instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Essay or multiple choice

On dotCommonweal, mention is made of a recent Pew Research poll (whose results were published in the National Catholic Reporter) that suggests Catholics are disproportionately pro-torture. To the question, "Do you think the use of torture against suspected terrorists in order to gain important information can often be justified, sometimes be justified, rarely be justified, or never be justified?", the results were:

Total PublicTotal CatholicWhite ProtestantWhite EvangelicalSecular
Don't Know/Refused5%4%4%4%4%

One in four Catholics surveyed gave the answer of the Church. No one who reads Mark Shea's blog can be wholly surprised by this, though I would have guessed somewhat more than half would have answered at least "Rarely."

On dotCommonweal, Grant Gallicho writes:
How did this happen? U.S. Catholic bishops have been anything but silent on the issue.
Which, as excerpted, is an amusing little non sequitur, considering the encouragement and celebration of ignoring U.S. bishops that exists in many corners of the Church that otherwise have little in common. (And yes, his broader point is, "This is a teaching moment that must be seized." But then, so is every moment.)

Apart from the sheer pleasure of ignoring the bishops, though, I would guess that the approval of torture by the Church hierarchy in the past accounts for a significant amount of the Catholic shift away from "Never." It's far easier to say the former practices were moral than to say exactly how immoral practices could exist within an infallible Church. (The disproportionate number of Catholics who answered "Often" is more puzzling to me; perhaps Catholics are more likely to assume those wielding the sword know what they're doing.)

It has also been noted that four in ten "seculars" gave the correct answer, leading one dotCommonweal commenter to remark:
Sadly it is has been clear for a while that many humanists are so much more charitable than Christians.
I am not sanguine about this conclusion. Your answer to a multiple-choice poll is hardly evidence of your charity. Opposition to torture can be based on many things other than a genuine love of neighbor -- to say nothing of love in Christ of neighbor, which is the fullness of Christian charity.

It is possible for a person to choose the charitable thing without possessing the virtue of charity. A "secular" may oppose torture because he thinks that evil is an illusion, or that no one is responsible for his actions, or that the U.S. is the source of all evil in the world, or that if torture isn't opposed today the theocrats will be torturing seculars tomorrow, or that physical suffering is the greatest possible evil.

It is also possible for a person to choose against charity while yet possessing, albeit imperfectly, charity as a virtue. One may mistakenly believe justice demands torture when it might save lives, or that not torturing in that situation would be to fail to love those whose lives would be lost. One may regard torture as just punishment, perhaps even a sort of tough love toward the victim, who can thereby atone (whether he wants to or not) for his involvement in whatever crime led to his torture.

I suspect, then, that had the poll respondents written essays defending their answers, the picture would not have been quite as stark as the reported statistics paint. Not altogether heartwarming, maybe, but not as stark.