In his classic work, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis wrote: “The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice.”
Evil is a dilemma to religious and non-religious people alike. Most modern world religions have at least some formulation of the dichotomy between good and evil. Many atheists see the presence of evil and the suffering it entails as an obstacle to theism. The point being, it is somehow part of human nature to recognize that evil is bad and that suffering is to be avoided – perhaps why the Catholic understanding of redemptive suffering is often poorly explained and even more poorly understood.
In recorded history, we find countless examples of the psychological construct known as the image of the enemy. This is the psychological tendency to characterize one’s opponent or enemy as evil (think President George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002). Though we often use this construct without even realizing it, political or military leaders may deliberately employ this tactic to rally or inspire a group of people for a cause. And it is effective. At its core, image of the enemy is a symptom of our natural disinclination toward a perceived evil. It taps into part of our human nature, and as such, can have a powerful effect on us. There is a reason that a four-letter word can cause such a reaction, and it lies at the heart of what it means to be human. It also has profound repercussions on the triumph or failure of pro-life policy initiatives.
Human persons are the only created beings capable of the distinction between good and evil. For a quick illustration, let us consider the hen and the human person. I would be right if I said that the hen views the fox in the henhouse as a threat to its well-being. However, the hen does not consider the fox an enemy in the same sense that the armored knight would view his opponent in battle. This is because human persons view good and evil on a completely separate qualitative level than other animals. This aspect of our personhood informs our moral and ethical choices on a daily basis, but it also informs that the character of larger institutions such as the state. This is not to say that the state must act with the same morality as the human person. Nevertheless, the state is comprised of persons who make moral choices, and thus the use of the terms “good” and “evil” must not be separated from the realm of politics.
The modern tendency, however, is toward the opposite. For an illustration, read President Obama’s recent statement regarding the beheading of journalist James Foley by the terrorist organization ISIS. The president enumerates ISIS’s many atrocities, including targeted killings, forced conversions, abductions, and ethnic and religious cleansing. However, not once does he use the word “evil” to characterize their actions. I am certain this was unintentional, but it is an example of our modern hesitation toward the use of terms like “good” and “evil.” To use such language would be to indicate that we judge actions by an objective standard. Unfortunately, that standard no longer exists. It has been destroyed in the name of secularism. Thus, ISIS’s behavior is not evil; it simply “has no place in the twenty-first century.” Does it have a place in any century?
I am not arguing over a mere issue of semantics. There are consequences when a society rejects its criterion of good and evil. In its brilliance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states those consequences rather succinctly:
Every institution is inspired by a vision of man and his destiny. Societies not recognizing this vision or rejecting it in the name of their independence from God are brought to seek their criteria and goal in themselves or to borrow them from some ideology. Since they do not admit that one can defend an objective criterion of good and evil, they arrogate to themselves an explicit or implicit totalitarian power over man and his destiny, as history shows. (CCC 2244)
The loss of this objective criterion of good and evil is not simply a societal problem; it is a state problem. It does not lead to democracy, but to totalitarianism. It does not lead to progress, but to decline.
What does the dilemma of good and evil have to do with pro-life policy initiatives? Everything. It changes the entire frame of the debate. It limits our discussion of abortion or euthanasia as an evil to simplistic comparisons with the Holocaust. More importantly, if actions can never be labelled as inherently evil, pro-life issues lose their significance. Policy initiatives seem rather inconsequential in the grand scheme of progress in the twenty-first century.