John F. Kavanaugh

Just as a daily examination of conscience reviews the past 24 hours and, at the same time, illuminates the next, so also a moral review of the past year reveals the challenges of the next. Perhaps this is more evident this year than ever, because the dominant ethical issues of 2002 are certain to reach crisis stage in 2003. It may well be that some readers would pick a different set of moral challenges and, to be sure, take a different perspective on how they challenge us; but the five crises I offer for your consideration will, I’m sure, haunt our headlines as well as our discussions.

1. The Wages of War and American Moral Exceptionalism. This nation is at a precipitous moment in the execution of its military policies. If we move beyond the boundaries of the just war theory, as is now being proposed by advocates who either are willing to distort its principles or even to cast them off as outdated, we may reap a terrible harvest of global violence. The true ugliness that marks the terrorists we decry is their willingness to cast off all reason, all limits and all distinctions in achieving their goals. With our own talk of pre-emptive, even nuclear strikes, of justified torture and of being willing to do anything to stop terrorism, it is terrorism itself that has seduced our consciences.

2. The Lessons of 9/11. Amid the countless suits for recompense that can never heal the terrible trauma, the endless chattering about loss of liberties and the mindless conspiracy theories of right wing and left, we refuse to address the harder question. Whither our relationship to Islam? If only one of 100 Muslims are radical extremists, that amounts to 15 million. It is an illusion to think they can be beaten into submission, not to Allah, but to the U.S. vision of the future. The hawks may ridicule dialogue, but fair discoursemuch of which must be done within Islam itselfis the only way to peace. If the United States pushes Muslim nations and peoples further into the ranks of resentment, there will not be peace, but a century of war.

3. The Chastisement of the Church. As painful as it has been for victims, perpetrators, clergy and laity, it is a matter of justice and an occasion of grace that the evils of clergy sexual abuse and seduction of the young have come to light. That is all for the good. But the special pleading continues. The responses to the scandal are a litmus test of one’s ideology. It is interesting that two of the dominant voices over the year came from the Catholic right (George Weigel) and the Catholic left (Garry Wills).

What is uninteresting is that they disagree. Weigel, thinking that all could be resolved if we were all more conservative, seems to believe that clericalism, authoritarianism and secrecy have little to do with the crisis. Wills, thinking that all could be resolved if we were more liberal, seems to think the culprits are celibacy and chastitythe two principles that were obviously violated. What is known for sure is that there was an appalling violation of vows and persons, a legitimization of it, an enabling of it and a covering up of it.

4. The Mirror of Money. If we do not believe that greed is a fatal problem in the United States, we must be sleepwalking. Covetousness, as Dorothy Sayers has reminded us, is still a deadly sin, even though it is considered bad form to remind us of the fact. The super-rich and their apologists have been so successful at eliminating greed from the catalogue of sins, it is considered envy even to raise the point. Greed has sent the economy into a tailspin. Greed has pushed the middle and lower-middle classes, so many laid off or relegated to service jobs, into free fall. Greed got us a tax boondoggle that helped break the bank, and it is promising yet more benefits for those who enjoy abundance, while the poor are being assembled for a $200-billion war. Will any leader ever appeal to the generosity of the American people?

5. The Margins of Human Life. While universities now hire well-paid specialists in animal rights, more and more humans are being excluded from the privileged class of rights-bearing persons. Pre-implantation genetic diagnosis allows us to eliminate unwanted imperfect embryos. Rather than just destroy them, however, we are learning to harvest any desirable cells they may have. For those embryos lucky enough to enter the fetus stage, there is absolutely no protection under the law. Be not surprised if it is soon proposed that, rather than destroy second-trimester fetuses in abortion, they, too, should be harvested for cells and organs at the service of high-tech cannibalism. Some brilliant ethicists, realizing that a newborn is much more like a fetus than a teenager, have announced that infanticide is not only defensible but often desirable. As for the margin at the end of human lifeagain when persons are defenseless, dependent and often unwantedthe deadly utilitarian calculus has already suggested that it would be better to terminate such burdens than care for them. Why not harvest them, too?

In each issue there lurks a profoundly narcissistic utilitarianism. The principle is not even the greatest good for the greatest number. It is restricted to the greatest good for my nation, my class, my family, my ideology, my genes. Kant, I believe, was right in proposing that moral exceptionalism is at the heart of amorality. To accept a moral law is to admit that there are ethical limits to the choices we make. And that will never be popular in a nation with Christmas cards that celebrate, not the birth of a Savior, but the supremacy of Choice on Earth.

John F. Kavanaugh, S.J., is a professor of philosophy at St. Louis University in St. Louis, Mo.

Comments

John Pfannenstiel | 1/3/2003 - 3:02pm
I always enjoy the "Ethics Notebook", and the "Five Moral Crises" is helpful. However, reflections on American moral exceptionalism and the lessons of 9/11 do not proffer an ethical guide for our elected leaders. One of the lessons of 9/11 is that acts of terrorism can and will occur without warning and without proximate provocation, and that those terrorist strikes will attempt to be as lethal as possible. While I agree that dialogue will be the only route to peace; that can only be plausible in the long term. The conflict between our nation and some Islamic factions has its roots in a much broader historical and cultural context, predating our nation's founding.

In the meantime, the president has a grave moral obligation to protect the citizens from lethal acts of terrorism which will occur without proximate provocation and without warning. What ethical guidance can you offer to those entrusted with this responsibility? Does one wait until terror strikes again? Does the president constrain himself to attempt dialogue with an enemy that cannot even be found? Does he build roads, schools and hospitals in Islamic nations, raising good will among sworn terrorists a la Patty Murray's recommendations, and in the meantime bite his lower lip hoping no terrorist strikes?

This is all far more complicated than glib moralizing.

Ross Reyes Dizon | 1/9/2003 - 12:24pm
I think I can appreciate the complexity of the moral issue that glib moralizing does not do justice to.

But I have this lingering suspicion that the same reservations that are raised about Father John F. Kavanaugh’s challenges can be raised with regard to the teachings of Jesus, as we know them from the gospels, or the Prophet Jeremiah’s pronouncements against a popular war which led to his being branded a traitor and denounced as a threat to national security.

Nicholas Clifford | 1/8/2003 - 3:54pm
Just one quibble with Fr. John Kavanaugh's very interesting piece on "Five Moral Crises." I think he's a bit unfair in suggesting that Gary Wills thinks all our problems would be solved if we were to abandon celibacy and chastity. Though I haven't read Wills's latest book, I think his main point is that the church has not and does not face up honestly to some of its shortcomings, past and present. For instance, while it is all very well to say that it is not "the church" that is responsible for (fill in the blanks: religious persecution, the burning of John Hus, the crusades, anti-Semitism, etc. etc.) but rather certain misguided and all too human individuals, we must ask whether the structures of governance and authority, for instance, have contributed to that misguiding. The question needs to be asked both about our present crisis and about some of the great crises of the past. Otherwise, isn't it sounding a bit like those old leftists who say there was nothing wrong with Communism? It's just that it was perverted by the likes of Josef Stalin and Chairman Mao, as if their perversions had nothing to do with the way communist parties and states were run.

Ed Gleason | 12/28/2002 - 4:58pm
I take issue with just one part of FR. Kavanaugh's well reasoned article on the 5 moral issues for 2003. He names Weigel on the right and Wills on the left as the dominent voices on the priest/hierarchy abuse issue. I say the most effective voice was the Voice of the Faithful who got the 58 out of 350 Boston priests to call for resignation. They always knew that Law's resignation would not change in the least the secretive parish/ diocisan structures. VOTF, a very middle road group, led by and 50 to 70 year old grandparent parish Catholics, still has had not one bishop out of 450 willing to support their call for lay participation, collaboraion and transparency these hierarchal structures. I'm sure that this Christmas season, around the dinner table these grandparents heard some of their adult children and grandchildren say 'are you still hanging in there with this abusive Church'? If the bishops continue to stonewall VOTF with bannings and ignorings, the grandparents next year will start to agree with the 'walk-a-ways'

John Pfannenstiel | 1/3/2003 - 3:02pm
I always enjoy the "Ethics Notebook", and the "Five Moral Crises" is helpful. However, reflections on American moral exceptionalism and the lessons of 9/11 do not proffer an ethical guide for our elected leaders. One of the lessons of 9/11 is that acts of terrorism can and will occur without warning and without proximate provocation, and that those terrorist strikes will attempt to be as lethal as possible. While I agree that dialogue will be the only route to peace; that can only be plausible in the long term. The conflict between our nation and some Islamic factions has its roots in a much broader historical and cultural context, predating our nation's founding.

In the meantime, the president has a grave moral obligation to protect the citizens from lethal acts of terrorism which will occur without proximate provocation and without warning. What ethical guidance can you offer to those entrusted with this responsibility? Does one wait until terror strikes again? Does the president constrain himself to attempt dialogue with an enemy that cannot even be found? Does he build roads, schools and hospitals in Islamic nations, raising good will among sworn terrorists a la Patty Murray's recommendations, and in the meantime bite his lower lip hoping no terrorist strikes?

This is all far more complicated than glib moralizing.

Ross Reyes Dizon | 1/9/2003 - 12:24pm
I think I can appreciate the complexity of the moral issue that glib moralizing does not do justice to.

But I have this lingering suspicion that the same reservations that are raised about Father John F. Kavanaugh’s challenges can be raised with regard to the teachings of Jesus, as we know them from the gospels, or the Prophet Jeremiah’s pronouncements against a popular war which led to his being branded a traitor and denounced as a threat to national security.

Nicholas Clifford | 1/8/2003 - 3:54pm
Just one quibble with Fr. John Kavanaugh's very interesting piece on "Five Moral Crises." I think he's a bit unfair in suggesting that Gary Wills thinks all our problems would be solved if we were to abandon celibacy and chastity. Though I haven't read Wills's latest book, I think his main point is that the church has not and does not face up honestly to some of its shortcomings, past and present. For instance, while it is all very well to say that it is not "the church" that is responsible for (fill in the blanks: religious persecution, the burning of John Hus, the crusades, anti-Semitism, etc. etc.) but rather certain misguided and all too human individuals, we must ask whether the structures of governance and authority, for instance, have contributed to that misguiding. The question needs to be asked both about our present crisis and about some of the great crises of the past. Otherwise, isn't it sounding a bit like those old leftists who say there was nothing wrong with Communism? It's just that it was perverted by the likes of Josef Stalin and Chairman Mao, as if their perversions had nothing to do with the way communist parties and states were run.

Ed Gleason | 12/28/2002 - 4:58pm
I take issue with just one part of FR. Kavanaugh's well reasoned article on the 5 moral issues for 2003. He names Weigel on the right and Wills on the left as the dominent voices on the priest/hierarchy abuse issue. I say the most effective voice was the Voice of the Faithful who got the 58 out of 350 Boston priests to call for resignation. They always knew that Law's resignation would not change in the least the secretive parish/ diocisan structures. VOTF, a very middle road group, led by and 50 to 70 year old grandparent parish Catholics, still has had not one bishop out of 450 willing to support their call for lay participation, collaboraion and transparency these hierarchal structures. I'm sure that this Christmas season, around the dinner table these grandparents heard some of their adult children and grandchildren say 'are you still hanging in there with this abusive Church'? If the bishops continue to stonewall VOTF with bannings and ignorings, the grandparents next year will start to agree with the 'walk-a-ways'

Harold C. Jones | 1/31/2007 - 11:00am
If one views life only through the eye of the flesh (senses) and the eye of the mind, one inevitably ends up in the quantitative world of utilitarianism. In “Five Moral Crises” (1/6), John Kavanaugh, S.J., reviews some of the consequences. In utilitarianism one exercises private judgment based on self-interest without reference to transcendent values. In the United States, both the right and the left are permeated with utilitarianism. No religious group, including Christianity and Islam, has been adept at dealing with utilitarianism, probably because of its technological benefits. The only way out, as far as I can see, is to view life through the eye of contemplation, as well as through the other two eyes. The theology is medieval, Franciscan and Victorine, but speaks better to our current condition than anything else I have seen.

John Pfannenstiel | 1/31/2007 - 10:54am
I always enjoy the Ethics Notebook column, and “Five Moral Crises” (1/6) was helpful. But reflections on American moral exceptionalism and the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001, do not offer an ethical guide for our elected leaders. One of the lessons of 9/11 is that acts of terrorism can and will occur without warning and without proximate provocation, and that those terrorist strikes will attempt to be as lethal as possible.

While I agree that dialogue will be the only route to peace, that can be plausible only in the long term. The conflict between our nation and some Islamic faction has its roots in a much broader historical and cultural context, predating our nation’s founding.

In the meantime, the president has a grave moral obligation to protect the citizens from lethal acts of terrorism. What ethical guidance can you offer to those entrusted with this responsibility? Does one wait until terror strikes again? Does the president constrain himself to attempt dialogue with an enemy who cannot even be found? Does he build roads, schools and hospitals in Islamic nations, raising good will among sworn terrorists, and in the meantime bite his lower lip hoping that no terrorist strikes?

This is all far more complicated than glib moralizing.