I write this post with my newspaper in front of me, and the terrible story of the tourists mercilessly murdered on a Tunisian beach. How could anyone, with a sound mind, justify such actions? I notice, however, that the perpetrator died – and must have known that death would be his fate. I am reminded that Blaise Pascal said that he would only believe witnesses who were prepared to have their throats cut. Could he have accepted that these people were acting in good conscience? But it’s an old question: Benedict XVI, while he was still a cardinal, asked himself a similar question about the Nazis active in the persecution of the Jews.
You may be surprised that he accepted that, at the time they acted, they may have genuinely believed that they were doing the right thing in ridding the state of its internal enemies. Their error had started in their failure to come to terms with the deeper levels of their consciences which would revealed to them, as it can reveal to all of us, the good which we must do and the evil which we must avoid. Nevertheless, as Aquinas emphasised, even the faulty conscience binds. (I dealt with this issue at length some time ago. Put Holding out for a Hero into the search box above.)
We might imagine a jihadist’s train of thought. We may suppose that he is a young, but perhaps well educated, person. He believes that the world, particularly Western society, is continually trying to persecute Muslims. And he has good historical evidence that this is so. He is quite certain that the message of God to Mohammed expressed an imperative that Islam should spread and develop this new revelation to the world. Part of that message clearly states that Muslims are entitled to defend themselves, even in extreme ways, against the non-believers who seek to destroy Islam. Thus he concludes that God’s will trumps other, human, values – so that, if killing representatives of Western society promotes Islam, it is not only justified but perhaps a divine imperative. And indeed, in losing his temporary human life, he gains eternity as his reward. ‘Greater love hath no man…’
You might want to argue every item of the jihadist’ss analysis. But you may agree that, even in matters of much lesser moment, we too may come to faulty conclusions and so do wrong when we sincerely believe that we are doing good. All of us are old enough to remember a traditional form of Catholic moral education which required us to be guided in moral matters by the Church – whether or not our reason supported the ruling. And many of us would still argue that, once we reject the rule of law, ultimately anything goes. There’s good evidence of this, too. Perhaps the trend really started with questions on contraception. But it has moved on to sex outside marriage, active homosexuality, abortion in hard cases, in vitro conception, assisted dying, and the rest. The Church’s rules remain but there appears to be an increasing proportion of Catholics who either question some of these issues, or actively disagree with so-called orthodoxy.
So there are a number of issues here. While we believe in the evil of the jihadist’s actions, do we have to condemn the individual jihadist as evil? Has the Church’s historical moral teaching, expressed either in word or in policy, ever led to evil? Is morality a matter of obedience or a matter of personal decision in which the Church rules should be considered a guide rather than the last word? Do we think that the highlighting of the responsibility of conscience in Vatican II has brought more good than evil, or more evil than good?
If you’re going to solve all those, you’ll have a busy week!