. The God-man forgave the tax collectors and prostitutes because He could see their inner poverty and alienation. It takes nothing of us to be compassionate for the people who suffer like we do—with our smart phone bills, our expensive mortgages, and our aging parents. But it takes something more for us to look on the sufferings of another wholly different than ours, perhaps even repugnant to us—the addict, the ex-con, the former prostitute—it takes something more for us to look on their suffering with compassion...
and yet more still to do something about it.
So what do we do about the lepers in our midst? The first step is in recognizing that all of us are touched by it. All of us, spiritually, are lepers in one way or another. We might sense a very great "ick" factor in approaching the homeless, but God has all the more standing to find us "icky." Yet He touched people's tongues, put His fingers in people's ears, and smeared mud made from His spittle on people's eyes. And most of all, He died in a horrible way on that cross for us. If anyone had an excuse, it was Him, and He chose to help us nonetheless.
The second step is to slough off our complacency and look for those who need us. The homeless are easy. We all know where they stay, and we see them on the street corners. Be cognizant of them. Don't pretend that they don't exist. Once you recognize the homeless, think of the other marginalized and neglected and where they live: hospitals, retirement homes, the county jail. Recognize that they are alone and pray for them.
The third step is to respond in some fashion. It does not have to be dramatic. When you pull up to someone on a corner holding a sign, introduce yourself and ask for their name. They are then no longer just a nobody to whom you toss a couple of dollars. You will be acknowledging them as a human being. You might carry some granola bars, pairs of socks, or even small copies of the New Testament with you in your car to hand out. You might volunteer in our prison ministry, or with our Eucharistic outreach to the homebound, or in our other outreach programs. You might advocate for victims of trafficking. You might volunteer at a shelter. And you might be changed in ways you can't imagine right now.
Our faith is not bound by the foundation of this cathedral. In fact, we explicitly send you out after every Mass with a command: Go and proclaim the gospel to the world; Go and glorify the Lord with your Life.

So do it. Go and proclaim the gospel. Proclaim it with your lips, but most importantly with the way you live your life.

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Informing Your Conscience Appropriately

I posted an explanation of why waterboarding constitutes torture several weeks ago here. Unfortunately, the controversy continues to rage, and I suspect that some official body (maybe the USCCB) will eventually have to speak up in a more definitive way. However, I want to suggest first that people consider what has already been said. Here is a passage from the Catechism concerning the use of torture, which I excerpted in my last post.

UPDATE: I think there is still some confusion on how we are to respond to fallible teachings and what prudential judgment actually entails. Please refer to my post on that subject here.


The specific prohibition against torture is in CCC paragraph 2297: "Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity" (condensed formula in the Compendium 477).

So the operational definition of torture, according to the Church, is "use of physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred." It is morally wrong because it "is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity." In other words, it treats a person as a thing and not as a person.


Now the Catechism and Magisterium in general do not give long lists of practices that are morally evil. They do on occasion, but they simply cannot address every immoral act in detail. Humanity's capacity for evil is sadly far too creative, despite the touted banality of evil. They rely on others (catechists, priests, deacons, moral theologians, and other teachers) to teach and form us through methodologies that help us learn to think with the Church. In this case, the Church has given us two pieces of information that should be forming our consciences about this subject: the definition of torture, and the reason for its prohibition.

The definition of torture is "physical or moral violence" used "to extract confessions," etc. The reason it is wrong because it "is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity."
  • So does the action being taken, whatever that action may be, use physical or moral violence to extract a confession? *
  • Is the action contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity?
These are the two questions we should be asking ourselves. We should not have to search for specific mention of the action in a list of forbidden actions because we are given the criteria for discernment right here.

So if we apply this to waterboarding, what are our answers?

It is clear that waterboarding uses physical or moral violence to extract a confession. Violence is defined simply as "rough or injurious use of physical force, action, or treatment." If you don't think that waterboarding is "rough use of physical force," then you have not exposed yourself to a realistic description of waterboarding. It is not just splashing water in someone's face, or dunking their head very briefly under water. It requires physical restraint (force), it involves a simulation of drowning that lasts (in each instance) long enough to induce terror in the subject (moral violence), and it results in quick capitulation. Even the hardest people break under it within about 14 seconds. That is why most SERE programs stopped using even though they used it in very controlled circumstances.** Imagine, then, it being used by someone who really wants something from you and most likely doesn't think well of you.

So it is clearly rough physical treatment or force. You can't perform the technique without the use of force.

So the next question is, does it treat the subject with respect for the person and for human dignity? Is it respectful to compel someone by force to say what they know? Is it treating them with human dignity? Is it dignified to by forced to beg for mercy, to vomit and choke, to say anything no matter how preposterous just to make someone stop performing an action on you because you are in fear for your life? Is it dignified to be intentionally reduced to a crying, shivering wreck? Because that's what happens with waterboarding in a real situation (not in training or movies).

People who have been through training in controlled environments should known full well that their instructors are not going to kill them. But people under true interrogation by enemies have no such guarantees. In some cases, the odds may very well be against such a guarantee.You cannot slightly waterboard someone and expect to get results. To work, it must be done in excess. That is why it works (inasmuch as it causes people to confess).

I don't see how anyone with a properly formed conscience can say that such an action is in accord with human dignity. 

So that treats the object or action of the matter, and that should be enough to clearly establish that waterboarding is torture according to the two criteria provided by the Catechism. 

But many people have brought up the matter of consequence. So let's talk about that. First, consequence never changes an immoral act into a good act. An intrinsically immoral act is is always immoral regardless of whether it produces results. To claim that torture can be morally good given circumstances is to engage in consequentialist reasoning at worst or proportionalist reasoning at best.

Another good explanation of proportionalism is here on the website of my alma mater. But let me outline the two primary points
Proportionalists argue this [some act] could be a morally good choice (and therefore a good act) if:
a) some greater good is achievable by this act (i.e. brings about greater good consequences); or,
b) some truly proportionate reason is present to justify this choice (after weighing various positive and negative values).
As the article states, this theory goes against the clear teaching set down in the Catechism (1756), Veritatis Splendor (47, 78, and 80), and Gaudium et Spes (n. 27). So proportionalism as a methodology for moral formation does not accord with the official teaching of the Church expressed over the last 50 years. Both Benedict XVI and Pope St. John Paul II have condemned it. So to use that methodology to justify actions is not morally in accord with the current teaching of the Church.

Second, the results of waterboarding are dubious. Torture in general frequently results in misleading and false information jumbled together with elements of the truth, for the very simple reason that people will say anything under extreme duress. So in a ticking time-bomb scenario, when an interrogator has to verify facts quickly, is the use of waterboarding likely to result in accurate information that will allow them to immediately address an emergency? Your guess is as good as mine. I'm guessing not. It will result in a grab bag of details that will have to be separately verified. Many professional interrogators dislike and dismiss the use of torture for this very reason. They get better information if they treat prisoners with respect and compassion.

We have a doctrine about the use of force in national defense called the Just War theory. One of the conditions for Just War is that the action will have the likelihood of succeeding. A doomed or doubtful effort disqualifies such action as just as it may cause more harm than good. By this criterion, the use of waterboarding should also be considered unjust in that the results are dubious.

So to summarize, the two criteria given in the Catechism to use to determine the moral liciety of a technique in interrogation are:
  • Does the action being taken, whatever that action may be, use physical or moral violence to extract a confession? *
  • Is the action contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity?
The results do not enter into the question, but even if you do consider them, waterboarding doesn't pass muster.

Finally, I would like to charitably say that we should not be guided by individual voices who might argue persuasively and convincingly in support of this practice. We should be guided by the Church's official teaching. Catholic philosophers and theologians might need to debate these matters to get clarity, but the Church is the authority here. As one theologian friend of mine said, we're getting a glimpse of the sausage factory that is the method of theological dialogue. It is unpalatable to most of us who are not used to it. So if you aren't a theologian or moral philosopher, it is not the best place for you to form your mind on the subject. Trust the guidance of the Church instead, even if you find it uncomfortable.

Grace and peace to all of you.

* A confession is not necessarily a matter of personal guilt, mind you, but simply confessing knowledge of something. 

** The DOD actually came out against this practice when it was discovered that the SERE training facility was still using this technique a few years back. See the notes in my last blog post.

A Thought Experiment on Waterboarding

I posed a similar question to the one I am about to pose here, but I haven't yet seen anyone take up this question. So I am going to submit a scenario that is not only plausible but has probably occurred many times.

Several people have noted that the precedent of waterboarding being used with government approval will eventually result in its use civil matters. I don't think that is a stretch by any means. If you look at the paramilitary tactics currently deployed by police organizations throughout the United States, I think you would be naive to think otherwise.

Imagine that your child is away at college and lives in the dorms. His or her roommate makes a bad decision one night and tries to purchase some marijuana. During the deal, something goes badly awry, and several people are killed. The roommate is only guilty of the attempt to purchase and is otherwise in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When the police come and arrest the roommate several days later on suspicion of murder, they also detain your son or daughter for questioning as someone who is implicated as possibly having information on the crime.

So the question is, should the police have the authority to subject your child to waterboarding in this circumstance? If not, why not?