Politics & Policy

Teaching Tradition

When it comes to traditional morality, President Bush--not John Paul II--has it right.

In the wave of well-deserved adulation and admiration that has swept the world since the death of John Paul II, one observation has continually been made as a characterization of his pontificate. Love him or hate him, agree with or oppose him, one thing is universally accepted as true: John Paul II stood up for “traditional morality.” In a world obsessed with the “culture of death,” John Paul stood resolutely for traditional ethics and for the “culture of life” that made him such a sign of opposition to the prevailing drift of people and governments.

But just how traditional was his morality? He opposed contraception–that, to be sure, is traditional. Until the 20th century, no one endorsed contraceptive use; and even then, among people of all classes–except a handful in the intelligentsia–no one believed in it until the 1960s. Not only did every religion condemn it, but even the Anglicans didn’t approve it until 1931. So on that score, John Paul II taught traditional morality.

The same, of course, goes for abortion. Pagan aberrations aside (though we must sometimes remember to distinguish between what people do and what they believe), the previous paragraph applies to this practice as well. When it comes to euthanasia, ancient history can be discordant, but it’s pretty safe to say that opposition to it is also a part of traditional morality. No problem on that score for John Paul II.

But once we get past contraception, abortion, and euthanasia, things start to get sticky. For belief in the permissibility of the death penalty is a part of traditional morality, as is belief in the justifiability of war. And yet whilst the president of the United States, for one, steadfastly supports both capital punishment and the concept of just war, John Paul II seemed resolute in his virtual opposition to both. I say “virtual” because, though he never condemned either explicitly, everything he said and did made clear that he regarded them as all but unreasonable and inapplicable in the modern age. Here it looks like George W. Bush’s morality is far more traditional–and I would argue more defensible–than John Paul’s.

Defenders of the latter, however, will respond than the late pontiff never taught that war or capital punishment were wrong per se. Indeed, to take war first, some have said that John Paul II never even explicitly opposed the 2003 Iraq war. This is contentious, however, since in an interview with the Catholic news agency Zenit on May 2, 2003, then Cardinal Ratzinger made it quite plain that John Paul opposed the invasion: “The Pope expressed his thought with great clarity [that] there were not sufficient reasons to unleash a war against Iraq.” The more important matter of principle, however, is that John Paul did allow that sufficient reasons to go to war might exist.

How traditional is this position? Official teaching such as the Catechism of 1992/1997 allows the possibility of war justified by the right of self-defence or perhaps the defence of another country. But the traditional view has always been broader than this: Actual physical aggression or the threat thereof is one potential jus ad bellum (ground for war), but so, according to the standard moral theology manuals of the 1950s, are freedom from tyranny and liberation from religious oppression whereby a nation is prevented from worshipping God. Even a grave dishonor to a country can be a good reason for going to war. And the standard pre-1960s theology books also teach that it might be an act of charity for a nation to go to war to bring orderly government to a country in chaos.

These textbooks are merely echoing the centuries-old teaching of the Catholic Church as embodied in its greatest minds, such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. To be sure, the textbooks agree that war is a horrendous thing, only to be justified in serious circumstances. But they are at some remove from John Paul, who never seems to have met a war he didn’t abhor.

The same goes for capital punishment, where, even more egregiously, John Paul denounced what the Church has taught for centuries. Lest there be any doubt, the 1992 version of the new Catechism, at para. 2266, includes the death penalty as legitimate punishment “in cases of extreme gravity.” In the 1997 revised version, however, this has been replaced in para. 2267 by the statement that capital punishment may be inflicted as “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” But then it goes on to say that any such case, in contemporary society, would be “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” repeating what John Paul said in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

Again, traditional teaching, which is quite some way from this highly restrictive position, is summed up by Aquinas: He says, “if any man is dangerous to the community and is subverting it by some sin, the treatment to be commended is his execution in order to preserve the common good, for a little leaven sours the whole lump.” Far less restrictive, one can see, unless “some sin” is distorted to mean “the worst possible sin in the world” or some such.

Indeed it is somewhat amazing that John Paul seems to have remained so unmoved by the unrelenting violence, sexual decadence, and drug-fuelled vice of modern materialist society (the very society he chastised over and over for its naked greed) as never once to have advocated executing some of the criminals who make contemporary life such a misery for so many people.

The plain fact is that John Paul II’s moral teaching (at least on life-and-death issues) is far less traditional than George Bush’s. For traditional ethics relies on the fundamental distinction between guilt and innocence: It is at the heart of the traditional support for just war and capital punishment and opposition to abortion and euthanasia. The president clearly recognizes this; all he is doing is reflecting a moral position that only a few decades ago, and for millennia before that, people used to drink in with their mothers’ milk.

Without the distinction between guilt and innocence there can be no conceptual basis for distinguishing punishment from protection. And without that, morality collapses into incoherence.

Opposition to abortion and euthanasia on the one hand, and support for just war and the death penalty on the other, are not conceptual enemies. They aren’t even uneasy bedfellows. They belong together, and in a way each side justifies the other. Together they provide the traditional ethics at the heart of all mainstream moral thinking until the 1960s cultural revolution. It is clear that George W. Bush has made that thinking his own. It is the late pontiff, on the other hand, who struck off in a novel direction. When it comes to applying tradition to life-and-death moral issues, Bush 43 wins hands down over John Paul II.

David S. Oderberg is professor of philosophy at the University of Reading, England, and the author of books and articles on moral philosophy, such as Moral Theory (Blackwell, 2000) and Applied Ethics (Blackwell, 2000).

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