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Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Murders for Jesus"? Mark Shea, Ethicist?

I am trying not to come off as a hypocrite with this post. Mark Shea is known to point out other people's faults in their walk with the Lord and in trying to live a Catholic life, and here I am, pointing out his for doing that. It could come off as hypocrisy I suppose, but on the other hand, it is something worth discussing from an ethical standpoint, so I'll take that risk.

Before we get started regarding the simplistic, sensationalistic, and uncharitable attack on Rick Santorum by Mark Shea on his blog (which he runs, he says, "…so that nothing I say, no matter how stupid, will have to go unpublished," but I leave others to determine the fittingness of his slogan), I would like to point out some of my principles in dealing with other people's ethics.

I use this blog identity to engage health professionals, atheists, and all manner of people, not just Catholics, so I'm no guru with a following. Yet, I try to go by the biblical principle of considering others as better than myself. By this, Scripture means that even if we see people sinning, we should regard them as more likely to enter heaven than ourselves, and attend to our own sins. I try to be a judge of my own rather than other people's ethical choices and actions especially regarding my interior deliberations and motives, which only I and God know, and He better than me. However, it is impossible not to at least assess the external aspects of other people's choices--but I stand aside when it comes to peering into someone's heart and making a judgment. I know my sins. I know others people's actions. And maybe God's mercy is at work in them and they will go to heaven before me. And so I regard both Santorum and Mr. Shea as more likely to get into heaven before me.

As far as Mr. Shea goes, God has blessed him with popularity and prosperity and he does have a good sense of what the Catholic life entails. I truly believe that he believes he is doing the right thing. Which stands against me, and all the little stupid sins I commit with full knowledge of doing them. Yet, prosperity and popularity are fleeting. They are also a very strong temptation to pride and other kinds of sin, and so often come to us from a source other than God, and thus they are not always trustworthy evidence of God's blessing. But I will give Mr. Shea the benefit of the doubt in this case. After all, my own blog is thoroughly free of tempting me to pride. I've made all of 8 cents gross on it since last summer.

All that said, I stand by my assessment: His attack on Rick Santorum's words regarding the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist is simplistic, sensationalistic (by which you could read scandal-mongering), and uncharitable. I believe it is also hypocritical.

There are three things to look at in this regard. First, the ethics of Santorum's position. Second, the ethics of Mr. Shea's attack. And third, the ethics in general of Mr. Shea, as revealed in his historical approach to his column in the National Catholic Register as well as his blog.

Santorum has apparently come down in favor of assassinating people working on the military projects (which could include civilians as well as actual military and government personnel) of aggressive, belligerent nations who are openly hostile to the United States of America. In particular, he seems to have said that the assassination of the Iranian scientist was "a wonderful thing." Mr. Shea links to a brief quote in the New York Times, and I have since seen a video of the more complete context of Santorum's words. I have two things to say. One is, Santorum is on shaky ground ethically with this position. I am not an expert on just war theory, but such assassinations probably are not covered by it. I will not go further: It suffices to say that just war theory does not extend to justifying assassinations of this kind, especially in the absence of open military conflict. To this extent, but only to this extent, Mr. Shea seems correct.

The second thing is this. Where Mr. Shea goes wrong is equating Santorum's position with abortion and simple murder of innocent people to get one's way. This is, simply speaking, an attack on the man's heart and character. It violates numerous Scriptural principles and tenets of Catholic doctrine. It foments scandal. And since it is an active attack on someone else and not merely the advocacy of such an attack (which appears to be Santorum's crime), it is possibly worse than the latter.

Prior to seeing the full context of Santorum's words, I pointed out in Mr. Shea's combox that I was not entirely sure what Santorum thought was "a wonderful thing"--the murder of an innocent person, the setback to the Iranian program, or what. I gave the example there (which I refine a bit here) of me holding up a check for a million dollars saying, "My rich uncle died! Isn't this great?" What is great, that my uncle died, or that I just became rich? Mr. Shea responded by insulting me, saying I'm not his "go-to guy" for authentic bioethics because I can't parse a sentence.

Well, well, well.

The FACT is, the FACT of Santorum's words, the parsing of his sentence especially in the larger context of his words is this: The assessment that he advocates the wanton murder of wholly innocent people is RIDICULOUS. Santorum is very clear the kind of people he is talking about: Those who are working on military projects of militaristic, belligerent regimes who have declared the US to be an enemy, who have logistically and financially supported other regimes and terrorist groups hostile to the US. These are not mere bureaucrats impeding a trade pact. They are not women who want to look good in a bikini 6 months from now. They are not some guy on the subway whose Rolex we want to steal. As I said, I do not agree with Santorum, but in his heart and in his reasoning, it is clear that he is talking about individuals who are self-declared enemies of the US actively engaging in advancing the military capabilities of our enemies against us. I don't think his reasoning justifies assassination, but even so, that reasoning remains a far cry from advocating wanton murder of innocent people, and especially from justifying abortion.

For Mark Shea to accuse him vehemently of such reveals simplistic understanding of ethics and of Catholic doctrine. It is sensationalistic, because it is so ridiculous: He is fomenting scandal. It is uncharitable. And he is guilty of the very kind of assassination, albeit verbally, that he accuses Santorum of merely advocating.

Now, this is par for the course from Mr. Shea. I am by no means a Mark Shea scholar (thank God) and I am not going to weed through hundreds if not thousands of his murky posts and columns to show citations. But ever since the late 1990s, some 15 years ago or so, I remember him taking the same rhetorical approach. There was one column about 8 or 9 years ago, about an associate of his who was a radical traditionalist, whom Mr. Shea accused of antisemitism and he took the part of victim on behalf of his Jewish friend. On the one hand, that's sweet. On the other, he victimized traditionalists with the same kind of vitriol that he accused the traditionalist of doing with regard to Jews. Now look, I do not advocate antisemitism at all. But, I have to admit something: A Catholic, no matter how wayward, is a higher priority for Christian charity precisely because of his Catholicism and waywardness, than is a Jew who is pious. After all, we have more in common with a wayward Catholic with whom we share a common faith and the sacraments especially Holy Communion, than we do with someone whose own faith is one of rejection of Christ. Now, that is not an antisemitic remark. I do not thereby advocate mistreatment of Jews or anyone else. I mean to say that Mr. Shea was right insofar as he corrects a brother, but he was wrong with respect to how he went about it, rejecting his brother and siding with a (religiously speaking) non-brother the way he did.

In another column, he complained about people who go around at Mass policing the posture and actions of others at Mass, making sure they sing, speak, stand, kneel, whatever, when they're supposed to. Well, one has to ask, isn't complaining about what these people do at Mass the exact same thing that they are doing? Don't you have to have eyes that drill into the back of their heads, just as you say they have?

So it's the same old thing: "Hey, look! Someone who calls himself Catholic but does not act like a real Catholic! Don't we just hate him?" And yes, "hate" is the right word here. Mr. Shea used the word "despicable" of Santorum. "Despicable" means hate-worthy. It's Mr. Shea's word, not mine. There is nothing in Catholic doctrine to justify this approach. If you want to engage someone's ethics and behavior vis-a-vis the Catholic faith, fine go ahead, but do it in a reasoned and charitable manner, assuming the other person to be on his way to heaven ahead of you. So to title the post on Santorum "Murderers for Jesus" and then launch into a vitriolic, sensationalistic attack is beyond the pale and unjustifiable by Catholic doctrine.

All in all, Mr. Shea is not my go-to guy for anything Catholic, and especially not ethics. Still, I stand by what I said above, that I believe he believes he's doing the right thing, and all that.

Anyway, that is how I see it.


  1. Careful now AB, Der Sheaster will accuse you of being able to read his soul! He can read yours, but he tell you that you can't read his! and considering how nasty he is, why would you want to go there?

  2. Touché. Of course I cannot read his soul, only his blog... God's mercy is boundless.