On Lying, Mass Murder, and Heresy

[1] Deacon Jim Russell wrote an article, titled Combatants, Non-Combatants, and Double Effect, published August 10, 2017 at Crisis Magazine.

[2] My article is here: Response to Deacon Jim Russell on Combatants and Double Effect, with a follow-up titled: A Catholic Deacon justified Mass Murder (and no one noticed or cared).

Well, it turns out that a few Catholics noticed and cared, including John Paul Meenan, Assistant Professor of Theology and Natural Science at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom in Ontario:

[3] John Paul Meenan wrote this response to Deacon Russell: Truman’s Decision Was a Great Moral Evil.

[4] Then deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D. wrote a response to Meenan, titled Truman’s Decision Was the Best of the Bad Options Available.

[5] Finally, there is a discussion between deacon Russell and a few commentators, collated at William Luse’s site: Things Catholic.

The two deacons [1, 4] each justified the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, despite the clear and definitive teaching of the ordinary and universal Magisterium against this type of act, the indiscriminate destruction of entire cities, and despite the specific condemnation of the bombings by Pope Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Meenan and myself [3, 2] condemned the bombings based on the teachings of Veritatis Splendor against intrinsically evil acts, and the condemnation of the destruction of whole cities as intrinsically evil. On his website, Catholic Insight, Meenan states: “I don’t think he [Deacon Toner] responds to my central point, that it is an intrinsic evil to kill innocent people, and intrinsic evil may never be done, regardless of circumstances or intention.”

Meenan

Professor Meenan does an excellent job of explaining the basic principles of ethics as they apply to intrinsically evil acts. He quotes Veritatis Splendor and Evangelium Vitae. And he uses the principles taught therein to refute deacon Russell’s position.

“So the question before us is whether the atomic bombings were, by their very nature, intrinsically evil…. This is the true principle of double-effect, inflicting or tolerating some physical evil for the sake of attaining a greater good, or avoiding a greater evil…. However, if the bombings involved intrinsic moral evil, then they can in no way be justified. The principle of double-effect does not permit committing a moral evil, regardless of how much good may be gained, or evil avoided, in the process.”

Meenan then quotes Church teaching against the killing of innocents. And next he replies to deacon Russell’s claim that the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were all (or almost all) enemy combatants.

“Deacon Russell rather surprisingly argues that “everyone was a combatant” in Japan, and hence none were “innocent,” and all therefore were legitimate targets of war. Alas. The notion of “total war,” wherein every single person in the bellicose nation becomes a “soldier” and legitimate target for death, has led to the barbarities we have witnessed all too often in history. It is not just up to the Japanese (nor any aggressor) to determine who is or is not a combatant. We must use our own reason and common sense, for we all will be judged on our own conscience. Clearly, most of the Japanese and German “targets” would have been “innocent” in any human, moral sense of the term, at the very least the children, babies, toddlers, the women, some of whom were likely with unborn children, the elderly, the sick and the infirm.”

And that’s the whole argument, in a nutshell. You can’t deliberately and directly kill innocents, and bombing an entire city does so. Therefore, the act is intrinsically evil and cannot be justified by the principle of double effect.

Russell

I’ve already replied to Russell’s argument [2]. But reading the discussion with deacon Russell [5] and his commentators was even more disturbing. Russell clearly has a very disordered view of Catholic ethics. He has badly misunderstood the basic principles of ethics, as well as the teaching on intrinsically evil acts and the principle of double effect.

For example, he states: “I thought there was a difference between deliberate/direct and indiscriminate.”

To the contrary, every intrinsically evil act is the deliberate choice of an act directly ordered toward an evil moral object. So every intrinsically evil act is deliberate and direct. And the Magisterium has clearly taught that the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities is intrinsically evil. Therefore, that destruction is deliberate and direct, and the deacon is wrong to say that any deliberate/direct act can’t be indiscriminate.

Russell vacillates between saying that innocents weren’t targeted and that the men, women, and children (only older children?) were combatants because they were “designated by the unjust aggressor [Japan] as combatants but also thought of *themselves* as such.” Of course, in Catholic teaching, a person is an enemy combatant if they are such under the eternal moral law (or natural law), and not based on whether they are considered such by a government or themselves.

Then Russell goes on to justify the bombings at Dresden and Tokyo: “it should be clear that it could be possible that the attacks on Dresden, on Tokyo, on Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and elsewhere might *all* be morally permissible while all simultaneously being horrific and terrible.”

By the way, saying “might” does not absolve deacon Russell of the grave sin of heresy. For heresy includes both the obstinate denial and the obstinate doubt of any dogma. To say that Jesus Christ “might” be just a man, is just as heretical as to say that Jesus is just a man and not also God.

Russell’s view is that the attacks on all those cities need only intentionally target combatants and do more good than harm in order to be justified. Essentially, his ethical system takes into account only the first font of intention and the third font of circumstances (consequences), ignoring the moral object as the determinate of intrinsically evil acts. And his application of the principle of double effect continues this error, since he does not first decide if the act is intrinsically evil (the first criterion of the principle of double effect). This glaring omission is what causes him to justify mass murder.

And please note that the arguments used by Russell to justify the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the conventional bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, could also be used to justify attacks on U.S. cities by our enemies. Of course, a correct understanding of Catholic moral doctrine condemns all such mass destruction of innocent human life, in any city, by any means. But once the moral condemnation of bombing cities falls away, many similar acts would seem to be justifiable in the same way.

Pokorsky

Father Jerry Pokorsky, writing in May of 2016, happened to anticipate and refute the type of argument offered by deacon Russell.

“A final argument was that all the Japanese — men, women and children — were enemy combatants, so the cities themselves were truly military targets. This is the same argument used by Palestinian terrorists when they bomb Tel Aviv discotheques. And it’s the argument Osama bin Laden used to justify the attack on the World Trade Center.”

Father Pokorsky is right to point out that the arguments used to justify the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki can also be used by terrorists to justify attacks on civilians. But neither deacon Russell nor deacon Toner consider these wider ramifications.

Toner

Deacon Toner’s article begins by properly stating the teaching of the Church: “we must never lie” and “the end cannot justify the means” and “we may not do evil that good might come from it” and “To lie is to sin, and we must not sin.”

Next, he opposes deacon Russell’s argument that the principle of double effect justifies the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Toner does not agree with that argument, since it proposes “that what we are doing is only oblique or peripheral to our main action, whereas, in fact, the ‘oblique action’ is central.”

So far, so good. But then Toner utterly abandons Catholic moral teaching on intrinsically evil acts: “Are there times that a good universal law (don’t lie) may equitably yield to particular exemption (to save babies)? Are there times that a good universal law (don’t bomb cities) may equitably yield to particular exemption (to end the Pacific war)?” Toner obviously thinks that the answer is “Yes.”

But the correct answer, already given by the Magisterium in Veritatis Splendor, is “No”.

“The Church has always taught that one may never choose kinds of behavior prohibited by the moral commandments expressed in negative form in the Old and New Testaments. As we have seen, Jesus himself reaffirms that these prohibitions allow no exceptions: “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments… You shall not murder, You shall not commit adultery, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness” (Mt 19:17-18).”

But the negative moral precepts, those prohibiting certain concrete actions or kinds of behavior as intrinsically evil, do not allow for any legitimate exception. They do not leave room, in any morally acceptable way, for the “creativity” of any contrary determination whatsoever. Once the moral species of an action prohibited by a universal rule is concretely recognized, the only morally good act is that of obeying the moral law and of refraining from the action which it forbids. [Veritatis Splendor 52, 67]

And the prohibition on murder includes a prohibition on mass murder. No exceptions.

However, deacon Toner doesn’t care what the Church teaches. He ignores the teaching of Veritatis Splendor on intrinsically evil acts. He openly opposes the idea that some acts are always wrong to choose.

First, he justifies lying for a good purpose. He cites Peter Kreeft’s article justifying lying. My response to Kreeft is here: On lying, intrinsic evil, and moral intuition. Why does Toner begin by discussing lying? Because he knows that he cannot justify the mass destruction of innocent human lives at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, unless he first destroys the teaching of the Church on intrinsically evil acts. Once he establishes his first premise, that an intrinsically evil act of lying is justifiable for a good purpose, he then goes on to justify mass murder for a good purpose.

Notice the progression. The assertion that one small lie is justified for a greater good very quickly leads to the justification of mass murder via the bombing of cities. Once you overturn the teaching that some acts are always wrong to choose, every type of act becomes justifiable, even acts of grave depravity. Already, some other authors are justifying abortifacient contraception and abortion in the same way: by ignoring or opposing the teaching of the Church on intrinsically evil acts. Abortion is genocide, and the first step in justifying that genocide is to justify any intrinsically evil act, even a little white lie.

In the end, Toner’s argument is essentially proportionalism, where the morality of an act is based on a weighing of the good and bad effects. The bombings saved lives and shortened the war, therefore, we are supposedly justified in ignoring the intrinsic evil of those acts.

Heresy

Now I’m going to say what other commentators are unwilling to say. Deacons Russell and Toner are publicly teaching heresy and publicly justifying mass murder. They are openly rejecting the teaching that intrinsically evil acts are always wrong, and that murder of any kind, let alone mass murder, is never justified.

“Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and man, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.” [Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2314; quoting Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes 80, n. 3]

The deacons are ignoring two specific pronouncements of recent Popes, clearly implying that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were intrinsically evil.

Pope Saint John Paul II: “Your country remembers the painful episodes of the Second World War that struck countless innocent victims in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.”

Pope Benedict XVI: “I also greet the group of survivors of the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and I pray that the world may never again witness such mass destruction of innocent human life.”

The deliberate killing of innocent human life is intrinsically evil. And intrinsically evil acts admit no exception.

The rejection of the Church’s teaching on intrinsically evil acts by Toner and Russell is heresy, as is their justification of the mass murders at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Russell goes so far as to justify the indiscriminate bombings of Tokyo and Dresden, which are also examples of mass murder.

Two deacons are guilty of teaching heresy and of approving of mass murder. And yet so many Catholics see this dispute as a mere difference of opinion.

To the contrary, when the Magisterium infallibly teaches on any matter of faith and morals, the full assent of faith is required, under pain of heresy. Some “doctrines require the assent of theological faith by all members of the faithful”, and “whoever obstinately places them in doubt or denies them falls under the censure of heresy” [Ad Tuendam Fidem].

by
Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

Please take a look at this list of my books and booklets, and see if any topic interests you.

Advertisements
Gallery | This entry was posted in commentary, ethics, heresies. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On Lying, Mass Murder, and Heresy

  1. Marco says:

    “Notice the progression. The assertion that one small lie is justified for a greater good very quickly leads to the justification of mass murder via the bombing of cities. Once you overturn the teaching that some acts are always wrong to choose, every type of act becomes justifiable, even acts of grave depravity”

    So, if a father lies to save his son (and make no mistake: a father would do anything to save his son) he sins, because “some acts are always wrong to choose” and lies are never justifiable.

    So i have to believe that that father SHOULD NOT lie, even if his son will be killed, and if I don’t accept this i’m an heretic.

    Needless to say, I find this teaching preposterous, I guess i have to accept it by blind faith in the Church, because the more I think about it the more it seems preposterous.

    • Ron Conte says:

      People commit venial sins rather frequently, sins the Council of Trent called “light and daily”. The sin of a small lie is immoral because God is truth. But if a father lies to save his son, it is a light sin. The importance of affirming that all lies are sins is found in the consistency of moral teachings. Some acts are wrong by their very nature. And when we next consider grave sins, this doctrine has a much greater benefit, keeping us from grave immorality. It’s not preposterous. It is just hard to understand while we are fallen sinners in a fallen sinful world.

    • Marco says:

      ” People commit venial sins rather frequently, sins the Council of Trent called “light and daily”. The sin of a small lie is immoral because God is truth. But if a father lies to save his son, it is a light sin”

      God is truth and he doesn’t “need” to lie to achieve his purposes.

      But for humans things are different. So I have a hard time to understand how lying to save your son could be a sin, even a venial one.

      “The importance of affirming that all lies are sins is found in the consistency of moral teachings. Some acts are wrong by their very nature. ”

      Ok but the thing is that sin, even when it’s not an actual mortal sin, it’s still a sin, and God doesn’t want that we sin. He can’t want that.

      And, following this logic, i have to believe that God does NOT want that a father lies to save his son, and even is that is a small sin, not an actual mortal sin, , it is still wrong by its very nature, so it follows that that father should NOT have lied, if he was a “better” person

      For sin can never be good in and of itself, it follows that a real good father would tell the truth even it it costs his son’s life.

      I have a reeeeaaaaly hard time believing such a thing.

    • Ron Conte says:

      Nothing in this life can harm us, since God gives us eternal life and God heals all wounds. If you die unrepentant from many venial lies, you don’t deserve Hell. I realize it is difficult to understand this point. But if an ethical system makes perfect sense to fallen sinners, then it must be in error. The fullness of truth will always seem off-base to a sinner.

  2. Jim says:

    Ron- did Plus XII ever make a statement on the atomic bombings? I have read a Vatican press release a couple of days after Hiroshima but I am not sure if that was the view of the Pope.

Comments are closed.