Patrick J. Ryan’s summary of the New York Public Library’s current exhibit (“Illuminating Manuscripts,” January 14) shines as a small nugget of enjoyable information and also as a great piece of bait to whet one’s appetite for the larger exhibit. I especially liked it when Ryan described the sacred Jewish, Christian, and Islamic texts on display at the library as conveying our “treasured instincts of faith”—what a wonderful way to phrase it! The three beautiful photographs were artfully selected and were essential parts of a great story, told by an equally artful author on three small pages of Commonweal. Very well done!
New York, N.Y.
FASTING FROM THE WEB
Recently, my daughter e-mailed her mother and me to say that she was beginning an “Internet fast.” As she put it, she wasn’t going to look at any screens for a week. Should we need to contact her, we could use the telephone.
I was reminded of this surprising but refreshing innovation when reading Christine Neulieb’s “Changing Our Minds” (December 17, 2010) and Robin Antepara’s review of Larry D. Rosen’s book Rewired (“Overdose,” December 17). Both articles alert us to the potential dangers of digital overdose.
My own evolving recipe for limiting slavery at screens includes three measures others might find helpful. First, aware that I was mindlessly playing games like solitaire over and over again, I deleted all games from my computer. Some months later, undertaking a sort of Sabbath fast, I resolved to let the computer have a day of rest on Sundays. Finally, realizing that I was being pulled back to the computer after dinner as if by a subtle magnet, I adopted the policy of turning it off before dinner (most days!) and using the evening hours for other activities, like reading a good book on my Kindle.
William F. Powers
Chapel Hill, N.C.
WHOSE STRAW MEN?
In his review of my book The Church and Abortion: A Catholic Dissent (“Single-issue Church?” January 14), Daniel P. Sulmasy writes that my major arguments are “either logical non sequiturs or attacks on straw-man positions.” Sulmasy allows that the church may be “over-emphasizing abortion in its public rhetoric,” but says that does not mean “that the basic moral position is wrong.” What sort of “over-emphasizing”? There is a vast difference between raising your voice in an argument and raising the stakes. There are bishops who claim that abortion is tantamount to murder or even genocide. If their claims are only rhetorical exaggerations, then of course nothing follows. Any comments I might make about the legal or moral consequences of the bishops’ remarks would be irrelevant. My mistake seems to have been to take these bishops at their word.
Thankfully, not every bishop rises to such heights of flamboyance. But what exactly should we make of a somewhat tamer claim by Archbishop Charles Chaput: “Abortion...involves the deliberate killing of an innocent human life”? (“Killing” is the term used to describe abortion in the Catechism.) What follows logically? If there is a “killing,” is there a “killer”? If so, are we back in criminal court and moral outrage? There seems to be something about abortion buried in “killing,” but is it the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
My view is that the discussion of abortion is so laced over with hot rhetoric and half-truths that it is difficult to grasp the moral complexity of the decision to seek abortion, and virtually impossible to have a rational discussion of the topic. Not the least harm is polarized politics. In sum, if there is slippery logic, it is not mine; it belongs to the “prolife” and “prochoice” combatants.
Sulmasy is correct in a sense that in discussing “natural law” I am attacking straw men. My defense is that they are not my straw men, they are the natural-law arguments one is likely to hear from the pulpit or read in some papal pronouncement. Preachers and popes like to refer to the natural law, but there is no such thing. There are many different and incompatible theories of natural law. My interest is in those most often used by church officials, not what some other and better view of natural law might show. Maybe there is a sophisticated view of natural law that would support the view that abortion is never justified, even in the hard cases like saving the life of the mother. I am doubtful, and I note that in the same issue of Commonweal there was a lengthy appreciation of a very sophisticated natural-law ethicist, Lisa Sowle Cahill, who clearly holds that there are exceptional circumstances in which abortion would be justified (William Bole, “No Labels, Please”).
Sulmasy also argues that I misunderstand “intrinsic evil.” I would be more willing to accept that criticism if I had faith that the bishops have a clear and compelling view of “intrinsic evil.” Unhappily, the usual Catholic list of “intrinsic evils,” starting with contraception, does not seem all that persuasive.
I thank Sulmasy for straightening me out on the author (unknown) of The Cloud of Unknowing. It is not Meister Eckhart, but, given the striking similarity of their views, he might have been pleased by the misattribution.
CONDOMS & DOUBLE EFFECT
Cathleen Kaveny, in her column “A First Step?” (January 14), correctly points out that a couple having sex while the woman is taking the birth-control pill to regulate a serious hormonal imbalance are not acting immorally. The moral legitimacy of this action is commonly justified by the principle of double effect. According to the double-effect principle, a person may be held morally blameless for performing an action that results in a directly intended good result, while at the same time causing some kind of harm. It seems to me that the case of marital sex where a husband or wife, infected with HIV, wants to employ a condom to avoid passing the infection to his or her spouse during intercourse (the directly intended effect), while knowing full well that the act may preclude the start of a new human life (the indirect effect), is reasonably analogous to the birth-control-pill case. The final moral specification of the act lies in the direct intention: restoring hormonal balance in the case of the birth-control pill; preventing the transmission of a deadly disease in the case of using a condom. Double effect also requires that there is a due proportion between the good and evil effects. In both cases, there appears to be a reasonable balance between the good and evil effects: restoring a woman’s health, or avoiding transmission of a potentially life-threatening disease.
In determining whether using a condom is morally wrong in itself, it would not be sufficient to describe the act as “marital intercourse using a condom.” Its full moral description must include the fact that bodily fluids are presumed to be infected with the AIDS virus and that condom use in a legitimate act of marital intercourse protects the health and, perhaps, the life of the uninfected spouse. To insist that the evil effect finally determines the act’s morality presupposes that the act’s ultimate moral specification depends entirely on the possibility that the evil effect may occur. That is not true of any of the other cases where double effect is used to justify bringing about some serious harm: for example, killing an enemy soldier in self-defense, killing noncombatants during a military assault on an objective, or administering a dose of morphine that relieves a patient’s agonizing pain, but may hasten his or her death.
Gerald J. Williams
I’m interested to learn from Justus George Lawler (“The Audience,” November 5, 2010) of the anonymous “Refugee” so warmly received by Pius XII and how “for the first time in at least a millennium and a half a pope…publicly referred to Jews as his fellow human beings.” Given that this papal audience came three years after the Nazis initiated their campaign of mass murder of the Jews—which Pius XII was aware of—this was progress of a sort, I suppose. But it neither explains nor excuses Pius’s overall silence. If, as Lawler asserts, “every sane person wishes the pope would have spoken out,” I for one still don’t understand the urgency on the part of those advocating his canonization.