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Grisly Procedures

November 24, 2017 | (4,346 words)

For those who may be unfamiliar with her work, Linda Greenhouse is a New York Times Contributing Op-Ed Writer who covers the Supreme Court and the law.  Her November 12, 2017 effort is entitled “The Worrisome Future of Abortion Rights.”  In it Ms. Greenhouse describes “the deeply disturbing events of the past few weeks as the Trump administration pulled out all the stops to keep a pregnant 17 year-old, an ‘unaccompanied minor’ in federal custody as an undocumented immigrant, from exercising her constitutional right to an abortion.”

“The administration persisted,” Ms. Greenhouse writes, “even after a Texas judge ruled in September that the girl was sufficiently mature to make her own decision about her pregnancy.”  The story has a happy ending, at least from the perspective of The New York Times.  “Known only in court papers as Jane Doe, she finally got her abortion on October 25, thanks to a 6-3 ruling by the federal appeals court in Washington.”

Even so, Ms. Greenhouse bemoans how “the abortion came after weeks of delay, after Jane Doe was forced to attend a counseling session at an anti-abortion ‘crisis pregnancy center,’ and as the pregnancy was nearing the 20-week limit for legal abortion in Texas.”

The rest of the well-written and persuasively argued essay goes on to detail the nefarious ways certain members of the current Justice Department, along with certain federal appointees to circuit courts, have taken it upon themselves to act as “an outpost of the National Right to Life Committee.”  Above all else, Ms. Greenhouse wants to bring our attention to the way in which “the government is claiming a right not to ‘facilitate’ a lawful procedure, not to become complicit in what some politicians and federal bureaucrats regard as evil…  It is the government itself claiming a right not to follow the law.”

… appealing to a law of recent vintage.

This appeal to law and order fails to acknowledge the specific law being referenced is relatively new, reversing centuries of consensus over what was until recently accurately described as infanticide.  One is also struck by the absence of any mention that the surgery under discussion is among the most invasive medical procedures one could possibly imagine.  Indeed, one is moved by the way Linda Greenhouse is able to conceptualize abortion into just another polemical issue to be furiously debated with one’s ideological foe.  Abortion is nothing more than a now-legal action that, due to its legality, should not only be permitted, but pursued at every opportunity, without a qualm.

While we may agree that certain young girls, along with adult women on occasion, have unfortunately been known to find themselves in difficult situations no one should have to face alone, should that really translate into, and does that really justify, the all-out promotion of a grisly procedure whose public acceptance constitutes a stain on civilized society?

Reading Father Brian Harrison’s recent criticism of Pope Francis’s intention to amend the Catechism of the Catholic Church in such a way that would define capital punishment as always and everywhere wrong, one is given to a similar thought.  Unlike Linda Greenhouse of The New York Times, Father Harrison is referencing a very old law.  While amending or developing long-held Church teaching should never be undertaken lightly, and Father Harrison’s articulate presentation of the historical record is a valuable contribution to the discussion, can we not allow that the application of justice has undergone some questionable refinements over the years?  In this, our vaunted modern age, isn’t the death penalty a grisly procedure whose public acceptance constitutes a stain on civilized society?

… selective reference to papal teaching.

John Paul II certainly seemed to think so.  In the 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, “On The Value And Inviolability Of Human Life,”  he comes this close (imagine your thumb and index finger almost touching) to saying and doing the very same thing we are now criticizing Francis for saying and trying to do.  In EV 56 our orthodox hero explains:

“The nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity; in other words when it would not be possible to otherwise defend society.  Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if practically non-existent.”

While upholding the value of every human life, Evangelium Vitae does leave room for capital punishment as a right of society to defend itself and preserve peace.  But there are good reasons to limit its use, first and foremost to witness to the value of human life.  So while technically affirming the validity of capital punishment as public retribution, as the Church has always done, EV unquestionably seeks to greatly restrict or abolish it where circumstances allow.

Yet we are not hearing this aspect of JPII’s thought being referenced in relation to the latest assault on tradition perpetrated by the touchy-feely, anti-intellectual Francis.  Instead, our attention is being directed all the way back to the year 1208, and the papacy of Innocent III.  Perhaps we would all benefit by stepping away from the good-Pope, bad-Pope parlor game we have been distractedly playing the last few years.  Maybe there is a different context within which these matters might be more properly evaluated.


Framing that different context would start by respectfully disputing Father Harrison’s contention “that Pope Francis, by his wholesale attempts to re-write Catholic moral teaching, is throwing the Church into the worst crisis of faith she has undergone since the Protestant Reformation, or perhaps even since the mid-4th century Arian crisis, when one Pope and most bishops were wavering even over the divinity of Christ.”

Father Harrison is not alone in making this accusation.  He is joined, for one, by the editor of Culture Wars magazine.  For the record, we are not accusing serious writers like Father Brian Harrison and E. Michael Jones of engaging in a parlor game.  Also for the record, we ourselves are not personally smitten with everything Pope Francis says or does.

For instance, like Harrison-Jones, we regard Francis’s support for a “healthy secular state” that has no obligation to acknowledge the Catholic Church as the one, true religion as being a serious doctrinal error.  Unlike Harrison-Jones, however, we do not see this as prima facie evidence that Francis has run off the rails and gone his own way.  On the contrary, our current Pope is merely regurgitating the official Catholic party line since Vatican II, preached not only by his immediate predecessors but also by every leading American prelate over the last fifty years.

The new party line is nothing less than a full embrace of the pluralist democratic model, under the banner of “religious freedom.”  The revised rules of engagement are as follows:  We will no longer try to convert anybody, and in return we will be allowed to administer the sacraments to our own people without interference.  Talk about taking a position that is “contrary to the Gospel”…

It was the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, which made this about-face possible.  Yes, the very same document Harrison-Jones now cite as reaffirming the traditional teaching of all pre-conciliar popes.  How can this be?

…an ambiguous Council document speaks with forked tongue.

In the opinion of many, DH is sort of all over the place.  It does manage a sentence or two that technically reaffirms what Father Harrison and E. Michael Jones says it does.  But the short document equivocates like you wouldn’t believe.  More to the point, it is now routinely interpreted, both inside and outside the Church, in a way that directly contradicts the claim Harrison-Jones make to buttress their subpoena against Pope Francis.

(It wasn’t that long ago, before the Francis Wars, when a certain Father Brian Harrison was writing in to Culture Wars magazine on a regular basis to challenge this very same pre-conciliar principle.  That person  repeatedly told us how impractical is was to insist on the Unites States’ recognition of Catholicism as the one, true faith, since there are now so many other denominations afoot in our land.  Oh, well, maybe all that was the work of an evil twin.)

Despite the elaborate sturm und drang being generated in certain quarters by this Pope’s unconventional methods, on the whole a solid case be made for Francis as acting in a continuum with Benedict XVI and John Paul II.  That continuum can be seen as representing the three theological virtues.  JPII represented hope, Benedict XVI represented faith, and Francis is attempting to represent charity.

If one is able to consider that Francis is taking pretty much the same positions as his immediate predecessors on the most important issues, this might incline one to consider the main difference between Francis and those predecessors is not doctrinal in nature, but rather in the emphasis being applied to the doctrine.  Pope Francis, as one young thinker of our acquaintance recently put it, seems to be trying to bring the doctrine to life, to lift it from the page, if you will.

Yes, we know, this is precisely what his many critics see as a primary fault: an infuriating tendency to portray doctrine as dead and bookish, and far from the pastoral concerns of everyday life.  While Francis may not hold much appeal for the  scholarly set at this stage of his pontificate, perhaps the scholars should consider how they represent a small, if not an infinitesimal, percentage of the population in dire need of correction and direction and guidance.

… an infuriating tendency to portray doctrine as dead and bookish.

Following this line of reasoning, one might respectfully suggest Benedict XVI and John Paul II were perhaps a bit too scholarly and erudite for their own good.  Or too erudite for us, their dumb-downed intended audience who are too easily led astray by other, less astute influences.

Behold the way successful Catholics who may look up to George Weigel and be regular consumers of periodicals such as National Review, Wall Street Journal or The Weekly Standard have been taught to politely ignore what those two good and holy prior Popes had to say about the economic question, or pre-emptive military intervention.

This has had a deleterious effect on average believers of a traditional stripe, who feel honor-bound to accept the conservative narrative put forth by the above-referenced organs of discourse, on all political/economic topics.  Because they oppose abortion and gay marriage, the story goes, they must also be right in everything else they espouse.

And, according to this wooden-headed logic, since those dreaded liberals support marriage equality and reproductive choice, they therefore cannot be thought of as possessing a shred of credibility on any subject whatsoever.

Given this tendency to huddle into our own little camps of prescribed ideological thought, Francis, you might say, is taking a different tack in trying to get the Catholic message across.

He started things off in rousing fashion with the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, “On The Proclamation Of The Gospel In Today’s World” (November 2013), in which he found time to challenge the economic status quo proudly embraced by the above-referenced neo-con Republican defenders of the faith.  Please refer to those eight lucid paragraphs (EV 52-60) that calmly expose the ineffectiveness of trickle-down economics.  This broadside garnered the expected unfavorable reaction from the conservative establishment.

Rush Limbaugh wasted no time in declaring Francis a socialist.  Kevin Williamson of National Review Online was equally quick to accuse him of intoning “some ancient Catholic criticisms of market liberalism,” suggesting our new Third World Pope update his syllabus and get with the First World program.

Then just for good measure, in July 2015 the Pope returned to Latin American soil to deliver a teeth-rattling speech in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, during which he continued his strident call for real economic change, for systemic economic change, and described unbridled capitalism as “the dung of the devil.”

… renewing a strident call for systemic economic change.

This appalled both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, which each ran a series of scathing editorials.  Early Francis-supporter Patrick Buchanan, the last political candidate some of us were able to vote for with any enthusiasm, also turned away from the Pope at this point, and ran for cover.

Despite the nasty blowback, this colorful sobriquet served as a scarlet letter, making it difficult for those good Catholic intellectuals slaving away at the Acton Institute, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation, to dodge this papal indictment, as they have managed to dodge so many other papal indictments in years past.

The think-tank experts who have spent entire careers obfuscating whether free markets and unfettered capitalism are compatible with Catholic social teaching now have a much harder time pretending Rome agrees with them.

(Before you rise to object to such an inhospitable characterization, citing the one sentence from John Paul II’s May 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus our highly-respected and lavishly-funded think tanks are forever quoting, by way of convincing us JPII unequivocally supported free markets as “the best way,” please read the remainder of that same paragraph [CA 42].  The man made no such claim.  For a truly eye-opening experience, consider reading all of CA.)

Now two years after Santa Cruz, Francis seems to be taking the same let’s-not-mince-words approach with the subject of capital punishment.  Where John Paul II wanted to see it become “practically non-existent,” Francis is just coming right out and saying “it is a mortal sin.”  Should altering the Catechism in this way be undertaken lightly?  Absolutely it should not.

But has the time come to consider such a change?  In approaching such a daunting question, we should first be able to agree this form of punishment is performed far too often on the poor and the down-trodden, who also frequently happen to be men of color.  Shouldn’t this disturbing fact concern us?

… punishing those who lack economic opportunity.

Anyone reading this now probably enjoys a level of material comfort most of the world’s inhabitants can only dream of.  We may not fully appreciate that only a few miles from where we live, no matter where we live, there are people who struggle daily to maintain the bare necessities of life.  If one lives in an urban area, this distance can probably be measured in city blocks.

The writer Anne Barbeau Gardiner reminds us in the November 2017 issue of Culture Wars magazine of the ways the poor often find themselves caught up in a justice system that is anything but just for those who lack financial resources.  To which we would add, the reason so many of these people are poor and down-trodden in the first place is an utter lack of economic opportunity.

The conservative narrative contends poverty in America is strictly a function of morals.  1965’s famous Moynihan Report, “The Negro Family: The Case For National Action,” continues to be a conservative touchstone all these years later.

The report’s conclusions can be recited from memory:  The deterioration of the two-parent, nuclear family.  The absence of fathers in raising the next generation of males.  And the growing dependence on federal welfare programs that only serve to dis-incentivize men from marrying the women who bear their children.  The words “shiftless” and “lazy” may not appear in the official report, but we can all read between the lines.


Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was on to something, and the standard conservative narrative is, too.  The federal programs, though well-intentioned, obviously backfired.  There have been successive generations of children, and black children in particular, who have grown up without a father or other male authority figure in their lives.

Shiftless and lazy, however, have been with us for a long time, and are not the special purview of any one race or ethnic group.  All these things have contributed to the cycle of poverty the underclass in our country has struggled with since the start of the well-meaning War on Poverty.

But there are more pieces to this puzzle than conservatives allow onto their game board.  The stories that we, the cognitively advantaged, tell ourselves about hard-working ancestors who pulled themselves up by their entrepreneurial bootstraps only serve to blind us to present-day realities.  One such harsh reality is that differences in cognitive ability are real, even if they are difficult to discuss in polite company.

We are no longer the land of opportunity for those who lack a high level of mental acuity.  There are too many rules created by too many know-it-alls, resulting in complexities that average folks are simply unable to decipher.  Meanwhile, the avenues of life-sustaining employment once available to those with lesser cognitive skills have dried up.

If you are a 35 year-old man, and your only option is a minimum wage job at a fast food joint, you might not display a storybook work ethic, either.  These minimum wage jobs may be “ladders” for our bright and ambitious teenagers, but they are “jails” for our out-of-luck adults, who are treated as nothing but cogs in a vast impersonal system that pays peanuts, and provides not one iota of dignity.

Faced with such dismal long-term prospects, you too may find yourself buying a $50 bag of grass in order to sell it for $100, in a desperate attempt to supplement your meager full-time income.  And then, when you fall victim to a police “sting” operation, and you go through a surreal experience with postponed trail dates and revolving-door public defenders, you end up serving four years in prison for being caught selling a $100 bag of grass, the record of which renders you practically unemployable.

… an understandable lack of a stellar work ethic.

What a minute, you might be saying to yourself at this point in the story.  Does this dicey economic climate inevitably lead to a serious life of crime that can sometimes reach the level of convicted murderers and rapists waiting on death row?  That is the question I am asking you to consider.  Catholics of a traditional stripe are too quick to chalk up these escalating social infractions to nothing more than bad parenting and poor choices.  I am suggesting these assumptions could stand to be un-packed a bit.

The charge of less-than-stellar parenting is frequently unwarranted, as the older female guardians who raise all these fatherless children are often staunch adherents of biblical morality.  But they are fighting an uphill battle trying to keep their charges on the straight and narrow.

It is a distinct lack of economic opportunity that leads so many young men from poor and disadvantaged circumstances to grow up only to abandon their children, and the women who bear them, and enter a life of crime.  From my perch it’s the lack of economic prospects that start these adolescents and young adults down an unfortunate path strewn with petty crimes and misdemeanors.  They then find themselves in a labyrinth-like criminal justice system they cannot begin to fathom.  And things have a tendency to snowball from there.

Is this a justification for criminal behavior?  No, it is not.  There is never a justification for breaking the law and violating the norms of civilized society.  But keep in mind the poor and the disadvantaged have in many cases never been treated civilly in their entire lives, so they are simply at a loss when it comes to trying to model such positive behavior.

It should be no secret that gainful employment is what gives men meaning and purpose in their lives.  Everything springs from that.  Take it away, or fail to provide it in the first place, and everything else crumbles and becomes an unmitigated disaster.  Those of us who have always been gainfully employed may take this circumstance for granted.  For those who have not been as cognitively blessed as others, seeking gainful employment in today’s world has become an unrequited life-long quest, as elusive as the Holy Grail.

If you read Culture Wars, or the New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal, you were born with smarts, and enjoy a life of unimaginable comfort, relatively speaking.  This makes you the exception, not the rule.

It has been noted how Pope Francis brings a decidedly Third World perspective to issues such as economic justice and the death penalty.  (Argentina may not exactly be a Third World country, but it’s a long way from being firmly ensconced as a member of the First World.)  He sees things differently than we do here in the States.  He listens to rhythms and patterns of speech that reflect a reality that bears no resemblance whatsoever to the one you and I get to inhabit.

… being born with smarts makes you the exception, not the rule.

In a general sense, commenting on the actions of others is easy to do.  Being in a position of authority that requires action teaches one the difficulty of calibrating those actions in a way that achieves the desired result, while at the same time avoiding unintended consequences.

Those of us who have pursued the vocation of married life get to experience an aspect of this difficulty in our role as parent.  Anyone who is responsible to one degree or another for the well-being of others has also experienced this difficulty.

The November 2017 issue of Culture Wars magazine gives us Father Brian Harrison’s warning that in focusing on the prudential question of whether modern laws should abolish the death penalty, Dr. Anne Barbeau Gardiner and others have “lost sight of the big picture which affects the Church more profoundly, that is, the doctrinal question.”

“Never, prior to Francis, has there ever been a Pope who has absolutely condemned the death penalty as being morally sinful as such, and ‘contrary to the Gospel.’”


Of course Father Harrison is absolutely correct in this observation, even if John Paul II was on the verge of doing so in Evangelium Vitae.  Though he did not quite close the deal, he sure seemed headed in that direction with EV 56.  JPII – our orthodox hero – wanted to make capital punishment “practically non-existent.”

But alas, nobody paid him any mind, did they?  In our pluralist democratic society, where all religions are to be considered equal, and where religious formulations are not to infringe on matters of state, Catholic belief and its purported scriptural justifications no longer have any hold on the public imagination.

And so the nuanced thought of yet another profound and erudite Pope, representing what we used to be allowed to think of as the one, true faith, no longer warrants the slightest consideration by the body politic.

Father Harrison makes an important distinction between the prudential and the doctrinal.  But for the innocent men we inadvertently execute, this may be a classic case of a distinction without a difference.

Is the death penalty as applied in the United States as fair and just as Professors Edward Fesser and Joseph Bessette claim it is, in their excellent new book, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (Ignatius, May 2017).

Dr. Anne Barbeau Gardiner certainly doesn’t think so.  And she is not alone in her assessment.  If you were next in line to occupy the chair of Peter, and had a responsibility to see such a grisly procedure all but set aside, given the vagaries of what passes for justice, what approach would you favor, considering the ineffectiveness of the previous approach?

… a responsibility to see such a grisly procedure all but set aside.

One can’t help but wonder why there is so much vitriol being directed at Francis on this and other matters.  Is it simply because people with whom we vehemently disagree have embraced him as their champion?  Should we really allow the misconstruing of comments such as “who am I to judge,” to cite one early example, turn us away from a duly elected Pope, who as such presumably enjoys the support of the Holy Spirit?

Should we be so quick to blame him for the way people interpret everything through a liberal/conservative lens, instead of a Catholic one?  Is it the liberals’ misguided adoption of Pope Francis as their flag-bearer that prompts good people to get their back up, and assert, as Father Harrison does, that “this supposedly ‘humble’ pontiff thinks he knows better than all his predecessors?”

We can disagree over whether Francis is taking the proper angle on the many things he has decided to tackle.  But he is more than just a wacky Jesuit promoting dialogue to the point of undermining definitive teaching.  He is also, in his undeniably unique style, trying to bring the Church’s teaching to bear on long-standing social problems that plague humanity, just as his predecessors have always tried to do.

It would help if we could begin to understand how these problems have only been exacerbated by our post-conciliar adoption of the pluralist democratic approach as superior to the pre-conciliar, “error has no rights” Catholic approach.  If we can do that, if we can begin to see our problems can be traced in large measure to an indiscriminate embrace of a pluralist democratic model, we might evaluate everything else in a different light.

We might not be so quick to dismiss the efforts of our current Pope as earnest observers such as Father Harrison have chosen to do: “Thus, Francis feels competent to flatly contradict the infallible teaching of Sacred Scripture and all previous Roman pontiffs in regard to the per se legitimacy of capital punishment…”

This attentive reader does not believe for a New York minute that Pope Francis is “covering up the contradiction with the facile fig leaf of labeling it a mere ‘development’ of doctrine.”  Even while enjoying and admiring Father Brian Harrison’s ready way with a turn of phrase.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.
November 30, 2017

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