Another Missed Catholic Teaching Moment

The Hamas attack momentarily woke Western man from his moral slumber

Many Americans were rightfully repulsed when they watched students on American college campuses openly declaring their support for Hamas terrorists that killed over 1,400 people and took and still hold hundreds of hostages. It’s ongoing: On October 24, somebody projected pro-Hamas slogans — including “Glory to Our Martyrs!” — onto the walls of George Washington University’s main library in DC.

For me, what’s important about these events is they are a “wake up” moment for Catholic moral teaching — but we’re too busy with our “accompaniment” of modernity to notice.

The fact that the average American at least momentarily woke from his moral slumber to say, “Hey, there’s something really wrong with kids celebrating killers” showed that not all is lost in this country. For a spell, people recognized that applauding killers requires a certain interior rot.

You must not kill innocent women and children. Period. You must not take innocent women and children hostage. Period. You cannot murder and maim people indiscriminately because of their nationality. Period. There is no justification — none, nada, keine — to do that.

Average Americans instinctively recognized there is such a thing as intrinsic evil. Now that was an eye-opener! It was an eye-opener because the West has been systematically taught for decades to accept the dictatorship of relativism, taught that one cannot a priori designate certain actions evil.

The fact that the average American woke up long enough to say, “I don’t think that’s right when it comes to women and kids,” was an “aha moment.” Alas, instead of seizing that moment to speak moral truth to the modern world, the Church was squirreled away in navel-gazing “conversations in the Spirit.”

Yes, the world needs whole, integral, unadulterated Catholic moral teaching. It needs Catholic leaders to speak that truth to the power of ethical confusion, not to be AWOL or temporizing.

I say that because, in the days immediately after October 7, even some university professors came forward to say something is rotten in the state of academe and we need to fix it. A bioethics professor at Penn penned a New York Times essay saying we needed to require ethics courses and integration of ethical questions centrally across the curriculum as prerequisites to calling a graduate “educated.”

I responded [here] to that piece by riffing Alasdair MacIntyre’s title: “Whose justice? Whose ethics?” I then surveyed the five main ethical competitors to the substantial moral theology of Catholicism: utilitarianism, proceduralism, linguistic analysis, emotivism, and pragmatism. My argument was twofold: (i) those five approaches to ethics, all dominant in modern philosophy, will fight among themselves over which should be taught to students but (ii) none of them is going to produce a package of moral absolutes or prohibitions. Only Catholic moral theology (which, at root, is also philosophically intelligible natural law) is going to give robust “thou shalt nots” that provide an unqualified “no!” to Hamas terrorists.

Utilitarianism, engaged in balancing the ethical ledger book of “good” and “bad” outcomes, might give you a “virtual absolute,” a concept as rational as “somewhat pregnant.” Kantianism and proceduralism might give you a prohibition if you carefully construct your “categorical imperative,” but can equally give you wiggle room if your imperative design builds in enough factors to make your preferred terrorist act a unique exception. As MacIntyre observed, Kant only stopped people creatively dumb enough not to write the rule to their advantage.

So, if the modern world momentarily discovered that the “mainstream” ethics on offer, the “mainstream” ethics being taught in colleges and universities, could allow this outcome, it also momentarily wondered whether there might be an ethics that was up to the task of condemning such barbarism. And here, I regret to say, the sound you heard from the Church was largely… crickets.

Yes, the Church spoke about morality and condemned the attacks, then went on to talk about jus in bello. Yes, Pope Francis repeatedly addressed the humanitarian dimension of the crisis (in contrast, as far as I can see, to his “fraternal” buddy, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar who — correct me if I am wrong — appears only to have criticized Israel). But everybody else is mentioning the humanitarian aspect, too. What humanity needs from the Pope is not another note in the global concert but the music sheet that only he can bring: the kind of robust morality that excludes intrinsically evil acts like murdering innocent women and children and taking people hostage. The “root causes” are not conflicting historical claims in the Middle East. The root causes are the ideas of morality that either allow or prohibit killing innocents.

Aware I might be accused of indietrismo (“backwardness,” seemingly the one intrinsecum malum in the Francis moral manual), I’ll note that about 40 years ago the late Rev. Richard John Neuhaus spoke of a “Catholic moment” in the United States. His hope was that, with the declining influence of the “Protestant Mainline” (Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, and Presbyterians), Catholics might provide the religious and intellectual spark for a robust public faith. For various reasons (including episcopal inertia) that never happened. Its failure is in part responsible for the absence of a robust religiously-informed ethic to guide contemporary discussions, such as the Hamas attacks, which only reinforces the echo chamber for the weak ethics that I listed above or, worse, the reduction of ethics to politics.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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