April 27, 1865: Sultana: Death on the Mississippi

Monday, April 27, AD 2015

After the massive bloodletting of the Civil War, one would have hoped that Death would have taken at least a brief holiday in the US.  Such was not the case.  On April 27th 1865, the SS Sultana, a Mississipi paddlewheeler steamer, constructed in 1863 for the cotton trade, was serving as a transport.  Its cargo was appoximately 2500 Union soldiers, many of them former POWS, some of them survivors of Andersonville.  The Union soldiers boarded at Vicksburg.  The Sultana while in port at Vicksburg had a patch put on its steam boiler.  The repair was clearly inadequate, a new  boiler being needed. 

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Priest of Andersonville

Thursday, February 27, AD 2014


I normally take great pride in being an American, but there are passages in our history which all Americans should be ashamed of.  During our Civil War in many prison camps, both North and South, POWs were treated wretchedly with inadequate shelter, clothing and food.  The worst by far was Andersonville. The vast tragedy at Andersonville came about for a number of reasons.

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February 27, 1864: First Union Prisoners Arrive at Andersonville

Thursday, February 27, AD 2014

An Andersonville Survivor

One hundred and fifty years ago Union prisoners began arriving at the Andersonville prison camp.  A blot on American honor is the callous way in which many prisoners of war were treated during our Civil War, north and south.  (For a Union prison camp that had a death rate of 25%, google Elmira prison camp, or as the Confederates imprisoned there referred to it, Helmira.)   45,000 Union soldiers would be held at Andersonville and 13,000 of them would die through starvation, bad water, no sanitation and disease.   Accounts of what went on inside Andersonville beggar description.  Jesus wept, sums up the reaction of any decent soul to this abomination.  See the accompanying post for today for the grim details, and for a shining example of humanity by a man motivated by God’s love to love his enemies.

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3 Responses to February 27, 1864: First Union Prisoners Arrive at Andersonville

Give Us This Day

Monday, August 8, AD 2011

William Thomas Cummings, pictured viewer’s left in the above photograph, is known for the phrase, “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  This is the story of the priest behind the phrase.

Born in 1903 he studied at Saint Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California and was ordained a priest in 1928.  Wanting to be a missionary priest he joined the Maryknoll Order.  In December 1941 he was serving as a missionary priest in the Philippines.  On December 7, 1941 he showed up at the American Army headquarters in Manila in white vestments and offered his services as a chaplain.  The commandant of the Manila garrison attempted to talk him out of it.  He was 38, old for a combat chaplain, and he was nursing a back injury.  He was also near-sighted and lean as a rake.  Father Cummings vehemently replied that he was determined to be an Army chaplain.    Commissioned as a first lieutenant, he joined the Army in its epic retreat to the Bataan peninsula, where American and Filipino troops, on starvation rations and wracked with malaria, would make a heroic stand for months against the Japanese Imperial Army.

Believing themselves deserted by the US, the troops sang this bit of bitter doggerel:

We’re the battling bastards of Bataan,

No mama, no papa, no Uncle Sam.

No aunts, no uncles, no cousins, no nieces,

No pills, no planes, no artillery pieces.

And nobody gives a damn.

General Douglas MacArthur, in command of all American and Filipino troops in the Philippines, continually pleaded with Washington for a relief force to Bataan.  Shamefully, some of the messages from Washington indicated that a relief force was being put together.   These were lies.   After Pearl Harbor the US simply lacked the naval assets to successfully reinforce Bataan.  Any attempt to do so would almost certainly have led to a military disaster for America.  MacArthur refused an order that he leave Bataan, and stated that he would resign his commission and fight as a volunteer.  He finally left after a direct order from President Roosevelt, but refused to be smuggled out in a submarine, instead going by PT boat to demonstrate that the Japanese blockade of the Philippines could be penetrated.  After he arrived in Australia he was shocked to learn that there were no plans for the relief of the Philippines.  His main goal throughout the war thereafter was the liberation of the Philippines and the rescue of the American and Filipino POWs.

On Bataan Chaplain Cummings quickly became an Army legend.   On Good Friday 1942 at a Bataan field hospital undergoing bombardment Nurse Hattie Bradley witnessed Father Cummings in action:  More piercing screams. Scores must be dead or dying, she was convinced. She dashed into the orthopedic ward for help. There, panic was on the verge of erupting. Then she saw the chaplain…standing on a desk. Above the roar of the airplanes, the explosions and the shrieks of the wounded, his voice could be heard: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Calmed by his prayers, the patients quieted.”  Father Cummings did this in spite of one of his arms being broken by shrapnel from a bomb. 

On Bataan he was always with the troops near or on the front line.  He said innumerable Masses, administered the Last Rites to the dying and helped with the wounded.  His field sermons were memorable.  In one of them he made the famous observation that “There are no atheists in foxholes.”  The quotation was passed on in the book “I Saw the Fall of the Philippines” by General Carlos P. Romulo, one of the Filipino troops evacuated from Bataan, which was published in 1942.

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39 Responses to Give Us This Day

  • Don, thanks for posting this. ‘Give Us This Day’ was the title of a book written by Sidney Stewart, a survivor of the Bataan march and three years of captivity in Jap prison camps. In his memoir, Stewart discusses at length the reliance he and fellow GIs had on Father Cummings during those dark times. The book was written in 1956. Here is a link for more info:
    Along with Escape from Davao, Give Us This Day should be recommended reading for every American.

  • Thank you Joe. I am aware of the memoir, from which I have taken the title of the post, although I have not yet read it. I hope to remedy that before the end of the year.

  • Thank You.

  • Thanks for this. I’m reading “Grunt Padre,” the story of Fr. Capodanno. Fr. Mode recites vignettes about the Maryknollers of that era, including Fr. Cummings and later, Bishop Ford in China. What an astonishing group of men.

  • It brought tears to my eyes to think of our true heros and the horror they have gone through. Thank you for this post – it is inspirational to know men like him existed and exist today.

  • Thank you gentlemen. Recalling the lives of heroic priests such as Father Cummings gives me hope for humanity.

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  • Thanks for this Don. A very touching and inspiring story. I recall seeing the movie “Bataan” back around 1957 when I was at Sacred Heart College. Quite a chilling movie, parts of which I can still recall.
    At this time of year – August 6th Hiroshima day, and August 15th.- Assumption, and the end of hostilities in the Pacific, I am reminded of my youth when, as a late teenager/early 20’s, many of my dad’s friends (dad fought in North Africa and Italy) had fought in the Pacific – mainly the air force. I have always been interested in aircraft, and I would listen with rapt attention to these men as they recounted their exploits. They were then in their late 30’s/early 40’s,- this being the early/mid 60’s – so their memories were vivid, as then it was still quite recent history.
    Your story also reminds me of our Fr. Francis Douglas, killed by the Japanese in the Phillipines in 1943 at age 33years.
    Thanks again.

  • When I read stories like this, I can’t understand why some Catholic commentators get so mad about us a-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It reminds me of the way hippy-dippy types used to bawl how we were “mistreating ” the VC during the Nam conflict. The Cong and the Japanese both had a policy of treating their captives in an inhumane fashion. Both of them should consider themselves lucky that we did not return the favor in kind. As far as I’m concerned, the Japanese should be thankful that we only a-bombed two cities, instead of invading the mainland and killing far more troops and others than those a-bombs ever could!

  • Interestingly, the number of American POWs who survived German prison camps was, percentage-wise, 10 times higher than those in Jap camps where roughly only 3 percent survived, according to my recollections. Near the end of the war, “kill orders” went out all over the Pacific, leaving relatively few POWs left.

    Further, our treatment of German and Japanese POWs was by contrast humane to the point that they were fed basically the same food our troops got and otherwise were treated as fellow human beings. By contrast, the Japs were the ultimate racists, viewing all Americans as “sub-human.” Also, the Jap culture for centuries taught that to surrender as a prisoner rather than to die was cowardly; hence, their disdain for Westerners. And, lastly, their guards were the dregs of the Imperial Army, misfits and goons for the most part.

  • The Japanese gave good treatment to Russian prisoners taken in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. By World War II a spurious code of Bushido had the Japanese military in its grip and the Japanese treated prisoners with little mercy. Western prisoners had a death rate of 27.1%, seven times the rate of Western prisoners held by the Nazis. Most of the men released by the Japanese were mere skeletons and had survived through incredible tenacity and luck. In regard to China, Japan after the war released 56 Chinese prisoners. The Japanese routinely immediately murdered any Asians who fought against them and were luckless enough to fall into their hands. Millions of Chinese were slaughtered in ways that horrified Nazi observers. The Japanese high command had issued an order that all Western prisoners of war were to be executed immediately if the Japanese Home Islands were invaded.

  • Don, the aforementioned Sidney Stewart was 65 pounds when he was rescued. He was 6-foot-1.

  • BTW, I just started The Rape of Nanking, a pre-WWII horror story of epic proportions. No wonder the Chicoms hate the Japanese so much.

  • “I recall seeing the movie “Bataan” back around 1957 when I was at Sacred Heart College. Quite a chilling movie, parts of which I can still recall.”

    One part of the film that I can recall Don is a meeting between Allied officers and Filipino guerrillas where the officers are warning them where MacArthur’s initial landings are going to occur so that the Filipino civilians can be evacuated. The Filipino guerrilla leader notes that such an evacuation would warn the Japanese that an invasion was coming and that therefore there would be no evacuation.
    Here is a link to a clip from the film. The scene I mentioned begins at 6:56.


    Filipino and American guerrillas fought on throughout the War. By the time MacArthur returned the Japanese had tenuous control of only twelve of forty-eight provinces. The Japanese killed some one million Filipinos during the War but they never conquered them.

  • I couldn’t get through the Rape of Nanking Joe, I was too appalled. I have read a great deal about Man’s inhumanity to Man, but the Japanese Imperial Army in that particular slaughter set a new record in my estimation for putting massive amounts of people to death in ways of unimaginable cruelty. In 2007 100 Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers in Japan denounced the Rape of Nanking as a Chinese fabrication. If that were only the case.

  • The Chinese lost some 10 to 20 million people at the hands of the Japanese, all but some three million civilian deaths. This is a part of the War in the Pacific that has been largely forgotten outside of China, but it should not be.

  • Don, the author, Iris Chang, took so much heat in the book’s aftermath for alleged sloppy research that she fell into depression and finally killed herself. Most scholars and historians appear to find her account credible, but there was a concerted effort — by the Japanese in particular — to find fault with her work. I’m just on the first chapter and so far, yes, it is appalling. As much as I want to avert my eyes from such horrors, I feel I cannot. Evil should be looked square in the eye and, when possible, be fought at every turn.

  • Her suicide was appallingly sad Joe. The historical record is crystal clear in regard to the Rape of Nanking. There were plenty of Westerners in Nanking at the time who recorded precisely what was happening. One of the heroes who saved 200,000-250,000 Chinese was John Rabe, a Nazi businessman. Here is one of many notes that he made at the time:

    “Two Japanese soldiers have climbed over the garden wall and are about to break into our house. When I appear they give the excuse that they saw two Chinese soldiers climb over the wall. When I show them my party badge, they return the same way. In one of the houses in the narrow street behind my garden wall, a woman was raped, and then wounded in the neck with a bayonet. I managed to get an ambulance so we can take her to Kulou Hospital…. Last night up to 1,000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about 100 girls at Ginling Girls’ College alone. You hear nothing but rape. If husbands or brothers intervene, they’re shot. What you hear and see on all sides is the brutality and bestiality of the Japanese soldiers.”

    Rabe was a man of rare courage. He later renounced his membership in the Nazi party. After the War he and his family were living in dire poverty. Though China was wracked by Civil War, the citizens of Nanking hearing about his troubles sent him 2000 dollars and until the Communist takeover sent him and his family a large package of food every month for which Rabe and his family were very grateful. He died of a stroke in 1950, and he is one former Nazi I hope some day to encounter in Heaven.

  • On the tenuous connection of books nearly too depressing to read — have you read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands yet, Don?

    I started on it last night, and within a few pages was thinking maybe I should go back to the Great War (Storm of Steel is next on my list there) in order to avoid the depression. However, a friend of mine who teaches Polish history tells me that I absolutely must read it, so I guess I shall have to.

    It takes a great deal to make trench warfare look cheerful, but living between Russia and Germany during the 30s and 40s pretty much fits the bill.

  • Darwin, that reminds me of Jerzy Kosinki’s The Painted Bird, a fictional account of Poland during WWII, which reads all too real.

    Don, there was a biopic made about Rabe but don’t know if was released in the U.S. Here’s a link:

  • “On the tenuous connection of books nearly too depressing to read — have you read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands yet, Don?”

    No Darwin, although it is on my list. Eastern European history always reminds me of Hamlet: it goes on at great length, all the participants seemed to be touched in the head to a certain extent, and everybody ends up murdered!

    Norman Davies, although he is a good bit of a snot like most Brit historians, is my favorite when it comes to Polish history.

    Storm of Steel is a true classic! Ernst Junger who saw some of the most horrifying combat imaginable actually enjoyed the War! An ultra German nationalist he was also an anti-Nazi and was peripherally involved in the the Von Stauffenberg assassination attempt. His eldest son, a naval cadet, was sentenced to a penal battalion for subversion and died in Italy in 1944.

    A writer of true genius, Junger was also a druggie who experimented with drugs most of his life. A year before his death at 102 in 1998 he converted to Catholicism and faithfully received communion regularly thereafter. Junger is one of the more fascinating literary figures of the 20th Century in my opinion.

  • Thanks for the tip Joe. I’ll try to get my hands on it.

  • Don, found it at my local library and have ordered. 74% ‘fresh’ on Rotten Tomatoes.

  • Hey, Don…look what I found:

  • That last one was in German…Here’s the official trailer:

  • Bravo Joe! That trailer has sold me on the film!

  • Re Storm of Steel, which I have yet to read. Check out this review:

    (A brilliant book, a great book. Horrifying in its realistic greatness. Power, nationalistic passion, verve—the German book on the [First World] War. A member of his generation rises to speak about the deeply emotional event of war and performs miracles in presenting his innermost feelings.)

    — Joseph Goebbels, 20 January 1926

  • Yeah, the Nazis assumed since Junger was an uber Nationalist he was one of them. After they took over they learned better when he declined a seat in the Reichstag and declined to head the German Academy of Literature. By 1938 he was under investigation by the Gestapo and banned from writing. He spent World War II as an Army Captain. I have little doubt that he would have been executed by the Nazis, but for the immense prestige that he enjoyed in Germany, and the fact that he kept a low profile.

  • Don, apparently Storm of Steel went through several revisions and translations to “tone it down,” as it were, due to its graphic nature.

    I plan to get to Bloodlands, too. So many books; so little time. BTW The Catholic Thing has an essay today on reading, which TAC followers may find of interest.

  • apparently Storm of Steel went through several revisions and translations to “tone it down,” as it were, due to its graphic nature.

    With the knowledge of a man who just read the introduction to the new Penguine translation last night…

    The first edition was in 1920, and was basically a straight transcription of Junger’s diaries. There was another edition in 1924 which turned it into a polished “literary” version, but still distinctly dark and bloody. Junger revised it again in 1934 and in the process cut out many of the most nationalistic and political passages — this was as it was becoming an international best seller (Junger was already becoming very popular in France) — somewhat to the annoyance of the Nazi’s.

    Junger continued to revise the work up through 1961.

    Actually, the same friend recommended Junger, Bloodlands, and 14-18 (which I just finished), all of which look to be very good (though not exactly cheery) reads.

  • The Japanese, as a whole, have not owned up to their atrocities in the same way the Germans have. With certain noble exceptions–one of which was atom bomb survivor and Catholic scientist Takashi Nagai, who permitted his hauntingly brilliant “Bells of Nagasaki” to be printed with an appendix detailing Japanese atrocities in the Philippines. The Occupation government required this in order for “Bells” to be printed.

    Speaking of which, Bells is must reading, as is Ignatius’ biography of Nagai, “A Song for Nagasaki.”

  • Is his cause up for canonization?

    There are memorials to Fr. Capodanno and Fr. Kapaun at the Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Wisconsin. This Shrine commemorates the first approved Marian apparition in the U.S.. Approval was very recent.

  • I have seen no evidence of any attempt to have Father Cummings canonized. Maryknoll recognizes him as one of the nine Maryknoll martyrs:


  • Don.
    The movie I was referring to was the previous movie “Bataan” made in 1943 according to the youtube item – not “Return to Bataan” – but seeing The Duke in action was worth the watch.

    Interesting that the comments morphed into WW2 in Germany WRT actions and POW’s – my uncle Joe Murphy – obviously of Irish stock – flew navigator in Lancasters and was shot down 4 times, but escaped only 3 times – (the luck of the Irish?) and was a POW for the last 18 months of the war.
    But my comment is really about a German gentleman I got to meet, and I served (Acolyte) at his Requiem Mass a couple of months ago. I had met Rudi in a retirment home a year before where I take Holy Communion to each week to several residents.
    Rudi Baumgart was born in 1925 in Romania of German parents – his father working in mining there. When He was an infant his family moved to Latvia to a farm his father inherited from his great grandfather. In 1939 when Germany invaded Latvia, Rudi was conscripted into the Wermacht as an engineer on his own insistence. When the Red army invaded Poland, where Rudi was stationed, he returned to Latvia. But Russia also invaded Latvia, and he was conscripted into the Russian army. When war ended, he did not believe a promise made to many German soldiers by the Russians, and he and several other germans escaped back to West Germany. He would never speak of the things he did while escaping to survive – it must have been very traumatic for him.
    He married and eventually made his way to Australia, then to NZ. His marriage broke up in Oz where he left a son and a daughter and worked in NZ where he made many friends and met another woman who he never married, but loved her dearly till she died in 2005. He returned to his Catholic faith through the efforts of a lovely local Catholic woman. On some occasions when I took him Communion, he would clasp the crucifix in his hands, and with tears say that he might not be forgiven for the terrible things he had done in his earlier life. He had been to Confession regularly before I met him, and had been annointed a few times due to his infirmities, and I assured him that Jesus had forgiven him his sins.
    He had a vibrant sense of humour – would often speak to me in German with a grin on his face – did he really translate what he said correctly ? :-). I took him Communion two weeks before he died – the next couple of weeks he would be asleep; he died four days after my last call.
    May God rest your soul. Reqiescat in Pace, Rudi Baumgart

  • A beautiful story indeed Don! I was unaware of the film Bataan until internet research led me to believe that it was probably the film you were referring to. It was notable for two things: giving, for the time, a realistic view of combat, and for a young Desi Arnaz, years before he married Lucille Ball.

    Here is a link to a clip from the film:

  • “Junger was also a druggie who experimented with drugs most of his life. A year before his death at 102 in 1998 he converted to Catholicism and faithfully received communion regularly thereafter.”

    An ex-Nazi and drug dabbler converting to the Faith at the age of 101? I guess there really is hope for us all….

  • “a young Desi Arnaz, years before he married Lucille Ball.”

    Lucy and Desi were married in 1940.

  • You are correct Elaine. Interestingly enough, they divorced in 1944 and subsequently reconciled. It is incredible to me that the marriage survived for two decades.

Social Contract and Morality

Friday, June 11, AD 2010

Kyle Cupp has a brief post describing the dehumanizing moral effects of seeing human dignity and rights as springing entirely from a social contract (implied or explicit):

This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract–when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don’t care about torturing terrorists because they’re not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country’s laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn’t be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights.

I think that he’s right as far as he goes, but I don’t think that his point that basic human rights and duties are inherent to humanity (rather than assumed via some sort of contract/relationship) is actually the point usually at dispute in our society. Rather, what seems often to be disputed is what the extent of basic human rights are — and which “rights” are merely agreed civic rights which we grant explicitly via the social contract.

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15 Responses to Social Contract and Morality

  • Of course what are called “human rights” today are almost entirely the product of Western societies since the Sixteenth Century, much of it from Great Britain and America in origin. Much of what we call “human rights” today would have been denounced as pernicious and/or dangerous throughout most of human history by most cultures. To say that “human rights” arise simply due to inherent moral obligations that exist between people, we are confronted with the difficulty that most cultures for most of human history would vigorously disagree.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful response, Darwin. I’m pretty sure that I agree with the points you make, particularly in your last paragraph. To clarify my post, let me say that when the reduction is made, it isn’t usually (if ever) made flat out in a way that covers a person’s entire morality; it’s rather applied here and there inconsistently.

  • Donald,

    You raise a good point about the history of rights language. It is a recent invention. I tend to call rights a useful fiction, myself.

  • I do agree with what Kyle said. But, from other discussions I know that I don’t agree with how Kyle applies his generic or all inclusive definition of basic human rights to all persons of all types of backgrounds, since his definition doesn’t seem to take into consideration ( or very little consideration) certain circumstances and/or the consequences that one must face when committing a crime or an act of war. This is applicable with regards to both illegal immigrants and terrorists.

    While I do believe that enhanced interrogation techniques are justified in very extreme, life saving circumstances, I do think that the Bush administration allowed the use of them too frequently. But, then again, one needs to realize the atmosphere after 9/11, and no person wanted anything like this to ever happen again. I don’t support the three items on your list. They are in violation of basic human rights. With regards to immigration, I am all for legal immigration but am against illegal immigration. One would think that having secure borders would be a good thing, especially for our safety, but certain people deride people who advocate for secure borders and call us other vile names just because we want immigrants to follow our laws and immigrate here via the proper channels.

  • My only issue is that I don’t ever recall Morning’s Minion, whom Kyle is supposedly defending with his post, demonstrating an accurate understanding of classical social contract theory, nor providing and concrete examples of this bad sort of “contract thinking” in our society.

    There is nothing wrong with the social contract. It defines clearly the parameters of government. The alternative is arbitrary authority. We as Catholics can be proud that the resistance to absolute, arbitrary authority probably began in the Salamanca school.

  • Yes, clearly those who support enhanced interrogation do so on the basis that:

    (a.) It is not a violation of basic human rights;

    (b.) Strictures against using such techniques in the civilian criminal and civil code apply only in the civilian criminal and civil code, because they arise from the social contract;

    (c.) Strictures against using such techniques against prisoners of war also arise, not from a fundamental right, but from a contractual obligation; namely, treaty obligations regarding lawful combatants. These do not apply to persons whose status is “unlawful combatant.”

    Of course, (b.) and (c.) depend on first establishing (a.). If in fact everyone does have a basic human right, intrinsic to their dignity as a human person, not to be waterboarded, why then the presence or absence of a contract doesn’t matter a whit. Only if (a.) is true, does anyone even bother with (b.) and (c.).

    So, what about (a.)?

    To repeat, (a.) asserts that enhanced interrogation is not a violation of the basic human rights intrinsic to the dignity of human persons.

    Now it sounds absurd on the face of it to say this. Obviously we know we shouldn’t go grabbing random persons and waterboarding them, so, in obedience to this moral intuition, we conclude that it must be “a violation of their basic human rights” to do so, right? And if it’s a violation of the basic human rights of any random person, it must likewise be a violation of the basic human rights of a war criminal like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, right?

    Well, not so fast. One mustn’t go around waterboarding random persons. One mustn’t go around locking up random persons, either. Does it follow that locking up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a violation of his basic human rights?

    Why, no. It would only be a violation if he were innocent of wrongdoing. As he is a particularly nasty terrorist and about as far from innocent as it is possible to be, it’s perfectly okay to violate his basic human right of liberty, which is intrinsic to his dignity as a human being, by locking him up.

    Actually, I said that incorrectly. It’s not okay to violate his basic human right…but locking him up is no violation, because getting locked up is a freely-chosen consequence on his part. He chose, even asked, to be treated that way just by doing what he did. If he wasn’t willing to do the time, he shouldn’t have done the war-crime.

    But that raises a problem. Why can we not likewise argue that, while of course persons in general have a right to not be waterboarded, KSM voluntarily renounced that right by choosing to orchestrate terror plots to kill thousands of innocent people. Why can we not argue that, by doing this, he “chose, even asked,” to be waterboarded?

    Is there some qualitative or categorical difference between the right to freedom from imprisonment and the right to freedom from waterboarding, such that the former right can be voluntarily renounced by evil deeds, but the latter cannot?

    So the question is this:

    Given that people voluntarily renounce certain of their rights (at minimum, their liberty and/or property) when they commit heinous crimes by committing those crimes, it is reasonable, and not a violation of their rights, to forcibly deprive them of the benefits of the rights they have renounced.

    Yet, even before we read Church teachings on the matter, we recognize that the Moral Law forbids us to treat these persons as if they had, by committing whatever evil deed, renounced all of the rights intrinsic to the human dignity. We may lock them up; so, crimes are clearly capable of constituting a rejection of one’s right to liberty. We may not hang them from a mechanized hook and lower them an inch at a time, screaming, into an industrial shredding machine; so, crimes are clearly incapable of constituting a rejection of one’s right to not be shredded alive.

    How then, can one distinguish between the two categories of rights? Which ones may be renounced by crimes of sufficient magnitude, and which may not, no matter how horrific the crime?

    The Right to Not Be Waterboarded seems, according to Church teaching and most thinking Catholic opinion, to fall in the category of rights which are never, ever renounced. Even if one were, say, to personally rape and slowly murder fifty thousand innocent children while enjoying the whole process, one would have, by doing so, renounced one’s rights to both life and liberty, but not one’s right to avoid waterboarding.

    Why so?

    I am perfectly content agreeing that there is a line to be drawn; I am perfectly content saying that that is where the line is drawn; but I am confused about whether it was drawn there arbitrarily and could have been placed elsewhere, or if it was drawn there according to some unalterable moral principle which, when understood, allows us to see that the line could only ever be drawn in that way.

    Does anyone want to propose a principle which explains the positioning of the line? Or is it arbitrary, after all?

  • Joe,

    I agree that there is nothing wrong with the social contract per se. My concern is with the social contract used as a metaphorical framework for moral thought and action. I’m critical of thinking of moral obligations too much in terms of a social contract, moral thought that relies too heavily on the metaphor, that at times fails to account for obligations that exist beyond its boundaries. When someone denies another a basic human right because that other is not a “signer” of the social contract, he has treated a personal moral obligation as if it were an obligation under a social contract.

  • And as others have pointed out, we have to distinguish between civil and “basic human rights.” Who decides what a basic human right is?

    For instance, I believe an illegal immigrant has a basic human right to have their immediate needs met – if they are hungry, feed them, if they are naked, clothe them, if they are sick, care for them, contract or no contract. That is the basic Christian obligation.

    But when it comes to say, access to social services such as medical care beyond the emergency level, or education, or food stamps, etc. – then the public authorities, whose charge is to maintain the common good, have every right to regulate and restrict who has access to these services on the basis of what is fiscally and socially sustainable.

    This used to be understood in Catholic social thought. Now I’m not so sure it is. Now “common good” has come to mean services and spending without limit, in the name of satisfying “basic human rights.” That is to say, more and more things are falling under the umbrella of “basic human rights”, all of which the state is obliged to tax and pay for.

    But unsustainable policies cannot benefit the common good. If society collapses under the weight of entitlements, benefits, and a greatly expanded understanding of “basic human rights”, then I would say a much greater moral harm is done a great many more people. Some may call that “consequentialism”, but I don’t think it is an intrinsic evil for states to set boundaries and limits in order to ensure basic functionality.

  • Who decides what a basic human right is?

    Spoken like a good anti-Christian nihilist!

  • I wasn’t going to allow or respond to this childish nonsense, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge:

    My intention was not to say that it is impossible to decide what a basic human right is, but that in politics, there are many competing claims that demand recognition.

    I am neither anti-Christian nor a “nihilist” (another one of the pet words). I will rephrase the question: who decides which claims to basic human rights are endorsed by the state? Why is it that many more things are considered “basic human rights” than were 100 years ago? I don’t say that there are no basic human rights, but that in the current political climate, the concept continues to expand without limit, without regard for realistic limitations, and in doing so, putting ALL human rights in jeopardy.

  • Joe, don’t let Karlson get under your skin. That’s just how he reacts when he can’t control the discussion and drop the comments that he doesn’t see as advancing his pet agenda. He becomes unhinged and resorts to desperate ad hominems. It’s his tell – like when someone who doesn’t have any good cards tries to bluff his way through a poker hand but doesn’t realize that when he does his unconscious “rub-his-nose-with-his-index-finger-and smile” routine he is telegraphing the fact that he’s got nothing to every skilled player at the table. Pity him.

  • Yeah, sorry, Joe. I didn’t see Henry’s comment while it was still sitting in moderation, or I probably would have just deleted it as the non-comment it is.

    Pity is probably the right move here.

  • Eh. Maybe I should have let you, but it’s good to clear the air. People should see what we’re dealing with too.

  • My understanding, with regard to whether a terrorist or criminal forfeits the right not to be tortured, lies in the distinction between torture and other types of violence. War is inherently violent, and if it is unjust it is a travesty, but if it is just it is permitted (notice I don’t say noble, however, though personal acts of courage that are genuinely noble certainly occur even in unjust wars). Torture is not merely violence, but violence ordered toward a particular end: getting information out of the subject. So, where punishment or defense merits “violation” of the right an aggressor forfeits, the same may not be true of merely getting information from them by force that damages the body or the mind. (That’s my definition of torture in concrete terms, also.) I would suggest that while punishment is oriented directly toward dealing with the action it punishes and defense likewise, torture is on the other hand oriented directly toward information and therefore not, in the moral order, an immediate necessity and justified response to forfeiture of rights (which is a very limited forfeiture even where it does occur, by the way; it’s almost as if the criminal forces his rights out of the picture, although I do not mean by that a necessity argument which is a nicer way of saying a utilitarian argument). I would further argue that we have historically viewed torture as wrong regardless of any contract — things such as the Geneva Convention were put together largely after and in response to the great war crimes of the twentieth century that we prosecuted anyway (waterboarding by the Axis forces in WW2, for example). Finally, I would note that the Church appears (I say appears because the Catechism has been unclear in the past, inasmuch as stating as if it were required what is still technically only pious opinion is technically unclear) to teach that torture, that violence ordered toward extraction of information rather than either punishment or direct defense, is intrinsically evil.

    Thus, while I’m not totally closed to being corrected if I’m mistaken as to any of those moral standpoints, those are the well developed points that would need to be addressed to even begin suggesting torture is permissible on those who forfeit the bulk of their rights.

    Also, if one does argue that torture is permissible on war criminals because they’ve forfeited rights, one has to demonstrate the forfeiture of rights before one can act on it — and in terms of law, that generally means convict the war criminal first and interrogate after — which entirely robs the “necessity” argument of any urgency factor, the way it takes time to convict. One could argue also that an active combatant proves his status by that action, as these are whom one may shoot in a war without any trial or other formal process; however, one may not generally shoot an enemy who is captured and deprived of ability to combat because you’ve removed them from the very situation of immediate combat that both allows and necessitates said immediate judgement, so it’d be questionable whether such a parallel would even make torture of captured foes legitimate or rather prove it illegitimate.

  • I should also note regarding my definition of torture that damage need not be permanent. Also, I’m not sure I shouldn’t include direct infliction of pain in there, but one could argue pain as passing mental damage (since it impairs one’s immediate ability to think clearly)… but it’s the direct infliction, not the result of damage, that makes the difference — not that the classical notion of the direct object of an act means anything to the vast majority even of Catholics today, who would probably fail to realize that that _is_ drawing the line between mere discomfort (which is different from pain in kind, not just degree) or poor living conditions or anything like that and actual inflicting of pain. Let’s see, anything else… Risk. I’d probably count anything that risks such things just as sure as anything that obviously does it, simply because morality doesn’t play loose with possibilities and doubts (even where it acknowledges the _subjective_ effects of doubt, which, mind, can worsen the moral content if one is guilty of allowing the doubt to stay and especially to stay in a thing one knows one will act in).

    There’s a lot of temptation these days to call definitions unclear because we can equivocate around them, as if a clear definition would be immune to equivocation — and yet actually, that’s in the definition of equivocation: when something’s not clear in the first place, there isn’t a good meaning #1 for which to misconstrue with meaning #2, now is there? So anyway… yeah, I felt the need to try to add further qualification. Not sure I succeeded.

    And of course, one can also say all this is my “armchair theologian” pontification, but then, I don’t have to be stolen from to tell you we should criminalize theft either.