Archive for September 13th, 2006

In the End, One Choice

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his
soul? –
Mark 8:36

While inferior in most ways to a printed journal, there are things unique
to the internet that I do enjoy about this weblog. Chief of these is the
conversation that follows the initial posting of an essay. When writing for
Caelum et Terra, the magazine, I did not think twice if a bit of
writing did not generate a letter to the editor. When writing for Caelum et
the online entity, however, if a post does not spur a vigorous
discussion I think I must have done something wrong. Indeed, I must resist the
temptation to be deliberately provocative.

But there is one recurring response in these conversations that has long
bothered me and which I would like to now address.

That is, when we, the usual suspects, are offering our various
philosphical, theological or prophetic critiques of some act or other, sooner or
later someone demands that the critic produce some sort of practical policy
statement: "So; you think torture is wrong. Just how do you propose to
effectively interrogate suspected terrorists?" Or "So you think warfare which
kills large numbers of civilians is immoral? Do you have an efficient strategy
for victory that you do consider moral?"

Usually the response to these demands is a restatement of general moral
principle, which seems to confirm the challenger’s opinion that these Caelum et
Terra wise guys have no real-world answers and little right to criticize.

In fact this misses the point.

This is a place for cultural, moral, and political commentary and
conversation. It is not a public policy center or a think tank.

The one who offers philosophical or theological analysis- or the more
direct and intuitive prophetic witness- is bound by fidelity to reason or to the
Word of God. He is not necessarily bound to prescribe means to achieve worldly
ends, however noble. He needs to be faithful to his vocation, not necessarily to
aspire to the vocation of others.

Was Moses to be dismissed if he could not offer an economic model that
would minimize the social disruption that freeing the Hebrew slaves would

Was John the Baptist to be ignored as irrelevant if he could not offer
Herod’s paramour marital counselling?

It is, however, the obligation of those whose vocations involve public
responsibility for the common good- or the common defense- to make sure that
both their ends and the means chosen to attain those ends are in conformity to
the moral law.

This may mean rethinking things rather thoroughly and creatively and it
may, perhaps, even mean at times acknowledging that ther may be no moral means
to achieve a particular good end.

Note that I am not in principle admitting this to be true; indeed it seems
evident to me that evil means reap evil, if unintended, ends. Sin begets sin,
violence begets violence. Think of the near century-long playing out of the
ramifications of World War I: the resentment of the German people led directly
to World War II, and we are only beginning to see the results of the destruction
of the Ottoman Empire and the subjegation and division of the Muslim world that
followed that war.

To choose sinful means is often the first choice of sinful man, and it
always comes back to haunt him.

To paraphrase Chesterton yet again, perhaps virtue has not been tried and
found wanting; rather it has not been tried.

But what if we admit for the sake of argument that sometimes victory over
some evil cannot be attained without resorting to evil means?

We are Catholics, and thus not seperatists who believe that the Church
exists in a different dimension than "the world". Nevertheless we admit that
there remains in the end a tension between Church and World, between the City of
God and the CIty of Man.

By nature holistic, Catholics believe that faith forms culture and informs
political and social life.

At the same time we acknowledge the primacy of the spiritual.

Our Lord did not guarantee us success in this life, and if the choice in
fact must be made between some worldly end, however noble, that can only be
attained by evil means, and failure, there is only one choice to be made.

Daniel Nichols

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