Maureen Dowd’s Column Today

It’s clear enough that Maureen Dowd disagrees with several of Justice Scalia’s views: abortion, co-ed college dorms, capital punishment, and attendance of the Justices at the Red Mass are among them (though I don’t think that Justice Scalia has expressed any public view on the last of these, though I may be wrong). It’s not exactly clear to me whether she disagrees with Catholics expressing their views as such, or disagrees with the subjects about which they choose to express themselves, or disagrees with the positions that they stake out, or all three.

Just a quick note on the complex doctrine of cooperation in evil. When I taught Catholic Social Thought last year (for the first time), we studied together some of Pope John Paul II’s encyclicals, including Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor, and what they had to say about this doctrine.  There are complicated issues of intention, explicit and implicit, lurking here and I distinctly recall discussion of the permissibility of a legislator voting for a law which will continue, but limit, an immoral practice. Deep waters, and certainly too deep for a blog post.

But it seems to me that Ms. Dowd’s column also misses an important feature of Catholic thought.  Not all moral evils stand in the same position. Some animals are more equal than others.  Otherwise, cooperation in the evil of meaningless, casual, and loveless hook-ups by championing co-educational college dorms, for example, would stand in the same position as cooperating in the evil of abortion by championing harder pro-choice constitutional limitations than presently exist.  And the death penalty, as morally fraught as it assuredly is, does not stand in the same position as abortion.  I am making this claim purely as a descriptive matter.

Here’s a passage from an article by Professors Charles Reid and Greg Sisk from a few years ago which I have found helpful:

[T]he death penalty upon convicted murderers does not, as yet, fall into the exceptional category of plainly proscribed public-regarding decisions — although Church teaching appears to be gravitating toward such a conclusion.

Within the last few decades, a growing number of civilized countries have developed refined criminal justice systems, in which incarceration of violent offenders offers secure protection of society from criminal predation. This modern political development has led the Church to reappraise the validity of execution. If lethal measures are no longer necessary for societal protection, then they become difficult or impossible to justify when other available means of punishment are “more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.” This deduction regarding the legitimacy of the death penalty in societies with well-structured penal systems, while appearing to be that of a growing consensus among Catholic prelates and theologians, has not yet solidified into the kind of teaching that can be said to be believed semper et ubique (“always and everywhere”), and thus to be regarded as part of the ordinary Magisterium. It may well be that Church preaching and teaching on this subject will develop into a categorical directive for modern circumstances, or at least may resolve into an unequivocal condemnation of the frequent and unreflective resort to execution that prevails in certain regions of this country. That day, however, has not yet come. 

In contrast with prudential policy judgments, certain forms of societal behavior that implicate public policy are so manifestly and grievously wrong as to be categorically prohibited. As the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently confirmed: “It is the teaching of the Catholic Church from the very beginning, founded on her understanding of her Lord’s own witness to the sacredness of human life, that the killing of an unborn child is always intrinsically evil and can never be justified. In these instances of intrinsic evil—slavery, genocide, racist oppression, and abortion—moral principle and public policy effectively merge, sharply circumscribing prudential judgment. Nor is room left for equivocation, qualification, or compromise of an elemental principle. (citations to Gaudium et Spes, EV, the Catechism, and several other sources omitted).

Have a look at Ms. Dowd’s column which, in my opinion, may mix together a few too many things in its eagerness to criticize Justice Scalia. — MOD

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