The Personalist Project

Katie addressed capital punishment recently, staking out a position that falls neither in the "instrinsic evil" camp nor the "prudential matter" one. I'm not positive where I stand, but one thing I know: I wince at the thought of putting that kind of power into the hands of any politician I can think of.

What I want to address, though, is a related question: Are we going soft? I don't mean just about capital punishment, but also about war, treatment of prisoners, education, childrearing, theology--you name it.

The answer might seem obvious. In some ways, we're more squeamish and sensitive than ever before. Students are demanding the "right to be comfortable" instead of liberty or opportunity, and women at a National Union of Students meeting in the UK recently requested the use of "jazz hands" instead of applause, for fear of "triggering anxiety." (If there's some benign explanation, and the incident was not really as bizarre and ridiculous as it sounds,I'd be happy to hear it.)

And every minor insult, intentional or not, is painted as "microaggression." Nobody seems to long for robust argument half as much as they long for "safe spaces."

Many conversations I've seen about Pope Francis' words on capital punishment express a certain frustrated nostalgia for the days when, as one commentator put it, "the Magisterium had balls." In the old days, neither Church nor state seemed to flinch at war, the rough treatment of prisoners and criminals, or capital punishment. People nostalgic for those times insist that respect for human dignity was alive and well back then, and that only our ideas about what it requires have changed.

We've gone soft, they complain, and instead of seeing that human dignity requires robust enforcement of justice, we settle for indiscriminate niceness.

I'm not going to wade any further into the argument than that, but I want to make two points.

  • First, it's easy to imagine that being an armchair apologist for capital punishment, war, or torture means you haven't gone soft. But armchair apologists' opinions don't carry much weight. Have you ever gone to war, or lived in a war-torn place? Or do you only vote for politicians who send soldiers there? Have you administered or suffered torture? Would you be willing to? Have you ever met anybody on Death Row? Would you be willing to inject the poison? If the answer is No, in what sense are you "for" any of these things? Or can you even be said to know what it is you're "for"? I don't mean all opinions not born of direct experience are ipso facto invalid. I just mean it's easy to overestimate your own expertise and credibility.
  • The second point isn't about politics and doesn't even overlap with it. But it's something that comes up in the everyday life of anyone who's trying to conquer vices and build up virtues: whether it's generally preferable to choose the harshest, most difficult, most penitential option. Jacques Philippe has a passage somewhere--I've read so much Jacques Philippe, I have no idea which book it was--about how sometimes we assume that God is calling us to perform the most difficult, most dramatic, most impressive action--and we're simply mistaken. We might assume He's calling us to conquer a fault by rooting it out at every opportunity, whereas He may want us to focus on trust, or on retaining our peace despite our failure to conquer a fault. Or maybe He wants us to overcome some less obvious but more poisonous fault, like self-righteousness.

In other words, approving of severe treatment is not the same as toughness. And being less tough on yourself is not the same as going soft.

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