I wonder how many folks out there in the Catholic blogosphere know who Inspector Harry Callahan was. Not many perhaps? Well this is not something you are going to get at your average Catholic blog, but we are aiming at a niche audience. Harry Callahan is the fictional detective character made memorable by actor Clint Eastwood, in the “Dirty Harry” movies made between 1971 and 1988. The classic one is of course “Dirty Harry’ made in 1971.
I bring up “Dirty Harry”, because a scene from the movie raises important questions about the current departure from traditional Catholic moral reasoning and its consequences. Here the specific issue is “torture” and has been triggered by recent rants by Mark Shea ridiculing “pro-life torture supporters”, (What he apparently means by this phrase is people who are opposed to abortion and ok with waterboarding Islamic terrorists as done by the Bush administration. ) I am both opposed to abortion and in favor of killing as many Jihadists as necessary, so I suppose I am ok with waterboarding them as well. I am not 100% sure that waterboarding is consistent with the classic definition of torture but I will concede I proudly meet Mr. Shea’s “pro-life torture supporter” definition.
I am not in terrible company as St Thomas More seemed to think inflicting corporal punishment on evil doers was ok, but I concede this sort of thinking is a bit dated now. The problem is that we seem to lack any coherent moral framework to understand what is moral or immoral. We now have a situation where people who were formally biblical fundamentalists have become papal fundamentalists and do not seem to realize that recent comments from the Papacy (particularly the current Pope) stand in stark contrast to past teachings by earlier Councils and Popes. Simply quoting Popes in a kind of proof texting manner as some Fundamentalist Christians do when using Biblical passages is not particularly enlightening. It is even more problematic when you are quoting an institution that claims infallibility but that can be seen as contradicting itself unless you understand that some statements have more weight than others, and all of them need to be understood in terms of the entire moral tradition.
Of course the problem is not confined to the blogs. That would be relatively trivial. We have the Church appearing to be on the verge of sanctioning things it once condemned (like divorce and remarriage), while appearing to be condemning things it once sanctioned, like the death penalty. Now I have no particular animus against the divorced and remarried. I can readily imagine a thousand sympathetic scenarios where one or both parties are good people and it seems their marriage fell apart. Who does not want to help these folks? I also have no special love for the death penalty, as I tend to oppose to it as a practical matter most of the time. After all, given that the government cannot run the post office, I am reluctant to give it power of life and death. I do have a problem however with the Church contradicting itself, since if an official teaching of magisterial authority was to contradict another teaching of similar weight, we would have a real challenge to the claims the Church makes about its own nature, specifically that it is infallible in matters of faith and morals. If the current teaching of the Church is that the death penalty is intrinsically immoral and must be opposed, then the Catholic Church would have no teaching authority at all, because quite simply, until recently, it taught the reverse. Whether the teaching is right now and wrong then is immaterial, as having been wrong at all, it is not.. what is that word again… infallible. If the Church is not infallible then we may as well be left to our own particular moral inclinations. Frankly, if that is the case, then perhaps torturing the Jihadists responsible for 911 (and I mean real torture we can do much more colorful things than simulated drowing..) might not be all the problematic. They deserve it after all. More in our next post.