Would You Murder Hitler?

August 2, 2009

This is a surprisingly difficult question, and one that I used to answer with an unwavering “yes”. Now, my answer is absolutely not. With my new found Catholic perspective, the entire world and our place in it has changed. This paradigm shift surprisingly reaches into all the nooks and crannies of human experience which I doubt I’ve finished exploring. My hypothetical (oh, I love those!) question of murdering Hitler has been brought on by my recent reading of The Goodness Gene and watching the movie Defiance.

The Goodness Gene is a novel circling around themes of the existence of a soul and evil done in the name of “the greater good”. I picked it up because it was similar in many ways to a novel I have been writing (rather, thinking about writing and occasionally putting something down on paper) for the last year or two. We’ve all seen the trends in popular thought and the majority holding liberal public opinion that focus on poverty as the greatest evil and wealth and quality of life as the ultimate goals, but of course only for the majority. These things are attained at the cost of human life and liberty, namely that of the poor, the unborn, the elderly and the powerless. The health care system proposed by President Obama in which the elderly must seek hospice instead of treatment is only one aspect of prioritizing the desires of many over the needs of one. This book is set in a world where people have taken the idea of the “greater good” to the extreme by justifying things like euthanizing those of lower intelligence or those with deformities.

Spoiler alert! In the end of The Goodness Gene, the son of a tyrant sacrifices himself in a kamikaze mission to murder his father and free people in society. I can’t help but think this is an incredibly ironic ending. The son has murdered his father, to achieve the good end of freeing everyone from murderous and tyrannical rule. He has done evil in the name of the greater good, but this time a good he decides instead of what his father imagines. He has succumbed to the idea that the end justifies the means, a moral evil I thought the book was trying to convey.

The movie Defiance is about four Jewish brothers in World War II banding together with others to survive German persecution. Faced with issues of survival and revenge, they do some terrible things but also struggle not to give in and become like animals or heartless like those who hunt them. These men seem much more aware that murder and abandoning their fellow Jews would make them as inhuman as the Nazis who hunted them. In the end, death was a better option and they remained mostly righteous, but not without the occasional hiccup along the way.

The same issues face people today, but in different forms. Do we legislate free and open abortions? If so, we prioritize the right of a woman to “decide what happens to her own body” over the right of an unborn child to live. That is the good of the strong, the good of the many, prioritized over the rights of one. Essentially, moral standards and righteousness are thrown out the window to achieve whatever end is most desired by the majority. Society is saying that might makes right and the end justifies the means. What a dangerous path that is.

And now, I come back to the issue of murdering Hitler. First, let me be clear what I mean by murder. There is a difference between killing, which is not a sin, and murder, which is. Killing is done in self defense or during wartime, especially by soldiers under orders. I would even say that military assassins under orders from their superiors are not murderers. But a man working on his own in search of destroying a life – that is murder. Except for a stubborn minority, Hitler is well acknowledged as one of the most evil men of history. He committed heinous crimes and treated millions like animals to attain the “greater good” of his superior Arian race and an all powerful and dominant Germany. Would you murder such a man, knowing how many people he would kill and that the world would probably be a better place without him? Could you do evil for the sake of good? Or would that make you just like him?

The Catholic answer to the question of doing evil to achieve a good end is a resounding “no”. Here is a quote from Cardinal Newman:

The Church goes forth on the one errand, as I have said, of healing the diseases of the soul. Look, I say, into any book of moral theology you will; there is much there which may startle you: you will find principles hard to digest; explanations which seem to you subtle; details which distress you; you will find abundance of what will make excellent matter of attack at Exeter Hall; but you will find from first to last this one idea—(nay, you will find that very matter of attack upon her is occasioned by her keeping it in view; she would be saved the odium, she would not have thus bared her side to the sword, but for her fidelity to it)—the one idea, I say, that sin is the enemy of the soul; and that sin especially consists, not in overt acts, but in the thoughts of the heart.

This, then, is the point I insist upon, in answer to the objection which you have today urged against me. The Church aims, not at making a show, but at doing a work. She regards this world, and all that is in it, as a mere shadow, as dust and ashes, compared with the value of one single soul. She holds that, unless she can, in her own way, do good to souls, it is no use her doing anything; she holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions who are upon it to die of starvation in extremest agony, so far as temporal affliction goes, than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one willful untruth, though it harmed no one, or steal one poor farthing without excuse. She considers the action of this world and the action of the soul simply incommensurate, viewed in their respective spheres; she would rather save the soul of one single wild bandit of Calabria, or whining beggar of Palermo, than draw a hundred lines of railroad through the length and breadth of Italy, or carry out a sanitary reform, in its fullest details, in every city of Sicily, except so far as these great national works tended to some spiritual good beyond them.

Many people respond to Cardinal Newman’s quote above, and the Catholic principle in general that sin is the enemy of the soul, by saying that it is a hard thing to accept. Especially when the Church has said a nine year old sexually abused little girl who is pregnant with twins should not get an abortion. It repels them because physical evils confront us violently and immediately and demand our attention. We would rather let the unseen evils slide away from our focus and ease the screaming pain that’s up in our faces. But then we become a hideous despairing mess. We forfeit our souls, our purpose, and our standing with the Creator of the Universe for immediate gratification. Our souls die and are torn from unity with Our Lord by every sin. Every. Single. One. This is not to say that in loving our neighbor we don’t care for their physical needs, because we should! Yet spiritual needs always take priority, and we cannot sacrifice spiritual integrity for physical benefit.

I think the Catholic answer differs from the Protestant because Catholics know that what we do matters. It matters with respect to whether we become like Christ or further from Him, and ultimately whether our souls and others are saved. It matters for the example that we give to others, the light of Christ and His Goodness and Grace shining through us, through our actions, into the world. As a Protestant, with your salvation assured, to commit a sin seems a small inconsequential thing compared to the good that may come of it, especially something like saving millions of lives from Hitler. At least, that’s how I used to see it.

Our goals are not of this world, because our hope is of the life to come. We all die, we all meet our end one way or another, save the few who will witness the return of Our Lord. What really matters is not always that we live but how we live. We must do what is right, no matter what the cost. This is why the ends never justify the means. The means, our actions throughout this life, are what shape our soul and make us children of God. Although our actions should be in hope of good outcomes, if we are frustrated in attaining those ends ourselves, we shouldn’t despair. In comparison with how we get there, the ends don’t matter.

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Catholic Guilt

June 10, 2009

I was watching Dead Zone the other night with Chris, the episode “Transgressions” in the final season. At one point, Johnny tells Sarah he just feels so guilty, and she quips, “It’s all the Catholics you’ve been hanging around.” Odyssey 5 also comes to mind in which someone tells another, “You’re Catholic, you always feel guilty.” After I finished reading Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers, I decided I was too harsh on her, that she wasn’t being deliberately malicious, and decided to email her and ask why she made certain characters Catholic. She responded by saying “Because [she has] many Catholic friends who suffer guilt until they realize how much God loves them.”

Where did the “guilty Catholic” come from? Personally, I have never met a Catholic who’s tortured by guilt. I feel no guilty motivations for any “works” I may do, though Lord knows I have plenty in my life to feel guilty about. When I asked Chris, he joked, “I feel guilty for not feeling guilty!” Although as far as I can tell, this stereotype has little basis in reality, it is a widespread and deeply ingrained stereotype. I can only speculate as to its origin.

The Original Guilty Catholic

Maybe we can look back to the Reformation. Martin Luther was initially wholly motivated by guilt. At least that’s the picture I got from his biography, Luther the Reformer. He ran from pilgrimage to pilgrimage, in a frenzy to rack up his good works points and wipe out his guilty debts, which eventually led to his “faith alone” epiphany. Repeatedly, he was told by his fellow monks to look to the cross, but was plagued knowing he could never do enough to be righteous, and stand before a righteous God, of his own merit. When I accused Luther of pride in a conversation with a friend, because Luther somehow believed his sins were too great for the usual method of salvation from the cross, he told me this form of pride is called despondency. I’m willing to venture that the generic guilty Catholic stems from despondency. I think Luther’s pride is also seen when he believed that he was the only one whose interpretation of Scripture was correct, and that his belief was enough to save him. Focuses way too much on himself to be of Christ. Enough about Luther, the original guilty Catholic.

Why Catholics Might Feel Guilty

The difference between Protestants and Catholics in how we see ourselves, is that Catholics believe what we do matters, but we take full credit for our sins, and only share in any credit for the good we may do by God’s grace. Of course, many of the far removed Protestant denominations believe the same thing (my parents and I agree on the technicalities of this issue, a great relief!), but this was a crucial breaking point during the Reformation. “Faith alone” means what we do doesn’t actually matter in that it doesn’t affect anything, it is merely proof of faith without our free will. Always keep in mind, Luther emphasized grace to the point of condemning free will in even our decision to accept Christ’s sacrifice for our sins. Calvin took things further and said our damnation and even our sins are designed by God to increase His glory, we have no choice in anything. Both thought that any effort on our part was pride, and that any claim to glory on our part was an attempt to take away glory from God. Of course, increasing the glory of His loved ones increases His glory, especially since we can only be glorified if we become like Christ. How can that be prideful?

This kind of disconnect with our actions doesn’t make much sense, and it scrambles any of the beauty of our relationship with God because free giving of our selves is crucial to any real relationship. If what we do doesn’t matter, then why are we here? That’s why many Protestant denominations have drifted back to Catholic dogmas, without a clue as to their roots.

So here is the defining Catholic feature: we must do things. There’s really not much that we must do, and Augustine assessed it as a very easy yoke to bear indeed, especially compared to the old law. There are observances of a few “sweet” sacraments, and obedience to those in authority. Like any kind of guilt, I’m assuming that of the guilty Catholics (I’m sure some do exist though I haven’t met them), comes from knowing that either you’ve done something wrong or you haven’t done what you should do. In the Catholic Faith, what we should and shouldn’t do is more clearly defined than in many other faiths or denominations, so I guess it makes sense that there is a guilty Catholic stereotype. Maybe it has sprung, not from real experience with guilty Catholics, but from what people imagine they would feel if they were Catholic and had to follow “all those rules”.

It’s true that the Catholic punishments are also well defined. There is the sacrament of reconciliation and penance. Usually, people are instructed to right their hearts through prayer, not to sin again, and are forgiven. Doesn’t sound awfully guilt inducing to me, but hey, I haven’t actually gone through it yet. Then there is the punishment of Purgatory, although as C. S. Lewis puts it, our souls cry for the purifying fires of Purgatory. We would not wish to stand before a righteous God without being purified. The pain of Purgatory is a sweet pain when thought of that way. The only real catch in all the Catholic rules is that we must mean it. Everything is vain without faith that bears fruit in love. If someone obeys all the rules, and goes to confession, does their penance, etc., but does so without love of God or faith in His mercy and salvation, they must know in their heart they haven’t fulfilled the greatest prerequisite to accepting God’s grace. So is the guilty Catholic really the same as a guilty Protestant, just better defined?

Why Catholics Shouldn’t Feel Guilty (and most don’t)

Of course, those familiar with Catholic beliefs know we can never merit our salvation, and even the good works we do are not by our own merit, but Christ’s. Salvation and our lives here on Earth are not about us, and we need to avoid pride, which leads us to believe it is. Instead, we must realize that all we are capable of is cooperating with Christ, and allowing God’s grace to work in our lives. Any good that we do or have is only by God’s grace. So the pressure to “earn” salvation would seem to me an entirely invented pressure, designed to make us feel more important than we are.

That must be the key. Realize that it’s not about us! It’s not about fearing His punishments or even fulfilling a list of requirements. It’s about God, and loving His laws, because you love Him and want to please Him and be conformed to His will. When we realize that, the pride of giving ourselves credit, and beating up ourselves with guilt disappears. Because then, we see that our sins are washed away by Christ’s more than adequate sacrifice. Our works are performed in earnest effort to be closer to God and conform to His will. The good we do is not ours, and the bad we do doesn’t matter in light of the cross, like Luther’s peers told him.

I don’t know how Luther could have missed it, because as I’ve said before, the heart of the Catholic Faith is sacrificing our pride, our selves, and surrendering to Christ. I know the Church of his time was a hyperactive abused thing, but it’s all there in the catechisms and councils. Guilt was conquered at the cross. We realize that nothing we do is enough to stand before a righteous God, but that He has done enough. What we do matters, because we choose to accept or reject God, His grace, and His will in our lives. We choose to respond in love or pride, and consequently feel peace or guilt.

Disclaimer

This is all more of a journal entry pondering this stereotype that I find bizzare, and doesn’t really qualify as a public statement. Do I understand it right? Or is the guilty Catholic outside my reach still?