The “innocence” argument and the Consistent Life Ethic

The “innocence” argument and the Consistent Life Ethic September 7, 2009

Listening to Patrick Madrid’s condemnation of waterboarding reminded me of an argument that I often hear when I talk to my conservative friends about the Consistent Life Ethic, specifically when I mention that being anti-abortion is not necessarily enough to make one pro-life in a truly Catholic and catholic sense. In response, I am often told that other affronts to human dignity such as torture and capital punishment are somehow less evil than abortion because “unborn babies are innocent, but criminals are not.” At a superficial level this argument seems valid, but a closer look shows it to be essentially incompatible with the foundations of Catholic social teaching.

It is important to remember that Catholic teaching on the dignity of man is not contingent on the degree of innocence or guilt with which a soul is burdened. In a literal sense, none of us is “innocent”; even the unborn carry the stain of original sin that must be washed away by the waters of Baptism, and obviously the rest of us have to answer for a multitude of personal sins. Every human being, the unborn child as much as the mass murderer as much as you or I, is in need of redemption.

My point in saying this is not that abortion, torture, capital punishment, and the like are justifiable by virtue of the guilt that we all share (nor is it my intention, obviously, to pass any kind of judgment on the fate of the souls of unbaptized aborted children, a question that is best left to God in His mercy). My point is exactly the opposite: the Church teaches, based on the example of the life of Christ, that human dignity is not earned, either by good deeds that we have committed or evil deeds that we have not committed (i.e. crimes that have been committed by prisoners but not by unborn children). Nor does an individual forfeit his or her human dignity by the commission of evil acts. Rather, such dignity is intrinsic to every human being and shared equally by all individuals, because every individual is created by the Father, redeemed (or has the potential to be redeemed) by the Son, and sanctified (or has the potential to be sanctified) by the Holy Spirit.

So, we see very quickly that the “abortion is worse because unborn babies are innocent” argument doesn’t really hold water. Now, issues of scale (one million abortions per year versus several hundred executions and several dozens of cases of torture per year) may certainly warrant the devotion of greater resources to the fight against legalized abortion; that is a matter of prudential judgment for the institutions (the USCCB, the Vatican, and religious and lay organizations) charged with applying Catholic social teaching to the modern world. However, a coherent and successful movement cannot operate solely by practice; the actions of the pro-life movement, much like the actions of  the earlier civil rights and abolitionist movements, must be rooted in some larger principle, namely the principle of intrinsic human dignity. And when we look at this larger principle, it becomes clear that it is not licit for a anyone, particularly a Catholic, to call himself pro-life while supporting (either explicitly or by a failure to condemn) torture, capital punishment, and unjust war. For in the end, the belief in which this hypocrisy is rooted– the belief that victims of such atrocities are “less innocent” than victims of the atrocity that is abortion–is simply not valid.

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  • brettsalkeld

    Nicely put Mickey. I have thought of this before. One of the issues some are likely to bring up is the fact that we can kill in self-defense or in a just war, but if they attribute this to the guilt of our victims they are mistaken. One can kill in self-defense not because one is trying to kill, but because one is trying to protect oneself or others and sometimes killing is unavoidable in that context. Indeed one could kill a madman in one’s home or an enemy soldier even though neither of these have any guilt at all related to the reason for their death.

  • And when we look at this larger principle, it becomes clear that it is not licit for a anyone, particularly a Catholic, to call himself pro-life while supporting (either explicitly or by a failure to condemn) torture, capital punishment, and unjust war.

    I would raise one distinction — unless I’m misunderstanding the Catechism (#2267) and Cardinal Dulles’ ‘magisterial’ analysis of the subject in First Things, it would seem that capital punishment per se cannot be equated with unjust war or torture.

    The Church would maintain that two of these are intrinsically evil — whereas capital punishment itself is not, and is opposed on prudential grounds.

  • ron chandonia

    Excellent post! People who oppose abortion but support capital punishment and warfare almost always rely on an “innocence ethic”–i.e., it is our moral responsibility to protect the innocent against those who would do them harm. At the most simplistic level, they tend to divide humanity into “good guys” and “bad guys,” sometimes placing Jesus himself at the head of the army of the righteous.

    We heard this sort of talk constantly during the so-called War on Terror, but it did not begin with GWB and Karl Rove. As an alternative to the Christian ethic of nonviolence, it goes back at least as far as the Roman emperor who thought God had told him, “In this sign you shall conquer.”

    I wish it could be addressed from the pulpit, but just mentioning it seems to infuriate the often sizable portion of the congregation with ties to the US military.

  • brettsalkeld

    As far as I can tell, the distinction I mentioned about self-defense (namely that killing is not the goal but is sometimes unavoidable when pursuing other goals) applies to capital punishment in societies where there is no other way to protect the population. Incidentally, it is also the logic that allows for the removal of the fallopian tube, and consequent death of the child, in cases of ectopic pregnancy.

  • In a society where it is possible to protect the population without its use, capital punishment is as gravely sinful as unjust war and abortion.

  • The word ‘innocent’, as I’ve seen it used in Catholic teaching, almost always has the very narrow context of the double effect rule. An innocent person is one who is not an unjust aggressor. It is always murder to directly and voluntarily kill an innocent person. Homicidal self-defense, both personal and societal, is based upon the idea that one is the object of unjust aggression.

  • As MI points out, the double effect rule has a ‘last resort’ (or proportionality) element. In our society, with so many other ways of defeating evil, the death penalty is simply murder.

  • Right, proportionality seems to do all the work in this regard. In other words, while there are better and more accurate ways to put it, capital punishment is tantamount to form of unjust harm not because it is simple harm, but because it violates the proportional conditions of harm within any intuitively just ethical analysis.

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