Archive for April, 2009

Tortured Reasoning

I have been writing, when I have been writing at all lately, about small children, birds, and the Divine Liturgy. As some of you may have guessed, I gave up- along with a lot of other things- public political discourse for Lent. As it turned out, not only was this not much of a penance, it was a genuine relief. I was, after all, exhausted from the last election, which was the only one I’ve ever known that strained friendships.

I am loathe to reenter the fray, but what I want to comment on really is more along the lines of moral theology than polemics. (Yes, I know that I could probably make the same claim to most of my political commentary, alas)…

There has been a great deal of controversy in the past weeks over President Obama’s release of Bush era memos describing and justifying various “enhanced” interrogation techniques. “Enhanced interrogation techniques”, of course, is a euphemism for torture, the way “collateral damage” is a euphemism for dead civilians. At least it is no longer possible to argue that a handful of rogue hillbillies were alone responsible for the abuse of prisoners. Beyond doubt, the roots of the thing were in the highest levels of the Bush administration.

Reaction to this on the Right consists of two responses. Some are still arguing that somehow such acts as denying a suspect sleep for 11 days, threatening harm to his children, hanging him from his wrists from the ceiling like in a cartoon dungeon, nearly drowning him- 183 times in a month in one instance- locking him in a dark box with crawling insects, stripping him and dousing him with ice water in a cold room, and the rest of it are somehow “not really torture”.

I hope these moral idiots remember that the next time American troops are captured by their enemies.

But the most common reaction is that, however one wants to characterize these actions, they work and are therefore justifiable. At least Dick Cheney, who will not go away, claims they work, though the quality of intelligence gained by torture is open to debate.

But let us grant, for the sake of argument, that they do work. For this reveals the real moral bankruptcy of the post-Christian milieu. In moral theology, the idea that the morality of an act is determined by the good it effects rather than by the intrinsic nature of the act, is called “consequentialism”. Consequentialism is a sort of spiritual and moral poison, for by it anything can be justified based upon the imagined good that one will obtain or the evil that will be thwarted. It is a poison that has been ingested by nearly everyone in this culture, Right, Left and Center. Nor are religious believers immune. In the last week I heard, on the radio, the consequentialist justification for torture from two Catholics, the self-proclaimed SuperCatholic and former senator Rick Santorum, and the more average Catholic pew-sitter Sean Hannity. To see these paragons of moral principle revealed as relativists would have been amusing, were the stakes not so high.

And if you doubt for a moment the breadth of the infection, think of any discussion you have ever heard among Americans about the bombing of Axis cities in World War II. Mention Hiroshima and most Americans will defend annihilating it by citing the (imagined) numbers of American lives which were saved by averting an invasion. A handful will declare that in fact dropping the bomb was not necessary because Japan would have negotiated if the US had not demanded unconditional surrender, or for some other reason. Only a tiny handful, even among Christians and Catholics, who should know better, will say that it was simply wrong because it is always wrong to intentionally kill innocent people.

Indeed, all of the horrors of the last century and of this nascent one were carried out in the name of some great good. The Nazis, after all, heralded the dawn of the the Third Reich, the thousand year reign of peace and order, under the benevolent hand of the master race. The Marxists killed their millions to bring about heaven on earth, the end of war and inequality and oppression. In our own day, scientists defend their ghoulish experiments on living human embryos to rid the world of disease, and the Wahhabi jihadists are blowing up themselves and their enemies to initiate the rule of God. In their minds they are literally blowing themselves to Kingdom Come.

Americans decry these horrors but defend the ones they themselves perpetuate for the sake of lesser goals: defense of “The Homeland”, or the spread of democracy, or the establishment of a Pax Americana.

To return to the question of torture, let’s conduct a little experiment in morality: if the “enhanced interrogation techniques” described above can be justified in the name of expediency, what else is allowed? Can we crush the testicles of the suspect’s child, as Bush administration lawyer John Yoo so infamously argued? If it works, if it saves lives, why not? Where do you draw the line, and how is that line not arbitrary?

As these moral convolutions are always done in the light of some far-fetched hypothetical situation, let me propose one such situation: if you could save the whole world by torturing a single two year old to death could you do it? How is this different from incinerating a hundred thousand civilians to win a war?

That secularists, who see only as far as the horizons of this world, can justify such amoral calculations is bad enough. That those who claim the name of Christ can do so, those who are commanded to love their enemies, to do good to those who would harm them, and to treat others as they themselves wish to be treated, is mind boggling.

Kyrie Elieson. Hospidi Pomiliu. Lord Have Mercy.

Daniel Nichols

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The Cardinal’s Virtue

One of the first things I noticed when I started my new postal route late last summer was the almost total lack of songbirds, especially cardinals. There were crows and blue jays and hawks and sparrows, but few songbirds. This was quite a contrast to my previous route, where I could hear cardinals and other songbirds singing all day. The new route is higher ground, with more wooded areas near it, and I went several weeks before I saw a cardinal, and he was flitting quickly into the woods. Don’t get me wrong; I like hawks and jays, and consider crows to have among the best senses of humor in the animal kingdom. I mean they are not nature’s comedians or anything- those would be the ducks- but they are pretty funny.

But I missed the cardinals. The male cardinal is a singularly beautiful creature, and I have long loved both its vivid red and its beautiful song. The female has a reputation of being drab, but this is not really true. Granted, at any distance they have barely more color than a sparrow, but through the lens of binoculars or a telephoto lens one can see the splendid and subtle interplay of green and gold and rose in her plumage.

But even from a distance the male is striking, a rare flash of crimson against a green or brown or white world. Once in Virginia there was a snowstorm and it was on my day off. I prepared my morning coffee, opened the shades and sat in my rocking chair, grateful that I was not going to be out on such a day. There in the bush outside my window was a male cardinal, singing his heart out, vivid against the whiteout. I know it is not very scientific to ascribe human motives to birds, but for all that he sure looked like he was singing for the pure joy of it.

As the seasons turned and spring approached, however distantly, songbirds began appearing on my route, and slowly their numbers increased. Now it is rare that I am out of earshot of a singing cardinal. Crows and jays and hawks have grown fewer. I don’t know if this reflects a sort of local migration or if they have taken back their territory after being run off by the more aggressive breeds; next fall I should know for sure. But I am very grateful to have them around.

It is my theological opinion that if they were native to the Middle East the Holy Spirit would have appeared as a cardinal rather than as a dove, and cardinals would have become a common symbol of the divine presence in Christian art. First, there is the color, so rare in nature in temperate climates. Red, of course, is the color of the Holy Spirit in Western Christianity. In Orthodox iconography red is the color of divinity. Hence, Christ appears with a red tunic, the inner garment, and wrapped in a blue cloak, blue being the color of humanity. Thus it is symbolized that the Diving Person has wrapped Himself in humanity. The Mother of God, on the other hand, wears a blue inner garment and is wrapped in a red cloak: she is a human person enveloped in divinity. And in Russia, the word for “red” is also the word for “beautiful”. The icon corner in the home, center of the family’s prayer life, is “the red corner”, the beautiful corner.

And then there is the song. Or more accurately, songs. The cardinal sings a variety of tunes, from the simple ones that sound like “peep peep peep” or “tweet tweet tweet” or “birdy birdy birdy” to more complex ones that are harder to transcribe. But they are all distinctively cardinalish. The great thing about this time of year, before the leaves are on the trees, is that when I hear the cardinal’s song I can nearly always skim the treetops, for barring snowstorms they love high places, and there they are, red like living flame, the natural symbol of the Holy Spirit, a tongue of fire, singing forth beauty from on high.

Daniel Nichols

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The Rest of the Story

I had originally intended the Holy Friday procession to be available on Holy Saturday, when I first saw it and tried to email it to Maclin. The operative word here is “tried”, as I am technologically stupid and it took several tries before I somehow succeeded, and then Maclin apparently couldn’t find it for a few more days. Or something.

Anyway, as beautiful as it is I feel badly about posting it during Bright Week, so here is a short clip of my other favorite of the liturgical year, something from the Easter Sunday liturgy.

Daniel Nichols

Note: When this clip finishes playing you should see thumbnails at the bottom for the remaining seven clips in the series. And by the way, Daniel’s first email was erroneously flagged as spam and thrown into a spam folder, where I didn’t notice it for a day or two. In case you were curious….—Maclin Horton

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As mentioned by Thomas Storck in a comment on the last post about this conference, this email from Richard Aleman:


Dear friends of The Society for Distributism,

Photographs and a brief summary of last week’s conference may be found at :


Many of you have asked if the conference was taped. The event was recorded, however we will inform all of you if and when this becomes available.

I want to thank each and every one of you for your prayers and support. The event was a success thanks to all of you.

Servire Deo regnare est!

Richard Aleman
The Society for Distributism

Maclin Horton

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Daniel sent me a link to this video of Holy Friday liturgy at his parish a day or two ago. When I started to watch it and saw that it was 10 minutes long, I had to wait for a more opportune moment. I thought that time had arrived a little while ago, but then an amateur folk-rock band started playing right outside my window. Rather than delay any further, I’m just going to go ahead and post it. Daniel’s wife & children are in here somewhere; I’ll let him point them out.

This is Part 3. There are also a Part 1 and a Part 2.

Maclin Horton

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