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Okay, what about Catholics and the death penalty?

March 9, 2015

Dr. Steven Long beat me to it.

His rejoinder to the “Capital punishment must end” editorial of America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor is essential reading even if, in some places, Long’s essay, “Four Catholic Journals Indulge in Doctrinal Solipsism”, needs to be translated into readable English.*

Worse, though, than the four journals editorial itself—which for the most part only repackages and recycles prudential arguments against the death penalty as if they were arguments in principle—have been some of  the “pile-ons” published in its wake, with Patheos administering an especially condescending tongue-lashing to Catholics who, tsk-tsk, can’t understand that opposition to the death penalty is demanded “for the simplest of reasons” and then walks Catholic troglodyte death-penalty enthusiasts through four reasons why they are (supposedly) so utterly and embarrassingly wrong, beginning each reason with “We are Catholic”.

Like, you know, I’m not.

As a Catholic squarely in line with the Catholic tradition that, as Dr. Long accurately if turgidly sets out, supports the just administration of the death penalty for capital crimes, I have grown used to having my motives for such support reduced to: my thirst for vengeance, my disdain for mercy, my obliviousness to Christ’s salvific will, my despair about conversion, and my contempt for compassion. I apparently do not understand that the death penalty does not bring murder victims back to life (gee, whodathunkit?) but that’s not to worry, because my support for the death penalty can be excused (and then dismissed) on purely demographic grounds (I am, after all, white, male, middle-aged, and usually vote conservative, so who cares what a heartless jerk like me thinks about anything?)

But, besides venting, there are two substantive points I would like to add to this discussion, the first, concerning how some seem to read the much-vaunted language added to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty.

CCC 2267 (as revised). Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.  Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent (John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56)”.

This passage is often presented as if it were some sort of significant development of doctrine—and, precisely as a new development, recalcitrants like me need to get with the program.  But I ask, is this language essentially new?

Fr. Henry Davis, sj, (I trust he needs no introduction) wrote 70 years ago: “If therefore capital punishment is necessary for peace and the security of life and property, and if no less punishment avails, it is conceded to the State by God the source of all authority … But this power must be exercised so as not to invade individual rights … the crime punished by death must be legally deserving of the supreme penalty, and it must be established beyond doubt …” Davis, Moral and Pastoral Theology (1941) II: 151. See also Prümmer, Handbook (1957) n. 277; Jone, Moral Theology (1945) n. 214; and Häring, Law of Christ (1966) III: 123-126, to name just three others who speak of conditions on the in-itself-just execution of certain criminals.

Now, comparing Davis with the revised Catechism, two things, I suggest, stand out: (1) the Catechism restates in modern style what has always been the principled teaching of the Church (that the death penalty is morally licit under certain circumstances) and (2) the Catechism offers some prudential (and thus, by definition, debatable!) reasons not to use the death penalty (basically, modern states can afford to house murders till their natural death). In short, what’s principled in the Catechism isn’t new and what’s new in the Catechism isn’t principled.

So argue, if one will, the prudence of the death penalty—there are some very good prudential arguments against it, as Häring noted fifty years ago—but do not read the Catechism as making any principled points against the death penalty beyond those that have long been part of the Church teaching on the death penalty, that is, for the last 20 centuries during which no Catholic thinker, let alone any Magisterial pronouncement, asserted the inherent immorality of the death penalty. To the contrary, as Long points out, acknowledgment of the moral liceity of the death penalty justly administered, is the Catholic tradition.

Second, Catholic opponents of the death penalty should be aware that their (supposedly) faith-demanded opposition to the death penalty carries, right now, implications for real Catholics getting real summons to serve on real capital crime juries.

I assume that Catholic opponents of the death penalty would advise fellow Catholics in capital crime jury pools to express to the court (and jurors will be asked about this) their opposition to the death penalty. At which point, having answered Yes, they, like any other juror so answering, will likely be dismissed from the pool for cause. But, do we really want Catholic citizenswhile Catholic pundits debate the death penalty from the comfort of their officesexcluding themselves (or being subjected to dismissal by lawyers) from trials wherein a sound Catholic commitment to justice and fair-play is most needed? If not, may I suggest some moderation in the rhetoric being used by some Catholic opponents of the death penalty against Catholic support for the death penalty. Such rhetoric (besides likely being wrong-headed in itself) seems especially susceptible to the law of unintended consequences. + + +

* “That all the Doctors and Fathers of the Church–with the exception of Tertullian who died outside the faith–have taught the essential validity of capital punishment; and that it is the teaching of the Council of Trent that where all the Fathers and Doctors hold one interpretation of Scripture as the proper one, Catholics are to accept it, are two propositions that signify very little in the oppressive culture of mutationist accounts of doctrinal development.” C’mon, Doc. :)

Update (10 mar 2015): A not unreasonable reply, here, but one that still misses two central points: the death penalty is about justice (a much maligned word these days) and it is about the state’s duty to protect the common good (a much misunderstood concept these days). Moreover, it confuses the Church’s role of Magistra (binding teacher) and Mater (loving example): in a nutshell, the Catholic tradition has always allowed states to decide whether those convicted of capital crimes will, in fact, be executed (ut Mater), but she had never crossed the line into banning (ut Magistra) the sanction as a right of the state.

Update (10 mar 2015): There are several essays out there from Catholics who once supported the death penalty but who now wish to see it banned. With more or less rhetorical skill, these essays amount to narrations of how ‘the scales fell from my eyes and now I see the light’, etc.  Such essays are doubtless sincere; as arguments, however, they are not serious. Private intuition experienced as a sort of personal revelation is not binding on others (and in fact, it should not even be casually assumed by recipients). In the public forum, one either has arguments for one’s policy position, or one doesn’t. Here, one either has arguments as to why the Church has (?), can (?), should (?) change her teaching upholding the liceity of capital punishment, or one doesn’t. Everything else is either a matter of prudence (which others are free to debate) or a matter of feelings (which others are free to ignore).


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