Tuesday, April 15, 2008

America's "First Catholic President"?

From yesterday's White House press briefing:

Q: ...It's been suggested that the President, who has met so often with Catholic leaders and reached out so aggressively to Catholic groups, and whose social views very closely reflect Catholic Orthodoxy, is actually America's first Catholic President. What do you think of that? (Laughter.)

MS. PERINO: He's also been called America's -- or, the first Jewish President, is what the Israelis call him, too.

The foolish questioner who posed that query must figure that John Kennedy really wasn't Catholic, because he didn't take his orders from the Vatican, and that maybe Bush does? Hmmm, let's think about that.

Catholic doctrine places a high priority on reducing poverty and suffering. There's a great emphasis on economic and social justice. The Church doesn't advocate pacifism, but instead, building on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas and others, advocates the doctrine of Just War. The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church even lays out the legitimate reasons for a just war:

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.

Also, the Church opposes capital punishment:

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

Obviously the questioner didn't know much about Catholic doctrine, because it's absurd to think of George W Bush's actions as President as embodying Church teachings on matters of social or economic justice, warfare or capital punishment. So was questioner maybe thinking about George W Bush as "Catholic" in the sense of copying the interrogation practices of one of the darker moments of Catholicism, the Spanish Inquisition?

The Washington debate over the simulated-drowning technique may be new, but the practice is not. It predates the Inquisition and has been used, off and on, around the world ever since.

Its use was first documented in the 14th century, according to Ed Peters, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania. It was known variously as "water torture," the "water cure" or tormenta de toca — a phrase that refers to the thin piece of cloth placed over the victim's mouth...

"The patient strangled and gasped and suffocated and, at intervals, the toca was withdrawn and he was adjured to tell the truth. The severity of the infliction was measured by the number of jars [of water] consumed, sometimes reaching to six or eight," writes Henry Charles Lea in A History of the Inquisition of Spain.

"The thing you could not do in torture was injure the body or cause death," Peters says. That was — and still is — what makes water boarding such an attractive interrogation technique, he says: It causes great physical and mental suffering, yet leaves no marks on the body.

In some matters, the Church remains in conflict with modernity. The Church adopted to the teachings of Darwin, for instance, and does not advocate a literal interpretation of the text of the Bible. However, matters of human sexuality and conception place the Church at odds with modern science, many philosophical beliefs, social attitudes, and even the practices and beliefs of the majority of American Catholics. (But just to be clear, the Church never adopted a policy of denying communion to Catholic politicians who espouse reproductive rights; in fact, it rejected such policies by a vote of 183-6.)

One area where the Church has definitely changed its practices is on the subject of torture. Again, from the Cathechism:

Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. 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. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.

It's hard to see how George W. Bush could be seen as America's first Catholic President. But with his love of torture as official American policy, one might see him as America's first Medieval President.


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