Tag Archives: freedom

Capital punishment is not always wrong

If we respect people’s liberty, does it follow that we should never put anyone in jail? Is it hypocritical to imprison kidnappers, given that we criticize kidnappers precisely for taking away the freedom of others? Or consider private property. Do we undermine respect for people’s goods when we impose fines on wrongdoers or confiscate their ill-gotten gains?

The answer to these questions is, of course, No. The reason is obvious. There is a crucial moral difference between the innocent and the guilty. Kidnappers have, by committing their crimes, forfeited the right to their own freedom. Thieves have forfeited the right to their own property. There is no inconsistency or hypocrisy in taking away their liberty or holdings, because it is not taking away the freedom or property of people in general that is wrong. It is taking away the freedom or property of innocent people, specifically, that is wrong.

Everyone knows this. No one would commit the fallacy of supposing that if we want to be consistently pro-freedom or pro-property, we should abolish prisons and refund the fines paid by polluters and traffic violators. 

Strangely, though, many Catholics commit exactly this fallacy when it comes to being pro-life. They suppose that if someone opposes abortion and other forms of murder, then to be consistent one should also oppose capital punishment. Here too, the fallacy is to overlook the moral difference between the innocent and the guilty. The Church has never taught that all killing is wrong, any more than she has taught that it is always wrong to take away someone’s freedom or property. What the Church has taught is that killing the innocent is wrong.

That is why Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the popes have consistently taught that capital punishment can in some cases be permissible (even if some of them also thought it better not to apply it in practice). Pope St. Innocent I taught that to regard capital punishment as intrinsically wrong would contradict divine revelation. Pope Innocent III required a heretical sect to affirm the legitimacy of capital punishment as a condition for reunion with the Church. The catechism issued under Pope St. Pius V taught that precisely because it safeguards innocent life, the practice of executing murderers, “far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder.” Pope Pius XII taught that murderers forfeit the right to their own lives.

Pope Benedict XVI, while still Cardinal Ratzinger – Pope St. John Paul II’s chief doctrinal officer – explained in 2004 that “if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment… he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion” and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion.” 

The reason is that unlike abortion, capital punishment is not inherently wrong, but wrong only under certain circumstances. And whether those circumstances hold is not a doctrinal matter, but a prudential matter about which even popes have no special expertise.

I would argue that Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarks still apply today, to Pope Francis’s opposition to capital punishment. There is no other way to interpret the pope’s views in a manner consistent with the teaching of his predecessors and with scripture and tradition.

EDWARD FESER is co-author, with Joseph Bessette, of By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment (Ignatius Press).

For God and Country

“Is this a joke?” the Navy recruiter asked Dr. Christopher Nessel. “We don’t usually get calls from physicians who want to join the Navy reserve.” Instead, calls would come in from men and women who want to become doctors and willing to serve their country in exchange for school tuition. Since Nessel was already a physician why would he want to join the military?

Nessel is now a Legate from the new Bucks County, Pennsylvania Chapter working in research and development at a large health care company. When he called the Navy recruiting office in 1996, it was no joke. It had been a lifelong desire of his to serve his country in the military.

As a young boy attending St. Anselm School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Nessel dreamed of joining the military. He also had a competing desire, however, to become a physician. By high school, his love of physics, chemistry, and biology pointed him in the direction of medical school.

Nessel graduated from Temple University School of Medicine in 1994. He trained in general surgery at Brown University. Yet, he did not feel his aspirations were complete yet. His desire to give back to our country in appreciation for so many opportunities remained as strong as it had been when he was a boy.

Inspired by uncle in WWII

Although career aspirations often develop out of admiration of childhood role models, there was none of that for Nessel. “I am the only physician in my family and no one in my immediate family was in the service,” he explained. “There was a paternal uncle killed in World War II and my parents gave me the middle name of Charles after him, but I knew little about him as a child.”

His uncle, Charles Nessel, was shot down over Europe as part of the Army Air Corps, which existed before the Air Force was created in 1947. “My uncle joined the service before his 18th birthday,” Nessel said. “It was the nature of WWII; there was a fervent patriotism then.”

Nessel had graduated from high school in 1981, a time when patriotic fervor in the U.S. had cooled somewhat, but he remembers being influenced by a love of country in grade school. “Serving our country was something viewed very positively and as an obligation,” he said. “ rough my life, in the same manner that we owe recompense to God, there has been the understanding of an obligation to our country.” He referred to the motto: pro Deo et Patria — For God and Country — as the inspiration for his own service.

A call to arms notwithstanding

The surprised Navy recruiter was pleased but cautious regarding Nessel’s interest to join. Reservists are obligated for 4 years of service, 1 weekend every month and a 2-week stint during the summer. More importantly, the recruiter wanted Nessel to understand that at any time, he could be called up and deployed to a dangerous part of the world.

“My situation was not unique,” Nessel said. “there would always be the possibility in the back of my mind that I could be called up. And this affects family members too. Everyone’s loved ones are affected when they serve in the military.” Nessel explained that in this way, families also make sacrifices and it’s harder for them in some ways because they don’t always know what is going on.

Nessel said he believes everyone should be willing to sacrifice in some way for our country in thanksgiving for all the freedoms we enjoy here. “When I think of my life as a practicing Catholic and the opportunities I had to go to college and medical school, there are blessings innumerable,” he said“. “There could be many ways to give back, but the way that was closest to my heart was to serve in the military. There are few privileges greater than wearing the uniform of an officer in the United States Navy.”

Regardless of the potential risks, Nessel never wavered— God and country came first. He was concerned, however, that his ongoing training in general surgery not be interrupted. In the reserves, short of deployment, it would not be.

Since the application process was lengthy—15-18 months— there was plenty of time for Nessel to change his mind. Right before he raised his right hand to swear an oath of allegiance to the United States as a Navy officer in 1997, he was reminded that his service could include deployment. Nessel took the oath and was commissioned a lieutenant.

Sole incentive: desire to serve

Being a physician in the military is somewhat unique from other service jobs, according to Nessel, specifically because it is not different from what he did as a civilian physician—treating sick people.

“Most people who serve in the reserves do something very different from their civilian work with some exceptions,” he said. “Say you are a tank mechanic; on the civilian side, there are no tanks.”

In 2000, Nessel was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He completed a total of 8 years of service which ended in 2005.

Nessel described his time in the military as modest because he did not get deployed. What was uncommon about his service, though, was that he enlisted with no scholarship or monetary incentive. Nessel’s sole purpose was to serve his country as a physician.

His siblings sometimes kid him that during eight years in the Navy, he never went to sea. “It’s true,” Nessel said, “but I had the distinct honor of wearing the uniform of an officer. That privilege is almost beyond words. In 2012, my then- fiancée asked me if I could be married in uniform.” He married Kimberly in 2013, in uniform. They are now the parents of 4 children.

Real perspective on heroes in uniform

Those years in the Navy gave Nessel a sense of the kind of men and women who are defending our nation. “ e men and women I met were not there for great pay, short hours and great living conditions,” he said. “ ey were there because they wanted to serve.”

Nessel quoted Admiral Chester Nimitz’s description on March 16, 1945 referring to the incredible sacrifice of the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima: “Uncommon valor was a commonvirtue.” That,Nessel said, is what he witnessed among the men and women who serve our country in the military.

Part of what Nessel said he admired was the fact that people were there to serve despite the common desire these days to want to be in charge. “In the military, it’s readily apparent from the lowest seaman to the highest admiral, that we were all there for service,” Nessel said. “It’s very impressive.”

Another thing that impressed him is that young adults are tasked with handling very expensive and important equipment. “They are given as much as they can handle in the service,” Nessel said. “It’s not usually like that in the outside world.” L

PATTI MAGUIRE ARMSTRONG is an award-winning author and Catholic journalist, TV and radio commentator, and mother of 10.

 

Freedom and virtue?

Scholar Michael Novak asks whether freedom in the U.S. can survive without virtue . . .

Michael Novak

“By its liberty, the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature,” Jacques Maritain once wrote. No one has reflected more deeply on the phenomenology of the human person than Karol Wojtyla, better known as Blessed Pope John Paul II.

The person, in his view, is an originating source of creative action in the world. The human person is able to reflect upon his own past, find it wanting, repent and change direction. The person is able to reflect upon possible courses of action in the future, to deliberate among them, and to choose to commit himself to — and to take responsibility for — one among those courses.

Only the person is free to choose which among his many impulses to follow. Animal freedom is to do what simple instinct impels. Human freedom is to discern a more complex, higher, and more demanding rationality in the field of action. It is to become a gentle master of all one’s instincts. It is, considering all this, to do what a person ought to do.

In our own time, alas, many people think of human liberty as the ability to flow with their instincts, to let go of restraint, to do what they feel like doing. They like animal images of their dream of liberty: “born free” like the tigress of the jungle or “free as a bird.” They think that animal nature is innocent and unrestrained, separated from moral rules imposed from outside their own instincts. Woody Allen very neatly expressed this impulsiveness: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

Experience, however, teaches that human liberty is not constituted by bondage to impulse. Liberty consists in an act of self-government by which we restrain our desires by self-control, and curb our fears by courage. We do so in order to reflect soberly: deliberate well and choose justly. Moreover, we seek to act in such a way that others can count on our long-term purpose. Such practices of self-government are found in persons of considerable character.

It’s our great fortune that America’s first President, George Washington, was understood by all who knew him to be the prototype of this sort of liberty — the man of character, by his very virtues worthy of the admiration and affection of his countrymen, a model for the liberty the nation promised to all who would wish to earn it.

Founding Father Dr. Benjamin Rush anchored liberty in virtue, and virtue in religion: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion.

Without it there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”

Liberty of this sort comes neither by the positive nor the negative actions of the State; rather, the U.S. Constitution deliberately allows it scope, and plainly depends on its widespread realization. The liberty of self-government must be acquired, one person at a time. This personal task is rendered easier when the whole surrounding public ethos teaches and encourages it. In this sense, personal liberty is much favored or impeded, depending upon the social ecology of liberty. In any case, the American conception of liberty is “ordered liberty,” a liberty of self-mastery, self-discipline, self-government.

In brief, personal liberty is not well described as “unencumbered” liberty, as “rugged individualism,” as “libertinism,” or “hedonism,” or “letting go.” It is not the liberty of doing whatever one wishes. It is the liberty to reflect on what one ought to do, and the liberty to choose to take responsibility for doing it. Here in America, it is the liberty our forebears taught us. It is what John Paul, speaking of America, called its historic contribution of the social ideal of “ordered liberty.”

My own favorite expression of this liberty is the third verse of “America the Beautiful”: O beautiful for pilgrim’s feet, whose stern impassioned stress/A thoroughfare for freedom beat across the wilderness/ America! America! God mend thine every flaw!/Confirm thy soul in self-control/thy liberty in law.

America has given many bad lessons to the world, and it has many tragic flaws. But one good thing it has brought to the world is the re-born ideal of ordered liberty, the idea of freedom as the capacity of its people to do as they ought. American history has brought us many stories of courage and self-control.

Personal liberty is not an intuitive, but a socially learned concept. It is not so much a personal achievement as a cultural achievement, and it requires an entire cultural ecology to encourage and teach it. Its embodiment appears more frequently in some cultures than in others, and more in some generations than in others. Personal liberty is a fragile achievement, and a single generation can decide to surrender and walk away from it.

It is by this fragile but precious liberty that “the human person transcends the stars and all the world of nature.”

Michael Novak is a renowned philosopher, author and theologian. The winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion, he is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. This article was co-authored by his assistant, Mitch Boersma.

Dealing with society’s four crises

The Acton Institute’s Michael Miller writes that the world is going through crises of reason, truth, freedom and beauty. The current financial and moral crises in our culture are symptoms of the four greater crises. He argues that Pope Benedict has been addressing these four major crises throughout his pontificate — and that there is hope . . .

Dr. Michael Miller

It seems that society is moving from one crisis to another lately — a breakdown of morality in business, an enormous financial crisis, social and familial breakdown, the scandal of abuse in the Church and an ever-growing government taking a bigger role in our lives.

Our time and its troubles are not unique. Every age has its crises. No perfect time has ever existed, and each generation is called to be stewards of their time. While the challenges I mentioned are serious, they are not the key problems of our time. They are manifestations of more significant civilizational crises that must be addressed if we’re going to see the current challenges clearly. Pope Benedict XVI has been addressing these deeper crises throughout his pontificate.

First is the crisis of reason. As the Pope discussed in his now famous Regensburg Address, we have limited our concept of reason to the empirical. Under this limited notion, anything that cannot be demonstrated empirically — by mathematical or scientific experiment — is not considered rational or reasonable. This means that all discussion of truth, goodness, beauty, right or wrong is relegated to the realm of emotion or opinion. Yet this position is untenable because it’s impossible to demonstrate empirically that reason should be limited to the empirical. As Benedict has argued, we must expand our concept of reason to include logical and moral reasoning. To limit it is irrational.

The second crisis is the rejection of truth — or what Benedict appropriately called a “dictatorship of relativism.” We’re all familiar with the person who argues that truth does not exist. Saint Thomas Aquinas dealt with this objection centuries ago. If a person says there’s no such thing as truth, we must ask a simple question: “Is that true?” To argue that truth doesn’t exist is a self-refuting proposition. Some may protest that that is the only truth, but that of course makes two truths!

The same applies to the person who says “The truth may exist, be we cannot know it.” “Really? Do you know that? If you do, then you know at least one truth.” This isn’t a word game. It’s the nature of reality. Truth, Aquinas wrote, is “conforming one’s mind to reality.” To reject the existence of truth is to ultimately reject the intelligibility of reality. Yet think what the limitation of reason and rejection of truth does to morality. If truth does not exist and all value judgments — right, wrong, just, fair, etc. — are non-rational, then how can we to expect people in government or businesses to be concerned with anything more than serving their own petty interests at the expense of others?

The third crisis flows from the first two: a crisis of freedom. Many people view freedom as merely the ability to exercise one’s will in whatever manner he likes. But as Benedict wrote: “An irrational will is not free.” If I start banging my head on the edge of a table or poking myself with a fork, no one would think, “Wow, that guy is so free!” No, they would think I had lost my mind, because freedom unhinged from truth and reason is not free. Think of all of the broken marriages, lying, stealing, abuse, harm and sadness that have come from this deceitful (and irrational) concept of freedom. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, we have created a tyranny of tolerance and the result is generations of damaged lives.

The fourth is a crisis of beauty. Beauty has been reduced to merely being “in the eye of the beholder.” We have taken a partial truth — that the unique nature of persons means that each individual is going to perceive a certain work of art, a landscape or piece of music differently, and thereby be able to contribute a new perspective to his fellow man — and turned it into the idea that beauty is merely a matter of opinion. We’ve turned the sublime into the banal.

This may not sound very important, but it has a host of serious consequences. One is that the grotesque, the ugly, the disgusting and the shocking are now placed on the same plane as the lovely, pretty, beautiful and sublime.

Plato believed that if we lost the ability to say what was beautiful in art and music, education itself would be compromised. Do we think that when St. Paul exhorted us in his letter to the Philippians to think about whatever is true, beautiful, noble, gracious, lovely and excellent, he was merely telling us to reflect on our own banal subjective feelings? No, he was calling us out of ourselves and into a life of excellence rooted upon the foundation of Christ.

What can we do? The ironic reality is that we as individuals cannot do much about the financial crisis, immorality on Wall Street and in Hollywood, or the growth of government. But we can do a lot about the civilizational crises. We can do a lot within ourselves, our families and communities to think clearly, to think like Christians, and to recreate a Christian culture. We can teach our children, and we can “renew our minds” in Christ. One person at a time, this will change the culture, business, politics, economics and the Church.

Michael Miller is the Director of Programs at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Freedom for all

Legatus Magazine editor Patrick Novecosky urges politicians to study their U.S. history

Patrick Novecosky

Patrick Novecosky

I’m a new American. A few hours after my son was born two years ago, I raised my right hand and took the oath of citizenship. I swore to “defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America” because the Constitution’s values are essential to a healthy, just and moral society. This fact seems to be lost on some of our elected officials who should renew their own commitment to the Constitution, particularly the First Amendment rights to religious liberty.

America was founded by Christians who wanted a nation where the free exercise of religion was permitted and encouraged. George Washington famously said that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

John Adams, the second President, added to that idea, saying that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Over the past several decades, the culture has taken the Founding Fathers’ idea of religion as an unshakable support for freedom and turned it on its head. The First Amendment allows for the “free exercise” of religion. But activist judges and the mainstream media have interpreted the “freedom of religion” as the “freedom from religion.” Groups like the ACLU strive to eradicate of all religion from the public square.

And when Christians stand up to voice their concerns, those in power do everything they can to silence them. In March, the Bridgeport diocese bused Catholics to a rally to protest a bill that impinged on religious freedom. Bishop William Lori urged parishioners to contact lawmakers about that legislation and another bill to legalize same-sex “marriage.”

In June, the Connecticut Office of State Ethics launched a probe into whether the diocese acted as a “lobbying organization” in heading off the bills. When a Catholic diocese can’t  exercise its constitutional rights to free speech and assembly, something has gone terribly wrong with the American Experiment. There’s little doubt that much of the blame is ours. Irish statesman Edmund Burke said that “the only thing necessary for  the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

However, we might want take a page from the ACLU’s playbook, which urges its members to be in touch with legislators who “believe that a letter represents not only the position of the writer but also many other (100) constituents who did not take the time to write.”

I’ve always contended that politics follows culture. If lawmakers want votes, they have no choice. By changing the culture one soul at a time and urging our lawmakers to follow, we will light the way to reestablishing religious freedom in America.

Patrick Novecosky is the editor of Legatus Magazine. He emigrated to the United States from Canada in 1996.