A reader asks:

I pray you have a blessed Holy Week. Mark, I am a paleo-conservative. I was against the war in Iraq and for the Afghanistan War. I am against torture in general, but can see exceptions. I am for the death penalty, Trent even states that the DP promotes human dignity.

My problem comes when we equate just war with abortion and contraception. They both are always wrong no exception. Yet, God commanded genocide. Men, women and children killed by Joshua. Now, this is not a Levitical Law that was changed.

I guess, though I agree with you, Chris Check, Scott Richert and even the libertarians on this war it does not have the same feel. I would rather be a prisoner in Cuba than Iraq, unlike yourself. I am a cop and I stop people everyday, some even on terror watch lists. I was there when people I know died. So, I am with you on the war but not so sure I am as angered by it as many good conservatives I like.

So, why are we so much better than:

The Crusaders who faught a pre-emptive war( I know many say it was not but .)

The Church who allowed some torture(which I think was wrong for converts but if somebody knew where Marks SHea’s kids were and would not tell, maybe not so wrong)

The Council of Trent whose fathers felt the DP was good to promote Human Dignity.

I am not looking to argue you help me through the end times questions I had so many years ago I need help with this. I want to ge there but just can’t yet.

There are a lot of issues raised in this letter and it’s a bit difficult to tease them apart because they are sort of tangled.

First off, I think it’s important to acknowledge the pain at the back of what you have to say. I grieve for the loss you suffered on 9/11 and I honor the memory of the people who were killed, especially those in police and rescue who sacrificed themselves to save others. May eternal light shine on those who laid down their lives for others in such a Christlike way.

Second, I think it’s important to make clear that I can’t see anything in Catholic teaching that would oppose the right of the United States and all free folk to make war on and destroy the people responsible for 9/11. Like you, I supported the war in Afghanistan to destroy the Taliban and the al Quaeda leadership. I’m all in favor of capturing or killing bin Laden and Co. I am mystified that Bush now says he’s no longer a factor.

I’m not quite sure, after saying that, how to address your various issues, but here goes. First, I think it a fundamental mistake to approach Church teaching by assuming a “two churches/two magisteria” model. When you appeal to Trent *against* the teaching of Evangelium Vitae, that is essentially what you are doing. There are not two churches, pre- and post-Vatican II. There is one Church and the task of the Magisterium is to articulate the developed faith of the Church and help us apply it in the present historical moment. One need not unsay what Trent has said about the death penalty in order to assent to what John Paul says. John Paul never says the death penalty is immoral. He does not say that it does not promote human dignity. He says (in an age when the state has assumed the power to slaughter millions) that the death penalty should not be inflicted when unnecessary. It may have all sorts of salutary spiritual benefits for the man to be hanged. Nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as the prospect of a hanging. But it has very dubious benefits for a culture that is already drunk on blood and vengeance and largely ignorant of elementary Christian teaching about mercy. JPII’s concern is that a neat, clean culture of death hardly needs more excuses for putting people to death.

I’m not sure I understand your point about equating just war with abortion. The Church certainly doesn’t do that, so I don’t get what you mean.

As to God “commanding” genocide, that’s a highly debatable question and is certainly no license for us to imitate the barbarism of ancient semitic warfare. The Old Testament is, we must recall, a revelation which is in progress. As the Fathers say, God “stooped down” to our level and spoke to us in “baby talk”. The fact is, God is revealing himself to a tribe of semitic barbarians where “herem” or the total destruction of an enemy and his goods was a quasi-religious form of sacrifice. It was not invented by God but was already current in semitic culture beyond Israel. The idea was that instead of taking prisoners as slaves and concubines and goods as spoils, you kept nothing for yourself and offered it all to God by destroying it. Rather hard cheese on the losers, but a weird form of devotion that has, in the merciful providence of God, been allowed to die a well-deserved death. By divine providence, the cultural assumption of Herem was a necessary form of prophylactic against the temptation to idolatry which Israel *still* failed to resist. But it is highly debatable whether God “commanded” such a thing or if it was simply a common assumption that God simultaneously made use of and quickly weaned Israel away from.

Certainly there is nothing *at all* in the New Covenant that would suggest this accomodation to barbarians is somehow still acceptable or willed by Christ. We have to read the Old Testament in light of the New, not repeal the New in order to order to “get back” to the Old.

I’m puzzled by your notion that I’d rather be a prisoner in Iraq than Cuba. Personally, I’d just as soon not be a prisoner anywhere.

Finally, your key questions come to this:

So, why are we so much better than:

This is really the crucial mistake because it colors everything after. It is not the case that the Church claims we are “better” than anybody. It is the case that the Church says its understanding of the teaching of Christ deepens and develops over time. If we deny this, then we have to throw out every dogmatic and doctrinal development since the New Testament. Either that, or we have to suppose that Pius IX thought he was “better” than St. Thomas (who rejected the Immaculate Conception that Pius defined as dogma), or that the Nicene Fathers were “better” than Irenaeus (who had a faulty understanding of the Blessed Trinity). I think it wiser to say simply that if we see further than our ancestors it’s because we stand on the shoulders of giants.

The Crusaders who faught a pre-emptive war( I know many say it was not but .)

The Crusaders did not see themselves as fighting a pre-emptive war. They saw themselves as coming to the aid of eastern Christians whose lands had already been conquered and were now being threatened further by a militant heresy.

The Church who allowed some torture(which I think was wrong for converts but if somebody knew where Marks SHea’s kids were and would not tell, maybe not so wrong)

The essential development that has taken place in the modern Church is this: The Church in centuries past affirmed (and still affirms) that “error has no rights.” Based on this insight, Catholics believed it was legitimate to torture the body lest the soul be lost. What the modern Church has come to appreciate is the deeper insight that, “Though error has no rights, persons in error *do* have rights.” Those rights come from God, not Geneva, and so appeals to man-made laws as excusing the torture of “illegal combatants” are non-starters. The intrinsic dignity of the human person means, ultimately, that torture is, as John Paul said, intrinsically immoral. Appeals to Ticking Time Bomb scenarios are appeals to fantasy. The reality is that such scenarios are vanishingly rare. It’s like trying to justify a complete abortion license, including partial birth abortion and infanticide, on the basis that, now and then, tubal pregnancies happen. Except that tubal pregnancies are more common than Ticking Time Bombs. In addition, the reality is that torture is not just evil and intrinsically immoral. It’s stupid. It produces dubious evidence and, as the US is now finding out, creates excellent propaganda grist for Radical Islamic recruiters, and gives us highly dubious intelligence that is inadmissible in court when you want to lock away some bad guy. And, as Maher Arar and 80% of the victims at Abu Ghraib can attest, it frequently is done to people who haven’t done a damn thing. It’s only on TV that you *know* the person you are torturing has the information you seek. In real life, torture is done to *find out* if the victim has done anything. By the time you find out they are innocent, you’ve already damned your soul.

The Council of Trent whose fathers felt the DP was good to promote Human Dignity.

See above.

Hope this helps. The Church really is there to be the anchor of sanity when the cultural and political winds of enthusiasm for insanity are blowing especially hard. It can often feel weird and wrong to stick with her while the storms of enthusiasm are raging. But when they die down, you tend to look back on the Church’s position and say, “She was right–again.”