Confusion in Moral Theology, papal fundamentalism and a response to Mark Shea , a conclusion

It seems pretty obvious that Dirty Harry was justified in roughing up Scorpio to save the innocent child he held prisoner, but would be lost on someone who approaches moral theology as a series of asking whether or not the Pope condemned torture and did not ask what the Pope had in mind when doing so.


The situation regarding the moral duty to the evildoer is even more murky if we rely solely on recent Papal statements, since such statements now are completely disconnected from prior statements by previous Popes. Something fundamentalists like Mr. Shea fail to understand. A glaring example of this is that recently Pope Francis declared that maximum security prisons are a form of “torture”. He is reported by the National Catholic Reporter (see here ) to have said:


….maximum security prisons can be a form of torture, since their “principal characteristic is none other than external isolation,” which can lead to “psychic and physical sufferings such as paranoia, anxiety, depression and weight loss and significantly increase the chance of suicide.”


Now in the United States maximum security prisons generally house people who have killed other inmates or guards while in prison.  In addition they may incarcerate criminals who are continuing to issue orders from prison to commit further crimes against the innocent such as leaders of criminal gangs and terrorists organizations. The isolation in maximum security is a way of minimizing their ability to do this kind of thing. If maximum security prisons are a “kind of torture” and torture is “never justified”, is the latest “development” in Catholic moral theology that we must release the most vicious criminals into the general prison population? Is the idea that if they go on to kill some guards or other inmates, well so be it? One wonders if Pope Francis asked any of the other prisoners who would have to live with the most vicious criminals in the general population, how they felt about this new mandate. I would bet some of them would be “depressed” and “anxious” about being jailed with dudes who kill their cell mates. If some of these guys could be housed in solitary I bet some of their fellow inmates sleep a little better!



Now I readily concede that in the United States maximum security prisons are very unpleasant places.  Given the likes of who goes there, I would be surprised if this was not the case. Still I am not sure it is fair to call such places “torture”? Prisoners are kept fairly isolated, for their own good mind you, given that many of these folks have killed each other when given the chance, but they still can earn privileges like the right to eat together, and to make phone calls. They have law library privileges and have television with multiple channels. It’s a pretty stark place, but torture? Really? But don’t believe me, check out this description by the fairly liberal Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom, see this article . If it’s self evidently absurd to define maximum security prisons as torture then we must concede every Papal utterance does not carry the same moral weight.



In fact currently the Vatican’s own law promulgated by the current Pope has eliminated life imprisonment, the Pope having condemned life imprisonment as a “kind of death penalty” as well , but The same Vatican governed by the same Pope merely commuted it to 30-35 years. So let’s ponder this for a second…. A man commits a crime at 45 years of age, he is held in prison until he is 80, and this is fine, but it would be positively a kind of “death penalty” to continue to hold him in prison for “life” By what logic? Why is imprisoning someone more than 1/3 of a century and essentially the majority of his life span morally fine but holding someone for life a death penalty demanding it be opposed?



We can leave aside for the moment whether it makes sense to ever release some kinds of criminals with high recidivism rates, like say…. serial sexual predators back into the community. We suggest Mr. Shea ponder the problem of what else to do with them as an exercise. Would a morally responsible person heed Pope Francis’s call to not imprison the likes of Charles Ng for life? If you want to see who Charles Ng is than click here . Warning it is not for the faint of heart and further description is inappropriate content for this blog, but it illustrates the moral incoherence of the idea that life imprisonment is wrong. Indeed Mr. Ng is a walking case for the death penalty. If we have not discarded that part of the reason for punishment is to, as Aquinas put it, “expiate” the crime. Mr. Ng’s crimes are so ghastly that they cannot be expiated in this life, thus only the death penalty even symbolically comes close to satisfying the need for justice, which the families of Mr. Ng’s victims have a right to expect from the state. In fact in a saner world giving the state the sole right to enact justice as God’s representative was what prevented personal vengeance from being more widespread.



All the recent nonsense that we can not actually punish even the most depraved criminal monster seems to defy logic. Frankly I could not fault someone who said if this is what Catholic moral theology teaches… well Catholic theology makes no sense. Is this what Catholic moral theology teaches?



Well not until yesterday it wasn’t. It seems now however we have the tendency to shoot from the hip, so we get the following when discussing the related issue of the death penalty:

Pope Francis said:
“All Christians and people of good will are thus called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal and in all its forms
Yet we have the following from Pope Pius XII:
“In the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.”

Both Popes have equal authority, so what is objectively different now that the teaching has apparently “developed”? In fact Pope Innocent III demanded the heretical Waldenians acknowledge the right of the state to execute criminals. Up until recently the entire Catholic tradition pretty much legitimized the death penalty as this following article from The Late Cardinal Avery Dulles makes clear, see the First Things web site archives. It appears Mr. Shea has no need to engage this tradition. In fact Pope Innocent IV issued a bull permitting torture of heretics (see here)



The point of all this however is not to argue that “torture is ok” or the death penalty is “ok”, but to argue that the current discussion of these things is fundamentally illogical and not consistent with the prior teaching of the Catholic Church.
The points in summary are that

1) Papal fundamentalism is wrong because when looked at closely it can readily be shown that taken in isolation many papal statements are in contradiction to one another, sometimes in contradiction to statements of councils and in in contradiction to the actual practice of the Church. This is not unlike how some statements in scripture contradict other statements.



2) Papal fundamentalism also leads to moral incoherence. If taken on face value the statements the Pope is now making suggests that individuals who kill other prisoners or kill guards while in prison should not be placed in isolation, or higher security facilities, and the likes of Charles Ng who tortured his victims (some of whom were babies) need to be released into the community at some point. In defense of Pope Francis he obviously has not thought through the implications of some of his recent statements. If he did he might well conclude that the prisoners in the general population might feel less threatened if the very worst monsters among them were removed and kept in isolation! This protects the other prisoners. Does the Pope not regard that as compassionate? Does the Pope not regard the safety of those who must guard the prisoners as important?



3) The point is ultimately, that we are required in moral matters to use reason; part of the use of reason is to inform our conscience on what the teaching of the Church “is”. This teaching however of the ordinary magisterium is not equivalent to this or that papal statement in isolation. It is the sum total of the all of the teachings of the Church throughout history, and understood in context. This includes statements of Popes and councils and the doctors of the Church like Aquinas and Augustine. Of note all of these statements are not equal in weight and discerning the morality of an act in light of the Church’s teaching can sometimes be difficult. This used to be made clear when the moral manuals used terms like “probabilism” to suggest a method via one could settle moral problems that were ambiguous. (see here)

Some acts have been unambiguously condemned throughout the history of the Church and are blatantly wrong based on the natural law. Abortion, Mr. Shea is one of these, being a particularly vile murder of someone absolutely innocent as noted by St. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae, and I might add perpetrated by individuals who have a particular duty to the person killed, the child’s mother, perhaps their father and of course the physician who has a duty to protect human life. Capital punishment however is not intrinsically wrong , something even John Paul II notes when he states it is permissible if there is no other way to protect society, but may be wrong in some cases or situations. The Church does not have a continuous unbroken teaching in this area as noted above, so understanding the exact significance of the recent criticism of capital punishment and the “need” to oppose it is less clear than the teaching on abortion ( like it or not Mr. Shea.) By the way if you like Mr. Shea I am not pro-life, I am proudly anti killing the innocent, so anti-murder and therefore anti abortion. I am not all that opposed in principle to killing the guilty, so fine with killing terrorists or murders who torture their victims. Is that all to hard to comprehend? Until yesterday I stood with Aquinas and Alphonsus Di Liguri and all the Popes through the first 2000 years of Church history. You Mr. Shea, stood with Peter Waldo.

In the moral mess we find ourselves in, and in the loss of her traditions and reasoning ability, The Church and mankind itself is in a crisis. We will not condemn vile crimes like abortion adequately, and yet we will ultimately not punish monsters like Charles Ng or defend ourselves against murderous Islamic fascist who stone women to death, and decapitate children ( see here ). May God have mercy on us.
Let us ask for the intercession of St Alphonsus, moralist, and doctor of the Church.

St alphonsus

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