Sunday, July 18, 2010

Genocide: A Catholic Dilemma

I composed the following argument about a dozen years ago in response to the claim of a certain priest of my acquaintance, a philosopher whose analytical mind I had expected to make hash of my question, that he was going to deal with it in print, some day, somewhere.  To my knowledge he never made good on that informal promissory note.  I posted it on my site during 2004, its inaugural year. Perhaps a different forum will improve its chances of being paid the courtesy of a refutation.  If anyone reading this would like a crack at solving this specific problem, or can cite someone else's having done so, I invite him or her to post a comment.

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1. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 105, states that God is the author of Sacred Scripture and that the Church “accepts as sacred and canonical the books of the Old and the New Testaments, whole and entire, with all their parts” because they were “written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

2. Paragraph 106 states that God inspired the human authors of the sacred books and that “they consigned to writing whatever he [God] wanted written, and no more.”

3. Paragraph 107 states the inspired books teach the truth, and that “without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wish to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”

4. Paragraph 120 lists the Old Testament Book of Joshua among the sacred books.

5. Paragraph 121 states that the books of the Old Testament are divinely inspired and retain a permanent value.

6. Paragraph 311 states that “God is in no way, directly or indirectly, the cause of moral evil.”

7. Paragraph 2313 states that in war, non-combatants “must be respected and treated humanely” and that genocide is a grave moral evil: “the extermination of a people, nation, or ethnic minority must be condemned as a mortal sin. One is morally bound to resist orders that command genocide.”

8. The eleventh chapter of the Book of Joshua states that God commanded Moses to cause the genocide of various non-Israelite peoples.

In summary, the Catholic Church teaches that the Book of Joshua is divinely inspired, contains all and only what the human author of Joshua was inspired to write, and teaches truth for the sake of our salvation.

Presumably, then, even if a book of the Old Testament was in error about, say, the number of people killed in a given battle, it could not be in error where it speaks about God’s relationship to man: on this matter we can count on an Old Testament book to tell us only the truth.

But in Joshua 11, God specifically relates to man by telling one group of men to annihilate other groups, including their noncombatant women and children.

Did God give a command that “one is morally bound to resist”? Since the command was carried out, does not that make God at least an indirect cause of a moral evil? Can a coherent negative answer be given without giving up one or more of propositions 1-8?


  1. Mr. Flood- Have you ever received much of a response to this??? I read it some time ago at your website and was quite intrigued. Maybe this is what Martin Luther was referring to when he said it's obvious that Popes and Councils have contradicted themselves!!!

    herbert vanderlugt

  2. How slippery is this?:

    Point #7 refers to "a people, nation, or ethnic minority"

    -What if the people of Jericho did not represent "a people?" But were, instead, as you said "various non-Israelite peoples" as opposed to a complete set/category of people...

    -What if they can't be rightly identified as an (autonomous) nation?

    -And lastly, as a group of "various non-Israelite peoples" would they represent an "ethnic minority?" Maybe not.

    Honestly, I don't think I like these accounts- Ai, Jericho, etc.- any more than Marcion did (or Richard Dawkins for that matter!!!)... Oh, the appeal of process philosophy!!!

  3. Ok, last one... Maybe it's all quite simple. Maybe due to the nature of the conflict and the particular terms of engagement that developed between the Israelites and the people of Jericho, all the people of Jericho are understood to have somehow willfully given up their non-combatant status. Sure, the small children and the senile aren't accounted for... But could their numbers really constitute a "people" an "ethic minority" or a particular "nation"?

    Just as Judas and Pharoah each played the role of a "guilty victim," so might the Innocents of Jericho come to be understood. That is to say, their role may be acknowledged, but never truly understood.

  4. Herb, thanks for your comments, and sorry for my tardiness in responding.

    Children cannot "give up" their non-combatant status. At least no Catholic theology worthy of the name can countenance such a forfeiture.

    Your "what if's" and "might's" strike me as idle, and I mean no disrepect to you in so characterizing them.

    Such conjectures seem to offer ways out, but I cannot imagine a representative of the Magisterium subscribing to any of them. What is desired is for a Magisterium-defending apologist to argue forthrightly that the predicament I outlined is only apparent.

  5. I THINK I understand what you're saying. And I fear that the predicament you outlined does indeed hold water. I'm just grasping at straws to come up with some sort of explanation that could possibly provide an out... but I'm not a trained philosopher.

    To me, this dilemma cuts to the heart of what it means to be Catholic. Every Catholic should, remaining true to the title he claims for himself, be a "Magisterium-defending" Catholic. If he's a Catholic who stands in open defiance to the Magisterium, he's anything but a Catholic "in good standing," if he's Catholic at all.

    So those who call themselves Catholic, accepting "with docility" the pronouncements of the Magisterium, encounter a real challenge here: How does one remain faithful to the Magisterium when his reason (the very thing that led him to Catholicism) has led him to disagree with some rather fundamental teachings of the faith?

    David Ray Griffin's theodicy, for example, seems far more coherent than does the traditional theodicy of Catholicism, which is bound to creatio ex nihilo, thus implicating God to SOME degree, in the evils intrinsic to nature (as you've so lucidly explained in some of the essays found at your website).

    thanks for the interaction...