Thursday, March 11, 2010

On Dueling, Divorce, and Red Indians by Fr. Hugh Barbour

The Church’s proscription of the duel is very ancient, going back to the First Lateran Council (1170) and continuing all the way to the letter Pastoralis officii of Leo XIII (1891). In 1917 it was included in the first Code of Canon Law (although it is nowhere to be found in the present code of 1982, in which all the penalties for dueling have been abrogated). The duelists, their seconds, spectators, advisors, attending physicians, and clergy were all struck with excommunication reserved to the Holy See. The duelists were to suffer infamia iuris, legal disgrace causing the loss of privileges (such as being a godfather or best man) and, before the 19th century, the confiscation of goods and the denial of Church burial.

The morality of the duel is evaluated in tradition by two principles. The first is moderamen inculpatae tutelae, or the standard of guiltless self-defense, meaning that one is justified in using lethal means to defend one’s life against an unjust aggressor. But the duel, which takes place ex convicto (by agreement) does not satisfy this criterion because, at the time the lethal force is to be taken, the “aggressor’s” action has been agreed upon by the offended party, and so he is not then and there an actual aggressor. The second is that of the media apta, or apt means for repairing an injustice. The loss of honor or reputation, which is ordinarily the reason for a duel, cannot be repaired by lethal combat, but must be repaired by other legal means. The outcome of the combat itself cannot determine the injustice of the offense. Consequently, the duel is both an unjust exposure of one’s own life and an intentional homicide of one who is not, at the point of the duel, a true, unjust aggressor but, rather, an accomplice in a crime. Very different would be the case of one who is set upon by an opponent who says, “Take this saber or pistol and defend yourself like a man, for I am going to kill you now.” In this scenario, a man would be justified in taking the offered weapon and defending himself.

In his letter, Archbishop Alemany writes,

Let us be permitted unhesitatingly to denounce the deadly contest, by which men laying claim to Christianity and refined manners, but acting as the red men of the forest, whose mental eye has never yet seen the least glimpse of civilization, divest themselves of all sense of duties which they owe to kindred or to society, and sacrifice, perhaps forever[,] the honor and welfare of parents, wife, or children . . . Deaf to every friendly advice, and thirsting after human blood, they go like beasts into the field to decide by brute force or impious chance who is right and who is wrong. We pity the poor Indians whose want of mental culture leads them to determine right from wrong with the bow and arrow. But what can exculpate the man who boasts of his civilization and intellectual refinement, yet who has not the strength of mind to discern that powder is not the standard of right!

In place of the traditional argument is an argument from urbanity. Here we are confronted with an instructive example of what becomes progressively more common as a justification for Christian morality: the superior culture of modern men versus that of the savage, an argument from moral progress instead of a rational judgment of the injustice endured and the legitimate means to overcome it. This is a rhetorical argument—not a presentation of the principles of natural law, but an appeal to human respect.

Family feeling, far from being violated by the duel, is precisely what justifies the duel in a man’s mind in the first place—a sense of identity and manly dignity that must be defended as a possession more valuable than life, just as a woman may kill a man seeking to violate her, even though such a violation would not take her life. Its malice is not a primitive sense of honor but the illegitimate exposure of one’s life and that of another as a means to repair a wrong that cannot be repaired by force. William Gwin’s 1853 duel provides a perfect example of this. The senator from California faced U.S. Rep. J.W. McCorkle with rifles at 30 paces, wheeling at word and firing, which, in the signed account of the witness, “the two gentlemen did three times without harming each other, when the affair was brought to termination by the friends of the parties, having discovered that their principals were fighting under a misapprehension of the facts.” McCorkle apologized to Gwin, and that was it. In the meantime, the matter was relayed to Gwin’s wife. After the first shot she said, “Let us thank God”; after the second, “Praise be”; after the third and the news of the apology, she expressed her disappointment in her spouse and his opponent: “There’s been some mighty poor shooting today!” Family feeling might have something to do with the motive of the duelist.

All along, though, the Holy See continued to show that one may recognize the sounder instincts that were used as a pretext for an immoral practice. In answering dubia proposed by the bishops of Central Europe as late as 1947, the Holy See pronounced on the question of going before a “tribunal of honor” to determine whether an offense equal to a duel had occurred. Would doing so incur the penalties of canon law against dueling? The answer, wisely, was no, as long as the parties did not intend to proceed to a duel but were only determining the cause of the contest to be resolved by other, morally legitimate means. Even the greatest of practical moralists, St. Alphonsus Liguori, did not regard certain extenuating reasons for dueling as morally improbable—for example, a loss of honor before one’s military peers sufficient to ruin one’s livelihood—until Pope Benedict XIV forbade any dueling under any circumstances whatsoever. A sense of honor based on a man’s name, or title, or profession, or even his physical strength has a very sound natural foundation, and this foundation ultimately is based on his family, present or future. This is something that civilized Christians may have in common with savages, and without which they may become inferior to them.

A personalist, rhetorical defense of traditional morality can lead to the destruction of the most basic moral sense in modern people, who are so easily prey to ethical deracination. A key example would be the understanding of marriage and marital relations as a remedy for concupiscence. Teach young men and women in our coeducational age that only the highest spiritual motives can adequately account for married love, and you will have them refusing simply on account of their feelings the legitimate advances of their spouses. The “marriage debt” can be much, much more, but it remains a debt and a duty without which men can be emasculated, not even able serenely to request a most basic right of marriage, and women can be doomed to perpetual suspicion of not being truly loved at all, because they are not loved perfectly here and now. And so there is the vicious cycle in which the progressive moral account ends up rendering impossible the very love it so exalts. That this approach and a mentality that is very open to divorce are aligned is clear. So yes, a civilized Christian husband and a savage red man have a basic human value in common, and of this he must not be ashamed, but only of sin and infidelity.

In a society in which every standard is viewed as subject to a notion of progress that is, at root, technological and material, it can be dangerous to characterize fundamental human impulses as primitive or barbarous. Even if they are impulses corrupted by fallen nature, by concupiscence and pride, they remain rooted in our nature and are meant for the good. Drawing traditional moral conclusions from arguments based on social progress can utterly undermine and obscure the moral truths that those traditional conclusions imply. Dueling is wrong, but not because an Indian brave might do the same thing and for the same reasons, and not because it is violent, but because the power to coerce is a property of law, and if there is no implicit threat of force, either moral or physical, then there can be no law. At its most grave, this can be seen in John Paul II’s affirmation that the threat of an eternal Hell is a necessary guarantee of a fixed standard of morality.


I have read people, especially women, who defend Christopher West and the Theology of the Body make this allegation: "The husband just wants sex, he doesn't care about his wife," or "He treats her like a sex object." Are there objective circumstances which make his desire for sex inordinate and wrong? Or is it only because his wife isn't "in the mood"?

Fr. Barbour talks about honor in his post -- I was thinking about this today -- honor has played an important role in the initial moral formation of men of the past, and it is linked to his word and to justice. Can something similar be said of women? Their honor has been linked to the virtue of chastity more than any other virtue, as far as I know. Is this difference merely because of social custom? Or is it founded upon the initial and innate differences between men and women in how they think and how they perceive themselves, and in their concept of the moral life?

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