Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Capital Punishment and the Catholic Mindset

As a regular National Review reader, I've formed a general rule of thumb that has yet to be proved wrong: Don't disagree with Ramesh unless you want to be run circles around. The other NR authors disobey this rule at their peril. He's simply the smartest one there, by a pretty good margin.

Now, as I read Scott Carson's piece on the ethic of life and Michael Liccione's piece on which it was based, I wondered if I was myself falling afoul into the Catholic blogsphere equivalent of the Ramesh Principle. Certainly, I have the greatest respect for Scott and Michael and Catholic writers, and I've seldom disagreed with them, but here it goes.

The question both worthies address is that of (to use the hated phrase) the "seamless garment of life". Michael quotes John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae saying that capital punishment may seldom if at all be called for in modern societies and says:
Now as a merely empirical judgment, that statement does not call for the assent of faith, only for religiousum obsequium. So I wouldn't call somebody a bad Catholic just for disagreeing with it. But why do so many right-wing Catholics treat it with such scorn? It seems to me pretty obviously true even if failure to accept it is compatible with Catholic orthodoxy. So whence comes the emotional energy of dissenters? I don't find their attitude on this point any more "pro-life" than the attitude of the Left about legal abortion.
Now, on the matter of scorn, I think he's dead right. John Paul II was no light weight thinker, and discarding him with a few scornful words about lack of realism and bleeding hearts (as I have heard done from time to time) shows a want of clear thinking and respect due to his office.

As Scott points out:
The only such judgment that I could find, when I was a supporter of capital punishment, was the argument from justice: if a capital criminal is to be executed, it can only be because it is what is due him as a matter of justice. There are actually two principles at work here. The first is the assumption that the physical death of a human being is not the same thing as the spiritual death of a human being--an argument that is not all that bad even if it is stolen from that old pagan Plato. The other is the equally Greek notion that it is wrong not to give someone something that he needs and/or deserves.
Now, I agree with Scott that that argument from justice is one of the strong arguments for capital punishment -- one which is certainly made from time to time in the Old Testament laws. However, I think that one could also argue that capital punishment is in keeping with Plato's idea that all true justice is rehabilitative, in that (believing as we do in the immortal soul) the application of capital punishment could well help the soul of the condemned.

From the Catholic perspective, I think the question of capital punishment is troubling, and is probably meant to be. From scripture we have contradictory messages. On the one hand, in the first case of murder, God spares Cain and specifically warns all others against taking retribution against him. And yet, God clearly prescribes capital punishment for a number of offenses in the Old Testament law.

And at the very center of the Christian mystery, we find capital punishment yet again. Yet what are we to make of the crucifixion in the debate over capital punishment? It is, on the one hand, the greatest sin humanity has ever committed, indeed every sin humanity has ever committed, visited upon He who never sinned. On the other hand, we see played out the same moral calculus that leads us to capital punishment: that some sins are so great that they cry out to heaven for justice. On the one hand, putting Christ to death was clearly wrong -- as He in no sense deserved it. And yet, it was necessary that someone accept the punishment for all of man's sin. Nor did Christ redeem us by serving 25 years to life. He did it by accepting the ultimate penalty, the penalty that, through sin, humanity collectively deserves.

While I in no sense think that the contradictions of the capital punishment question were lost of the holy father, I sometimes wonder if they are lost upon some of the more enthusiastic opponents of capital punishment -- a brush with which I'm not setting out to tar Scott and Michael. The question of capital punishment taps into the fundamental balance between justice and mercy. The blood of a murder cries out from the ground for justice, and yet God has told us that not only does he call us to justice, but also to mercy -- that even the most repulsive sinner is still dear to God. And yet, however much God loves each sinner, at the same time we know that God condemns those who are finally unrepentant to eternal damnation. He is not the weak parent who constantly threatens punishments but invariable relents. The same father who welcomes back the prodigal son also casts out the improperly dressed wedding guest to wail and gnash his teeth in the outer darkness.

I am a supporter of capital punishment, though I have not particular problem with banning it in the US, since we currently implement it so infrequently (and thus inconsistently) that I think it loses both its instructive and its reformative force. But I am a supporter to the extent that I believe society would be stronger and more virtuous if it both enforced and understood capital punishment consistently and correctly. I do think, however, Scott is right in saying that people almost invariably look at capital punishment as retributive. Perhaps that's the only way that most people can understand it. And if so, perhaps it is to be avoided. If Christians are to enforce capital punishment, it must be with emphasis, not irony, on the phrase "may God have mercy on your soul". The tragedy from the Catholic point of view is not that a murderer should die, but that he should die unrepentant.


Anonymous said...

"The tragedy from the Catholic point of view is not that a murderer should die, but that he should die unrepentant."

This has always seemed to me to be the strongest argument against capital punishment -- the murderer cannot repent after he's been executed.

Rick Lugari said...

I don’t have a problem at all with the capital punishment debate, which is probably why I remain undecided on it. ;)

I’ll explain…wait...where’s my soapbox? Oh, there it is...


The only legitimate reason one can argue for capital punishment anymore is for the protection of society. Pope John Paul II essentially said that once a society can protect itself without resorting to capital punishment, then it should cease resorting to it. It makes perfect sense – it squares with respect for life, justice, and (in spite of what some rabid supporters of CP might say) traditional Catholic teaching. I agree with it wholeheartedly.

Where I remain undecided is, have we really reached that point where we can protect society without it? I just don’t know. It seems our dysfunctional justice system can’t guarantee that any given capital-convict won’t be released on a helpless society, and we don’t even seen to be able to protect other inmates from some of these killers.

Where’s the justice in sending a crackhead or car thief to prison only to have him murdered by someone who wiped out an entire family over a video game? Personally, I just don’t know what weight to put either way so I don’t bother with it. We have 1,300,000 innocent little babies murdered in this country every year; I’d rather focus on that.

As far as certain people scoffing current teaching on the subject, I think there are two primary reasons. One, capital punishment is a darling cause of liberals. As you know, they tend to view it as an intrinsic evil, which it is not. They don’t seem to care about abortion, stem cell research, contraception or any other life matters, yet they really cling to the capital punishment cause.

Second, to some extent, the notion of tangible justice and/or vengeance plays into our thoughts and tends to obscure things to some extent.

Rick Lugari said...

Note to self: Follow the links before you post a comment.

Mike Liccione's post is awesome and if I could make his last paragraph my own, I would. I've attempted to make the same points and reflect the same sentiment numerous times, but his was extremely eloquent.

Mike L said...

Thanks, gents.

Darwin, I don't think we're really disagreeing qua Catholics. I agree with you that we mustn't fall into the "seamless-garment" trap of lumping revisable prudential judgments together with irreformable moral norms; but I also agree with Scott that the human motivation for the death penalty is usually something to be discouraged. There's a certain scope for flexibility here that I see lacking on both the hard left and the hard right.