Sunday, December 09, 2007

The morality of causing suffering

(By the way, the discernment post below keeps on growing).

As a teacher, I am finding that punishment is an extremely complex human reality. The question was brought to my attention during my sacraments class's unit on the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and in particular our discussion of the authentic Catholic attitude toward suffering.

Certainly, we were able to establish some basic points to be agreed upon: suffering is not God's creation; Jesus Christ fought suffering and poverty wherever he was; yet Christ also transforms the meaning of suffering, gives it a redemptive power, and calls us all to a destiny better and beyond mere physical health.

But where all of this hit a snag was the question of whether Catholics should ever actively pursue suffering for themselves or inflict it upon others especially given that suffering is not, per Tradition, part of the original creation. The weight of brute tradition would seem to answer in the affirmative for both of these in certain cases: Paul gives us Biblical proof of the authentically Christian pedigree of bodily mortification; and Catholic moral teaching has positively and repeatedly affirmed the right of authorities (state and family) to punish wrongdoings, even corporeally; and in the case of the state this includes capital punishment in times of grave necessity.

What makes this question hairy is that the occasions we are speaking of are not merely a question of tolerating suffering for the sake of a greater good, nor is it matter of taking unavoidable suffering and uniting it with the redemptive, eternally present Passion of Christ. In both the cases of punishment and mortification, the suffering is directly intended. It does not conform to the doctrine of Double Effect. What this seems to mean is that we are limited to a few options:

  1. Maybe, to cause suffering, either of oneself or others, is sui generis a morally neutral act. Thus the moral ramifications depend entirely on other factors. Yet this has profound metaphysical implications which may not be orthodox, because there can be no moral neutrality when it comes to directly contradicting what God has made and declared good. Thus one would have to postulate that suffering may have been a part of creation. Though perhaps unorthodox, this theory would dovetail nicely with naturalistic theories of the universe's origin, since there can be no natural selection without suffering (at the very least, the suffering of beasts).
  2. As a correlate, it may be useful to distinguish between suffering and physical harm. I believe many would agree that it is possible to inflict the former without the latter. Everything from a slap on the wrist to the depression of somebody's high spirits ultimately is mere communication rather than flouting the goodness of the body. Yet even here there is a de facto disconnect between theory and tradition, as can be attested by a nation's right to inflict capital punishment, "just war theory," and the bloody self-flagellation of St. Josemaria Escriva (and other popular saints as well).
  3. Maybe, to cause suffering is not in conformity with the law of Christ or the Kingdom, but is tolerated as a concession to our broken natures, which would otherwise suffer even greater harm without the objectively sinful practices. A bit like how we explain the intermediary laws of Deuteronomy. However, I do not know if this argument can be valid for a consistent Christian morality. The main problems with this theory are that (a) in Christ we have the fullness of moral truth; there is no longer room for "concessionary" moral laws, even while pastoral judgment does make incidental concessions. There is only Christ. Also, even more problematic, (b) the ones who practice self-flagellation are not those who are weak, but rather those who are particularly graced and close to Jesus.
  4. Perhaps one could adapt the "principle of totality"--usually used to explain why surgery is not a moral evil--and expand it to include the salvation of the soul. While, on the one hand, one can never intend an evil so that good may come from it; on the other, where the totality of the body is under eminent threat of death, a part of the body can be "damaged" to ensure the survival of the whole. Infections can be amputated; skin can be opened; immune systems can be depressed, if these are necessary to ensure meaningful survival. The only reason why the principle of totality works is because of the essential relationship of the parts to the whole--thus, the entity which is being harmed and also being saved is one and the same. Thus, the damage and the healing are not related as cause and effect, but as morally one and the same act. The element of damage or harm is effectively "canceled out". When the immortal soul is brought into the same picture--and understood, in Thomistic fashion, to be not separate from the body but its very form, then Totality warrants an entirely broader range of moral action (at least so long as it is understood as eminently necessary).
This last theory has a number of advantages, among them being powerfully Biblical.
If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna. (Mt 18:8-9)
Hold on, I'm not finished yet, but I have some suffering of my own to do right now (grading).

1 comment:

Suzanna said...

I have to admit that I'm not understanding the implications for all of this (I really don't have much of a head for theology) but I do know that Christ came to alleviate suffering. Therefore, when we enter the lives of others, we should seek to alleviate suffering as far as is reasonable and to at least not cause more suffering. I am reminded of St. Faustina's prayer to practice the three degrees of mercy: in prayer, word, and deed.

I think life itself provides enough discomfort, annoyance, and suffering without having to inflict more on ourselves. However, you do have cases where people (like St. Josemaria Escriva, St. Therese, etc) practiced corporeal mortification. I think they've "gone beyond the call of duty" not only to make reparation for their own faults and sins but, mostly, to make reparation for others. They do it to help others and relieve the suffering of others.

Perhaps I am oversimplifying the issue but that's what I think.