Thursday, March 22, 2007

Reply to Two Lutheran Pastors on Fundamental Misconceptions Regarding the Catholic Position on the Death Penalty

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Lutheran pastor Paul T. McCain wrote in his post Papal Bull-oney:
The Vatican needs to spend more time dealing with homosexuals and child abusers in it clergy ranks, and the lousy theology that infests most of its institutions of higher learning in this country, than pontificating on how to deal with mass-murderers and tyrants.
And in comments below it (responding to a fellow Lutheran who thought he was being a bit too harsh:
The Vatican has long experience appeasing kings, emperors, dictators and what-not. Perhaps you are falling into the trap of naievete?
The Vatican's position is contrary to Sacred Scripture which makes it abundantly clear that the state has been given the power from God to wield the sword and execute criminals. That's the issue here. There is a long history of the Vatican doing things that directly contradict Holy Scripture.
He cites fellow Lutheran pastor William Weedon in agreement. The latter stated:
I just read a piece where the Vatican has denounced the execution of Saddam Hussein. The argument was simply that it was punishing one crime by committing another.

. . . To the government God has given the sword, and its task with that sword is to punish evil doers. That is not by any stretch of the imagination to suggest that the government has never abused the sword entrusted to it. It has indeed, time and again. And when it does, the Church is perfectly right to call the government to repentance. But what the Church can never do is insist that the government govern by the sword of the Spirit entrusted to HER.
In comments below his post, he adds:
I'm quite sure of the government's right to exercise capital punishment; the Sacred Scriptures are utterly clear on the point. Nevertheless, I am not sure of how wisely the government always exercises that right.
But of course the Catholic Church has not denied that the state has such a right and jurisdiction. It simply holds that the exercise of the death penalty is required in only very few extraordinary circumstances. In other words, the emphasis is greatly on Pastor Weedon's point in his second sentence immediately above. The Church has not taught that capital punishment is intrinsically evil.

Pastor McCain continues in his combox thread:
Neither Pr. Weedon or I are insisting that every government must exercise its right to execute criminals. What we are both saying is that it is the teaching of God's Word that governments have the authority to wield the sword to execute justice. To declare otherwise is to violate Holy Scripture and as Lutherans, it is also a violation of our Confessions to which we are bound because we confess them to teach what Scripture teaches.
Since the Catholic Church has not denied such authority, it is a moot and irrelevant point.
. . . for Lutherans what is "out of bounds" according to the Biblical doctrine we confess in the Book of Concord is any suggestion that the state is not given the authority to wield the sword to execute criminals.
Yes, and for Catholics. The only difference is a quantitative one and a disagreement as to how necessary it is to use the death penalty, or how often. To imply that the Catholic Church has denied any such right by states at all is beyond silly. We haven't condemned all war altogether or use of a police force, etc. The Catholic Church has not asserted pacifism.
The death penalty is not sinful and a person can in good conscience enforce it and use it.
I personally believe that justice requires it in certain circumstances.
So do I, and I am as orthodox and as loyal-to-the-pope a Catholic as one could find. I think Saddam Hussein's execution was one such well-deserved and just instance. I am allowed to believe this as a Catholic.
That's why we were both less than impressed with the Vatican's comments, since they directly conflict with the teaching of Holy Scripture.
Let's see if this is the case. What Rev. McCain links to, and what he is responding to is the following:
"An execution is always tragic news, reason for sadness, even in the case of a person who is guilty of grave crimes," the Holy See's spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, said in a statement released by the Vatican press office.

Earlier in the morning, Lombardi made similar comments on Vatican Radio.

"The position of the Catholic Church — against the death penalty — has been reiterated many times," the spokesman said in the statement, referring to the Vatican's overall opposition to capital punishment.

"Killing the guilty one is not the way to rebuild justice and reconcile society," the spokesman said. "On the contrary, there is the risk that the spirit of revenge is fueled and that the seeds of new violence are sown."

(Vatican Denounces Saddam's Execution as 'Tragic', 12-30-06)
Now, is this statement saying that no state has the power of the sword, or that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, or that it can never be done in any circumstance (all of which would indeed be quite contrary to Holy Scripture)? No.

What was stated was that it was "tragic" and a "reason for sadness" which should be true of any execution. It is not an occasion for joy. We should pray for such a person's soul. Capital punishment is viewed from the larger perspective of an overall culture of life, and from the possible reactions to such instances: "the risk that the spirit of revenge is fueled and that the seeds of new violence are sown." I don't see how this is at all contrary to Scripture (unless one cynically reads into it what is not there in black and white). The article goes on:
The Vatican's top official for dialogue between religions, Cardinal Paul Poupard, said: "We pray to the Lord and for the dead and the living so that this will not become an occasion for new violence."

"We are always sad when men take lives which belong to the Lord," Poupard told the Italian news agency ANSA.
The same analysis applies to this. How are any of these thoughts inherently "anti-biblical"? More objectionable, however, is the next citation:
In an interview published in an Italian daily earlier in the week, the Vatican's top prelate for justice issues, Cardinal Renato Martino, said executing Saddam would mean punishing "a crime with another crime."
I think this goes too far myself, and uses inappropriate, objectionable language. But what this Cardinal stated is not official Church teaching: that somehow this (let alone every) instance of capital punishment is a "crime"; i.e., evil in and of itself (though arguably the term doesn't necessarily mean that).

In any event, a man's thoughts deserve to be accorded the respect of being interpreted within his overall thought. Cardinal Martino's is easily sought out in an Internet search. For example, the article: Death Penalty is Cruel and Unnecessary. What can we find here as to Cardinal Martino's position on the question of the "intrinsic evil" of the death penalty or the inherent right of states to use it? Quite a bit:
Actually, capital punishment falls within the boundaries of legitimate defence.

. . .
Church teaching on capital punishment

There are many misconceptions regarding the position of the Catholic Church on the issue of capital punishment. Many state — and accurately — that the Church has never absolutely banned the death penalty.

. . . Developments in Church teaching

Evangelium vitae affirms the Catechism's teaching, but takes it even further by enumerating conditions under which it would be morally acceptable. Given the development of most penal systems in our day, the Holy Father states that the nature and extent of punishment "ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society" (n. 58). Then, he adds: "Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are rare, if not practically non-existent" (ibid).

While affirming the principle set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the use of bloodless means, Evangelium vitae, released only three years after the Catechism, would necessitate an adjustment of the Catechism's language on this subject. Thus, on 9 September 1997, among the adjustments announced, one of the most significant concerned new language regarding the death penalty, specifying that Catholic tradition has allowed for use of the death penalty only when the identity and responsibility of the condemned is certain and capital punishment is the only way to protect the lives of others.

In keeping with Evangelium vitae, the new edition, while not excluding capital punishment absolutely, limits its application to the following conditions: only in cases where the ultimate penalty of death is justified in order to secure the common good (but such cases today are very rare, if not practically non-existent); there must be a full determination of the guilty party's responsibility and identity; the death penalty must be the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor; if non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means. There is an important change in this latter condition: the original text which read "public authority should limit itself (to bloodless means)" was changed to "will limit itself to such means".

Nowhere in these comments is it asserted that the death penalty is intrinsically evil or that the state can never exercise it. Quite the contrary. Therefore, Pastors McCain and Weedon have misrepresented Catholic teaching in their polemical thrust of trying to show the great superiority of the Lutheran "two kingdoms" concept: which itself has huge difficulties (problems never more clearly seen than in the political philosophy of the Nazis and the passive, docile reaction of the German populace to it, precisely because -- it could plausibly be argued -- they were told that religion and state were entirely separate entities altogether).

The Lutheran two kingdoms notion is itself hopelessly confused and inadequate. Pastor Weedon writes:

The papacy across the years has had a fatal tendency to confuse the two - and there was certainly a time when the Bishop of Rome claimed that both swords and kingdoms were his by virtue of being Christ's vicar upon earth. The Lutheran Church's clarity on this perennial and vexing question needs to be heeded more.
Why, then, did Martin Luther and his right-hand man and successor Philip Melanchthon adopt a "State Church" model of ecclesiology right from the beginning: appealing to the Lutheran princes to preside over their churches rather than the Catholic bishops? This led to all sorts of silly and foolish political-religious situations such as any "region's" religious affinities (hence the people within the region) being determined by what the ruler believed:
    In 1556 the Pfalsgraf, Otto Heinrich, declared the doctrine of Luther to be the exclusive religion of the land. But his successor, Frederick III, only three years later, established Calvinism as the State religion. His son, Ludwig, however, in 1576 brought Lutheranism in again, and banished from the country all Calvinist ministers, teachers and officials. In 1583 the pendulum swung back once more, and Ludwig's brother Johann re-established Calvinism. Thus the unhappy people, in the space of less than forty years, were compelled to change their religious faith four times, to say nothing of the original change from Catholicism to Protestantism!

    (John Stoddard, Rebuilding a Lost Faith, New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1922, 98)

If that is not mixing church and state, what is? Luther and Melanchthon also played a lot of verbal games and mental gymnastics in determining, e.g., that the Anabaptists were "seditious" (thereby allowing the civil government to execute them on secular grounds). Let's look at a few of their statements (and those of historians) along these lines:
"Were it not for the princes and lords," says Luther, "we could not stand much longer. Let us then pray for our Elector, that he may be able to preserve the Church."

(Martin Luther, cited in Johannes Janssen, History of the German People From the Close of the Middle Ages, 16 volumes, translated by A.M. Christie, St. Louis: B. Herder, 1910 [orig. 1891], Vol. V, 286; citing Werke, Halle edition, 1753, J.G. Walch, editor, Vol. I, 2444)

In Lutheran Europe civil courts became the only courts, secular power the only legal power. Secular rulers appointed Church personnel, appropriated Church property . . . The Church became subject to the state. The Lutheran movement, which thought to submit all life to theology, unwittingly, unwillingly, advanced that pervasive secularization which is a basic theme of modern life.

(Will Durant, The Reformation, [volume 6 of 10-volume The Story of Civilization, 1967], New York: Simon & Schuster, 1957, 377)

Luther . . . despised the common people . . . Luther had to transfer to the state most of the authority that had been held by the Church; therefore he defended the divine right of kings.
      The hand that wields the secular sword is not a human hand but the hand of God. It is God, not man, who hangs, and breaks on the wheel, and decapitates, and flogs; it is God who wages war.

    In this exaltation of the state . . . lay the seeds of the absolutist philosophies of Hobbes and Hegel, and a premonition of Imperial Germany.

    (Durant, ibid., 448; citing Weimar Ausgabe edition of Luther's Works [Werke] in German, 1883, Vol. XIX, 626)

Melanchthon had afterwards abundant reason to regret his appeal to secular power . . . Hence his exclamation: "If only I could revive the jurisdiction of the bishops! For I see what sort of Church we shall have if the ecclesiastical constitution is destroyed."

(Hartmann Grisar, Luther, translated by E.M. Lamond, edited by Luigi Cappadelta, 6 volumes, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1917, Vol.VI, 270; citing Bretschneider, editor, Corpus Reformation, Halle, 1846, Vol. II, 234; letter to Camerarius)

Here, as elsewhere, Lutherans have no grounds to be condescending of serious Catholic attempts to harmonize the realms of the civil government and the Christian kingdom of God, and to promote a larger culture of life. And they have a responsibility to better understand it before setting out to blast it on their blogs with pictures of baloney, etc. They might be better served by concentrating their vigorous condemnations on things like the ELCA's official pro-abortion position, rather than distorting crucial, fundamental details with regard to the Catholic Church's attempt to promote a culture of life by making the death penalty as rare an event as possible.


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