Catholic Social Ethics Q & A, Halloween Edition

Catholic Social Ethics

Dr. Matthew Shadle answers your questions about Catholic social teaching and Christian discipleship in everyday life. Halloween Edition.

Dr. Matthew Shadle answers your questions about Catholic social teaching and Christian discipleship in everyday life.

Dear Dr. Shadle,

I was raised Catholic and was always taught that we should respect life “from womb to tomb.” Yet as I look outside the isolated, abandoned farmhouse where I decided to spend the night on a dare, I see a small army of zombies slowly approaching from all directions. Does respect for life extend to those who have risen from their tombs, decaying flesh and all? Honestly, I am hoping that the answer is no, since it seems that blasting a path through the undead horde with the shotgun I found in the farmhouse is the only way I can survive.

Sincerely,

Ben from Pennsylvania

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Dear Ben,

Unfortunately, you are out of luck. While “womb to tomb” is a useful rule of thumb for understanding Catholic teaching on the right to life, the real foundation for this teaching is the dignity of the human person, which, as the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states, is “the foundation of all the other principles and content of the Church’s social doctrine” (#160). And the truth of the matter is that these zombies, composed of putrefying flesh as they may be, each possess their own unique human DNA, and, as you reported, are quite alive, even if through unknown, supernatural causes. Therefore one cannot help but conclude that we are dealing with “human life.” And, as the U.S. bishops have written in their pastoral letter Living the Gospel of Life, we are called to respect “the inherent value of human life, at every stage and in every circumstance” (#6), which I have to assume includes a zombie attack. So the sad news for you is that “We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem” (#21), including the broken, desperate zombies outside your window.

Yours in Christ,

Dr. Shadle

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Dear Dr. Shadle,

Recently there has been a lot of tension in my witches’ coven. Normally we get along just fine, kidnapping small children and cooking them in stews, consorting with demonic beings from the netherworld, and so forth. But last week we had a big blow up. A friend of mine and I insisted that the brew we were brewing required five teaspoons of eye of newt, but the other witches claimed it required ten! Can you imagine? And even worse, some of us proposed that, for the sake of safety, on our midnight rides on our magic flying brooms, we limit ourselves to groups of four. That way we could avoid mid-air collisions. Yet the majority of the witches in the coven argued that was unnecessary, and even accused the rest of us of causing the collisions because of our poor broom-handling skills! I am sorely tempted to call on the Grand Coven to intervene because I really feel like my coven is going downhill, but I am not sure. What do you think?

Sincerely,

Glenda in Kansas

——–

Dear Glenda,

I believe that Catholic social teaching’s principle of subsidiarity may be of some help here. Pope Pius XI defines this principle in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno: “It is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do” (#79). Let’s see how that might apply to your situation. Surely your coven can settle amongst yourselves the proper quantity of eye of newt! Bringing the Grand Coven into the mix would be an injustice, dragging them away from their more important responsibilities, and would also be inefficient—who better than your local coven to judge the appropriate ingredients needed to cater to local tastes? However, I am not so sure about the matter of broom platoons. As Pope Benedict XVI has written more recently in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate, “The principle of subsidiarity must remain closely linked to the principle of solidarity and vice versa” (#58), meaning that at times what Pope Pius had called “higher associations” may in fact need to step in for the sake of solidarity. Pope John Paul II defined solidarity as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis #38), which seems like a fair description of your concern with mid-air broom collisions. In this case perhaps you are justified in contacting the Grand Coven, out of solidarity with your fellow witches.

Yours in Christ,

Dr. Shadle

——–

Dear Dr. Shadle,

I am really torn. My boyfriend is a member of a clan of friendly vampires, and another of my friends is a werewolf who belongs to a tribe of shapeshifters. My dilemma is this. Recently we discovered that an “army” of vampires has moved into the city and is committing a series of murders. Even worse, we have reason to believe (my boyfriend’s sister had a vision; don’t ask) that this army of vampires is out to kill me! My boyfriend’s vampire clan and my other friend’s werewolf tribe have decided to band together to battle against the evil vampires, but didn’t Jesus teach us, “Blessed are the peacemakers” (Matt. 5:9)? On top of everything, I love my vampire boyfriend, but I’m afraid I also have feelings for my friend the werewolf. I’m confused.

Sincerely,

Bella in Washington

——–

Dear Bella,

This battle against the vampires sounds like a really bad idea. St. Thomas Aquinas writes in his Summa Theologiae, “It is not the business of a private individual to declare war, because he can seek for redress of his rights from the tribunal of his superior” (II-II, q. 40, a. 1). What authority do these vampires and werewolves have to wage war, as just as the cause of defending your life may be? Aquinas continues, “And as the care of the common weal is committed to those who are in authority, it is their business to watch over the common weal of the city, kingdom or province subject to them. And just as it is lawful for them to have recourse to the sword in defending that common weal against internal disturbances, when they punish evil-doers, according to the words of the Apostle (Romans 13:4): ‘He beareth not the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil’; so too, it is their business to have recourse to the sword of war in defending the common weal against external enemies.” It seems that the more appropriate response in your situation is to call the police, or if need be the National Guard. But perhaps an even better solution is to seek peace. As Pope John XXIII teaches in his encyclical Pacem in Terris, today we are “becoming more and more convinced that any disputes which may arise . . . must be resolved by negotiation and agreement, and not by recourse to arms” (#126), nor, we might add, to fangs. What underlying injustices are causing these vampires to lash out violently? As for your love problems, consider these words of Pope Paul VI: “Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself” (Humanae Vitae #9). If you set aside what each of your suitors have to offer, and ask your heart who it wants to offer itself to, you will have your answer.

Yours in Christ,

Dr. Shadle

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Dear Dr. Shadle,

Last Halloween the neighborhood kids complained about my system of giving out candy. You see, I give more candy to those kids that, in my opinion, have the best costumes, and give less to those whose costumes show a lack of effort. In fact, when a kid showed up with a white sheet with two holes in it thrown over his head, I slammed the door in his face! While I know that the Catholic Church teaches that we should work to minimize inequalities, my philosophy is that by rewarding effort and punishing laziness, I can help improve the overall scariness of Halloween and ultimately give out more candy overall. The Catholic Church teaches that in matters like this we can use our prudential judgment. So it’s not like I’m doing anything intrinsically evil, like poisoning my candy or scaring the little kids to death with a hideous costume. This year I want to stick to my principles, but I also don’t want to end up with eggs splattered all over my car and toilet paper covering my house. What should I do?

Sincerely,

Paul in Wisconsin

——–

Dear Paul,

I believe you have a mistaken understanding of what the Catholic Church means by “prudential judgment.” You are right to emphasize intrinsic evils. As the U.S. bishops put it in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, they “must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned” (#22). However, just because intrinsic evils must always be rejected, this does not automatically make them more serious than other issues. For example, Catholic teaching considers lying an intrinsic evil, and this would include even a relatively harmless statement like, “Wow, that little pirate looks really scary!” Surely questions of the proper distribution of candy are weightier than that. Likewise, as the bishops point out, on many issues we must use prudential judgment, but “it is important to recognize that not all possible courses of action are morally acceptable.” They continue, “Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means” (#20). While you can develop your own philosophy of candy distribution, you cannot neglect your duty to do so in a way that treats children as equals. And pushing a bit further, why are you so sure that some children have lousy costumes because they are lazy? Did you consider that those might be the best costumes available to them? Perhaps you are denying candy to those least able to get candy for themselves.

Yours in Christ,

Dr. Shadle

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