Confusion in moral theology, Papal fundamentalism and a response to Mark Shea Part 2

Back to the incoherence of current Catholic moral theology, or rather the papal fundamentalism that passes for moral theology these days. As I mentioned previously this kind of thing leads to the fatal problem of the Church contradicting itself unless we  understand the significance and limitations of each individual statement in light of the entire corpus of Catholic teaching. We need to avoid the kind of thing done by Mr. Shea, and simply use statements as “proof texts” like the fundamentalist he apparently used to be and in some sense still is.


An example of just the kind of problem failure to avoid such proof texting leads to can be seen if we consider another troubling situation in which the Vatican is making statements that are morally incoherent. Vatican II, Pope Benedict XVI and of course Pope Francis have condemned “torture” which when considered as infliction of very severe distress on an innocent person makes perfect sense, (and very likely was the meaning behind what Vatican II condemned). The condemnation is quite senseless if we take “torture” to mean any infliction of any kind of psychological or physical distress on a prisoner by civil authorities. This is the sort of thing that seems to be meant by torture now, first waterboarding of terrorists engaged in plotting further 911 terrorist attacks qualified as torture, and now even maximum security imprisonment of the most violent criminals is called “torture”.  If all this is “torture”, we have a situation in which previous Popes and moral theologians have sanctioned similar, in fact much harsher practices and indeed the Church herself at least cooperated with such practices, having turned people over to secular powers to have them “tortured” ( Call it “forced rendition” if you like, in fact some people have made just this kind of analogy). (Recall heretics were executed by burning at the stake! ) If we take recent Papal pronouncements at face value then the Church would be contradicting itself and this would make it hard to imagine it is a source of moral truth. It is worth looking at the problem a little more closely.

Let’s get back to Dirty Harry…and recall the basic plot. Be forewarned…. this is a bit “R rated” but the details are necessary to make the moral problem clear… If you get the vapors easily then you are excused. In any case, if you have chosen to remain I continue. As the story goes, The City of San Francisco is under assault by a very vicious, indeed racist criminal, a rapist and serial killer, who goes by the name of “Scorpio”. He has already shot a young black child and killed a policeman who he believed was a Catholic priest. The police officer was posing as a priest while serving as a decoy in a failed attempt to capture the killer.

It is clear Scorpio is a depraved monster. Scorpio then proceeds to kidnap and bury alive a 14 year old girl, and is giving the City a limited amount of time to pay ransom or she will suffocate in an underground coffin dying a horrible death. The City agrees to pay ransom, and “Dirty Harry” is ordered to deliver the ransom money.



When Harry meets up with the killer, the evil Scorpio refuses to divulge the location of the young girl, and proceeds to pistol whip the Detective. He states he plans on letting the girl die and will kill Harry as well. Harry manages to stab the evil Scorpio in the leg, Scorpio is wounded and escapes. Dirty Harry manages to locate Scorpio in a football stadium, a chase ensues and ultimately Scorpio is captured when he is subdued in the middle of the field by the Detective. Time is running out for the young girl however and Detective Callahan knows this. By now she is struggling to breath, perhaps clawing at the closed box in which she is entombed. The evil Scorpio will not state where she is trapped…. So Detective Callahan uses what we might call “enhanced interrogation” or torture if you prefer, as he steps on Scorpio’s wounded leg causing great pain to the vile killer in the hope of getting him to reveal the girls location, and allow her to be rescued from her horrible, excruciating, dare I say “torturous” death . So my question for Mr. Shea and the entire “torture is never permissible” crowd is this: Is Dirty Harry committing a sin? Should he let the killer suffocate the girl? Let’s kick it up a notch, imagine that the girl is Dirty Harry’s daughter? Does that change things? He imagines his little girl saying “Please Daddy help me, I can’t breathe…” Is it morally impermissible to inflict pain on the depraved Scorpio to get him to reveal the girl’s location? Frankly I would happily do a hell of a lot worse and sleep like a baby and there is not a papal statement that would make me think twice. Not that papal statements have no significance, but rather because a papal statement that condemned beating up Scorpio would stand in contrast to an entire Catholic moral tradition that would defend the practice, and therefore would not be consistent with the magisterium of the Church. Its not like tomorrow if the Pope says self defense is immoral, self defense suddenly is immoral.  Who among you would disagree? If push comes to shove would Mark Shea let the girl suffocate? If he would, who can take him seriously?




Now Let us clear up some responses at outset. I readily admit the ends do not justify the means. So if inflicting physical distress on a criminal is always “intrinsically wrong” I would concede that you cannot do it, even if good would come of it. So clearly if the criminal told Harry “I will tell you the location of the girl if you shoot your partner”, shooting the innocent partner is not an option. This is not an “ends justifies the means situation”. The police officer is an agent of the state with a duty to uphold the common good and protect the innocent. Part of this duty entails punishing the guilty. It is not intrinsically evil to inflict distress on the guilty, up to and including killing them. Scoprio is most certainly guilty as he attempted to murder the detective and has admitted to kidnapping the girl, so inflicting punishment on him is well within the rights of those acting as agents of the legitimate authority.  This was the teaching in the Catholic Church until yesterday. In fact such an action is praiseworthy.

I am not trying to merely sway the reader by playing on emotions and using a particularly vile crime to do so. I am trying to illustrate a situation in which the person being dealt with is both depraved and engaged in an ongoing assault. By keeping the knowledge of the girl’s location secret and preventing her rescue Scorpio is actively engaged in a continued attack on the girl. (Similarly if a Jihadist knows of a planned terrorist attack and is concealing the plot, then he is engaged in perpetuating the attack in an ongoing fashion by cooperating with it and making it possible. To stop the attack you would be justified in killing the terrorist, so it does not make sense that you would not be justified in hurting him. If “torture” is justified in this situation, then we can dispense with the “never justified” rhetoric. So the question is: Was Dirty Harry justified?



We conclude with some final thoughts in our last Post in this series next.

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