Callused Consciences

A callus, the dictionary informs us, is “a thickened and hardened part of the skin or soft tissue, especially in an area that has been subjected to friction.” There we have a description of our contemporary moral condition. We have been subjected for so long to the “friction” of so much moral mayhem that we have been stupefied by it.

A few years ago, I gave a homily about abortion. After Mass, the visiting priest chastised me, “Jim, you seemed downright angry during that homily. You can’t preach if you’re angry!” I was compelled to disagree, “Father, we’ve had many millions of abortions in our country. Isn’t that something to be righteously angry about?” (See Eph 4:26.)

We are no longer righteously angry at the evil swirling about us. One is reminded of Bishop Fulton Sheen’s admonition: “A mind that is never stern or indignant is either without love, or else is dead to the distinction between right and wrong.”

Why should we be indignant when society permits, indeed applauds, the killing of babies inside and, even after birth, outside the womb; the growing acceptance of legalized “mercy killing”; the presence of a homosexual lifestyle that is cheered even on Catholic campuses; the accompanying desecration of marriage; and the ubiquitous use of contraception – despite Pope Paul’s dark prophecies (Cf. Humanae Vitae, #17), which were altogether tragically fulfilled this last half century?

Transgendered people; work in progress toward blending humans with animals, machines, or plants; three-parent embryos; development of servant-class apes; cloning and cryogenics – we live in a veritable playground for Dr. Frankenstein. Small wonder that Father Schall has written: “Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenic and psychic ‘enhancement,’ for wholesale redesign.”

The Prophet Isaiah by Raphael, 1512 [Basilica of Sant’Agostino, Rome]

There’s a new Grand Inquisitor, but he has a scalpel in his hand, and he looks just like Kermit Gosnell. We grow ever closer to our own Island of Dr. Moreau, where chimeras and cyborgs beckon. The New Tower of Babel is a research hospital. Coming soon: human bodies without brains, our own human body-parts stores. The supposed fruits of genetic manipulation are the new Holy Grail.

Leon Kass, writing in 1997, already saw: “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.” A case in point: After his death in 2002, the great Red Sox hitter and Marine Corps veteran Ted Williams had his head removed and frozen. What happened to it after that is disputed. But the whole matter is so ghoulish, so grotesque, so gruesome, that we should . . . shudder.

During the Vietnam War, American infantrymen, confronted with the horror of war, developed a kind of mantra, which they repeated as a defense mechanism when buddies were killed or maimed: “It don’t mean nuthin’.”

Have we become so ethically anesthetized that we mentally push away the thought of “pigified” human beings, or designer children, or traffic in embryonic body parts, or mass-produced brainless people saying, “It don’t mean nuthin’”?

Is there a role in ethics, and in public policy, for disgust, for emotional outrage, for the urge to vomit?

“America won’t reject abortion until America sees abortion,” says Father Frank Pavone. But we turn from the horrifying images, knowing that, if there is anything left of the human in us, we will be rightly revolted by what abortion does to children, and to us. We refuse, in short, to be disgusted by the monstrous evil we call “legal.”

An ethical system cannot reasonably be founded or sustained on the basis of someone’s nauseated reaction to an idea or occurrence. Disgust is emotion, not rational analysis (cf. CCC #1768). Still, what are we to think of any human being who remains impassive in the face of the evil of abortion and of many loathsome bioethical procedures?

We have been desensitized to such an extent that one may fairly predict the imminent arrival of the day that we merely yawn upon learning that pedophilia has become socially acceptable, in much the same way that sodomy has. Certainly, it will not be long until three-person marriages will be legal. Zager and Evans’s 1969 hit song In the Year 2525 speak loudly: “You won’t need no husband, won’t need no wife/You’ll pick your son, pick your daughter too/From the bottom of a long glass tube.”

The disgusting or detestable practices which Sacred Scripture warns about (e,g., Dt 18:9, 2 Kgs 21:2, 2 Chron 33:2) principally concern worship of man in place of God. We see the corollary to that today, for, as Solzhenitsyn said, “Men have forgotten God.” There may be an academic debate about whether Dostoevsky actually said, “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted,” but the truth of that saying is beyond dispute. The last command of the last apostle is crucial – “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” (1 John 5:20-21)

We are desensitized, ethically anesthetized, because what is evil we call good, and what is good we call evil. (Is 5:20) We have lied to ourselves for so long about where we come from, where we are going, and what we ought to do and what we ought to refuse to do, that we are marinated in the idolatry of self-delusion. Our consciences are callused: our “heart has grown dull, and [our] ears are hard of hearing, and [we] have shut [our] eyes.” (Acts 28:27, Is 6:9-10)

James H. Toner

James H. Toner

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary.

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