Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I have said that the silly season in Catholic liturgical practices is now passing. It is not definitively past. Witness this suggested “Prayer of the Faithful” for Thanksgiving Day published by Pueblo in New York and found on the Catholic World Report website. We are assured this is not a parody.

CELEBRANT: As consumers, we are conditioned by our economy never to be satisfied. But God, too, is a fantastic supplier, and we stop and take a sample inventory on this special day for giving thanks.

LEADER : For the smell of new rain, for pumpkins, and Snoopy, for the aroma of homemade bread, for cotton candy, for funny looking animals like giraffes and koalas and human beings; let us give thanks to the Lord.

2. For the smell of fall in the air, for paychecks, and smoked ribs, for the intricate designs of window frost, and for ice cubes and ice cream; let us give thanks to the Lord.

3. For clean sheets and peanut butter, and perma-press, and stereo-headphones, for vacations and seat belts, for escalators, and for views from tall buildings, and for red balloons; let us give thanks to the Lord.

4. For first romances and second romances, for eyes to see colors and ears to hear music and feet to dance, for dissenters and the right to dissent, for black and red and brown power, for pine trees and daisies, for newspapers and sandals and frogs; let us give thanks to the Lord.

5. For parks and woodsmoke and snow, for the smell of leather, for funny buttons and powerful posters, for pecan pies and long hair and french fries and recycling centers, for jet planes and for finding a nearby parking space, for zoos and splashing fountains and rock music and Bach music, let us give thanks to the Lord.

CELEBRANT: God, you overwhelm us with your goodness. And we have yet to mention your greatest gift, our brother Jesus! For these and all your gracious gifts please help us to learn how to live thankfully each day.

There is a measure of comfort in knowing that the above was published in 1977. As I said, the silly season is passing. Not, mind you, that we should not be grateful for some of the gifts mentioned in the above silliness.

This is an argument very much worth having. Charles Krauthammer writes in the Weekly Standard : “But if that is the case, then McCain embraces the same exceptions I do, but prefers to pretend he does not. If that is the case, then his much-touted and endlessly repeated absolutism on inhumane treatment is merely for show. If that is the case, then the moral preening and the phony arguments can stop now, and we can all agree that in this real world of astonishingly murderous enemies, in . . . very circumscribed circumstances, we must all be prepared to torture. Having established that, we can then begin to work together to codify rules of interrogation for the two very unpleasant but very real cases in which we are morally permitted—indeed morally compelled—to do terrible things.”

Krauthammer is writing against Senator John McCain’s proposal for banning all forms of “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of prisoners, a proposal which has overwhelming support in Congress but is opposed by the Bush administration. McCain has said that in extreme circumstances — such as the familiar “ticking time bomb” scenario — authorities will do what they have to do to extract information. Krauthammer says that means McCain’s proposed rule is “merely for show,” and comes close to saying that its supporters are guilty of hypocrisy.

I am not at all sure. Establishing a principle is not “merely for show.” Recognizing, clearly but sotto voce , that there will sometimes be exceptions to the principle is not hypocrisy. Those who, under the most extreme circumstances, violate the rule must be held strictly accountable to higher authority. Here the venerable maxim applies, abusus non tollit usus —the abuse does not abolish the use.

We are not talking here about the reckless indulgence of cruelty and sadism exhibited in, for instance, the much-publicized Abu Ghraib scandal. We are speaking, rather, of extraordinary circumstances in which senior officials, acting under perceived necessity, decide there is no moral alternative to making an exception to the rules, and accept responsibility for their decision. Please note that, in saying this, one does not condone the decision. It is simply a recognition that in the real world such decisions will be made.

This understanding of the matter offends the legal, and legalistic, mind of Alan Dershowitz of Harvard who has suggested that officials should have to get a court order in order to torture a prisoner. This, like Krauthammer’s proposal and the apparent position of the administration, would be a giant step toward “normalizing” torture and other forms of cruel and inhumane treatment. In short order, it would likely result not only in the very widespread abuse of the rule but in the effective abolition of the rule.

Krauthammer’s moral logic is that it is sometimes necessary to do evil in order that good may result. Here he is in the company of Michael Walzer who has argued that effective leaders must be prepared to have “dirty hands.” An alternative argument is that coercion, even brutal coercion, may be morally justified in extraordinary circumstances in order to save thousands of innocent lives. In that event, it is further argued, the use of such coercion is not evil but is the moral course of action.

Whether, in fact, the circumstances justified the action must be subject to the rigid scrutiny of higher authority. There will likely be cover-ups, rationalizations, and other forms of duplicity. Where possible, they must be exposed, in the full awareness that in this connection, as in all connections, we are dealing with fallen humanity. As with all rules, the aim is to make sure that the exception to the rule does not become the rule.

McCain is right: The United States should be on record as banning “cruel, inhuman, or degrading” treatment of prisoners. The meaning of each of those terms will inevitably be disputed, as will the case-by-case application of the principle. But again, abusus non tollit usus .

The annual FIRST THINGS appeal, sent exclusively to subscribers, is now in the mail. If you are not a subscriber, check out the “Subscribe” button above. Or, if out of the goodness of your heart you want to help support this good work, gifts may be sent to the address given at “Contact Us.” Thank you.

I will be speaking tonight on “The Catholic Politician” at the Church of St. Thomas More, 65 East 89th Street in Manhattan. 7:15pm. Admission free.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles