Friday, October 14, 2011

Capital Punishment: Catholic Teaching and My Own Applied Interpretation of Same

 Peter Singer speaking at a Veritas Forum event on MIT's campus on Saturday, March 14, 2009. Photo by Joel Travis Sage.

[somewhat of a reply to Professor of Bioethics Peter Singer's article, For the death penalty yet pro-life? Really?]


I agree (apart from rare exceptions) with the general papal opinion now, that the death penalty should not be carried out, for the sake of providing a witness to the sanctity of human life.

It's not an absolute, though. The Church recognizes that states have the power of the sword (Romans 13:1-7; also the analogy to Just War Theory). I myself believe, accordingly, that the death penalty is quite justified (is not inherently and always wrong) and can and should still be carried out in the case of the most heinous crimes (mass murderers, terrorists, etc.), without any slightest hint of reasonable doubt whatever as to guilt, as determined by a jury trial. I don't approve of the famous execution of Troy Davis, if there was significant, reasonable doubt raised about the man's guilt. I don't favor it, anyway, in the case of single murders.

The death penalty is not an absolute contradiction to pro-life, either, because the two scenarios aren't analogous. The state has no right to murder an innocent child. But in capital punishment, it is a question of application of criminal justice, since the state has the power of the sword and the right to coerce in enforcing its laws (police can sometimes shoot to kill).

The popes have allowed this "loophole," and I can hold it in good conscience, as an obedient Catholic, because the Church doesn't deny that states have the power of the sword. In other words, the Church's position is not absolute pacifism. The Church is lifting up and recommending the ideal, while acknowledging the reality of sin, and necessity for use of force in particular circumstances.

Thus, I completely reject the attempted failed disanalogy of (pro-) capital punishment vs. (anti-) abortion, while agreeing with the popes and the Mind of the Church in our time that execution should be almost non-existent.

Peter Singer is the one who has the massive self-contradictions: he opposes the death penalty, yet favors abortion, while arguing that animals have rights that preborn human beings do not have. Referring to abortion, he has written:

. . . we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being's life.
(Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, St. Martin's Griffin, 1996, p. 105)


He's the very last person who should be lecturing pro-life Christians on when a human life should justly be taken, given his hyper-confused ethical thinking.

Blessed Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, included an exception clause for the death penalty:

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and 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. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (56) 

Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2267):

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."


My position of favoring the death penalty for terrorists (the sort that can kill 3000 people in one day, as on 9-11) or mass murderers, is, I think, quite in accord with this teaching: limited application; very rare. This is not contradictory to Blessed Pope John Paul II's or the Catechism's teaching, though it might allow relatively more latitude in application (one could quibble about when it is necessary under the exception clause, or not).

The Church has not denied to states the power of the sword, nor denied that police can use lethal force in certain circumstances, nor denounced its traditional Just War theory, nor stated that all use of force or capital punishment in the various manifestations of the Inquisition were inherently wrong (St. Thomas Aquinas argues that such practices are justifiable). Thus, capital punishment, in the very rare cases when it should occur, is neither inherently wrong, nor contrary to Church teaching (nor to the Bible).

* * *

Pope Benedict XVI, in the year (2004) before he became pope, wrote, as Cardinal Ratzinger:

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
(Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion -- General Principles)



Related Reading:

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



***

7 comments:

Dave Armstrong said...

I don't mind people taking an absolute position against the death penalty as long as they are consistent and say that police can never shoot a criminal, caught in the midst of a serious crime (about to kill another person, etc.). That is permissible (perfectly moral) lethal use of force. Or if they want to say that no war is ever justified (more permissible killing) . . .

The Church has not completely denied the states the power of the sword (Romans 13). "Evangelium Vitae" has an exception clause in rare cases. It does recommend that it be extremely rare (and I agree, favoring it in only the most heinous cases: mass murderers, terrorists, etc.), and based on extremely airtight proof beyond the slightest doubt.

The Church also makes it clear that abortion and capital punishment are not analogous. The former is always wrong: intrinsically wrong, whereas the latter doesn't have that quality. The debate for Catholics then becomes how often is it "necessary" to protect society.

bill bannon said...

Dave,
    I dissent from this recent view and do not use the word "Church" for it.  You'll see why.  Keep in mind that Cardinal Newman was way strict against dissent but also showed an entire century, the 4th, in which thankfully Athanasius and most Catholic laity dissented from the hierarchy on the Arian matter.  I would simply point out that John Paul II talked one way in documents and talked more radically in St. Louis in calling the death penalty "cruel".  Now it can't be cruel if God repeatedly mandated it for the Jews as to sin and to Jews and Gentiles as to murder (Gn.9:6) especially 
in the Old Testament...then Genesis 9:6 is reechoed in 
Rom.13:4.
      So we have a Pope before world media call something God mandated..."cruel".  That's not only amazing.  But it is further amazing that his comment rather than found untoward by the US Bishops....is rather placed by them in a written document for US Catholics to read.  And this word "cruel" contradicts ccc# 2267 which despite it's problems, implies that execution is not cruel.
     How did a Pope of 1.16 billion Catholics call the dp "cruel" in St. Louis in 1999 while a Pope in 1520 in Exsurge Domine was able to denounce Luther's position 
against burning heretics at the stake as "against the Catholic Faith".
      I'll tell you how a Pope was able to call it "cruel".  He did not believe that God ever commanded the death penalties in the OT as the OT says God did.  His successor, Benedict, likewise does not think God ordered the bans of the Canaanites.  Read section 40 of Evangelium Vitae very slowly for the former and read section 42 of Verbum Domine for the latter.  And you will see the inroads of modern hermeneutical thinking taken to the level of dismissing the first Person imperatives of God as to the death penalties and as to the bans.  No Father of the Church nor Doctor of the Church would have nullified a first Person imperative of God.....because then.....where is the line drawn.  Does the mandate against gay acts then become something that maybe God never spoke on even though Scripture has Him mandating against it in the first person imperative?  Can I covet my neighbor's BMW because maybe this 10th commandment was really from Jewish culture and not from God?  
Simply read the two sections. The wide support he has from clergy and lay teachers comes from many many people who have taken the doctrinal oath to support the non infallible...thus they receive the mandatum to teach Catholic theology. Otherwise they might be unemployed in this period in history. Shea left that out recently when he pointed to a letter signed by many Catholic teachers opposing the dp. Catholic writers like Weigel etc. have to support the non infallible for a different reason....the
Catholic book buyer wants a Church that requires no
creative conflict...the sword Christ spoke of.
But if two Popes don't really believe in the first person imperatives within the OT.....the root of their thoughts on the dp....is questionable. Read those two sections mentioned and see.

Dave Armstrong said...

Hi Bill

He [JPII] did not believe that God ever commanded the death penalties in the OT as the OT says God did. His successor, Benedict, likewise does not think God ordered the bans of the Canaanites. Read section 40 of Evangelium Vitae very slowly for the former and read section 42 of Verbum Domine for the latter.

I read EV (40) -- several times -- and see no denial such as you claim the pope made. It looks like a conclusion that you wrongly read into the text. I don't see the conclusion you made about VD (40), either.

In Him,

Dave

bill bannon said...

   Well here's the passage:  " Of course we must recognize that in the Old Testament this sense of the value of life, though already quite marked, does not yet reach the refinement found in the Sermon on the Mount. This is apparent in some aspects of the current penal legislation, which provided for severe forms of corporal punishment and even the death penalty. But the overall message, which the New Testament will bring to perfection, is a forceful appeal for respect for the inviolability of physical life and the integrity of the person."
     He is clearly saying there is an evolution from the unrefined ( OT death penalties) to the refinement of the Sermon on the Mount ( no death penalty but instead inviolability.)  Yet he never shows throughout all of EV... Romans 13:4 ...which postdates the Sermon on the Mount and which to the Church for ages said that physical life was not inviolable at all as he claims it is.. and it said for the Church, that one should fear the sword of the state because physical inviolability is not part of life in the state.
      Nor is John Paul's refinement theme found in Acts 12 when our unrefined OT God kills Herod and has worms devour his body.  Is Acts 12 an unrefined God while the Mount sermon is a refined God.  Likewise read EV someday slowly and look for the death penalty section of Gn.9:6.....it never appears though it's other part does even though that other part was the reason God gave for the death penalty for murder to Jews and Gentiles once God knew kingdoms would begin in Genesis 10 with Nimrod.
      John Paul did this same old way...new way scenario on wifely obedience in both TOB and in Dignity of Women....wherein he also contrasts OT as deficient and Ephesians only as valid ( he lets 5 other "wives obey your husbands" passages in the NT vanish because he absolutizes " be subject to one another" as a sine qua non of every decision).  The result is that the CCC has not one word on wives obeying their husbands even though the Holy Spirit dealt with it 6 times in the NT.
     Look in EV  for Romans 13:4...it never appears.  If that is normal to you in an encyclical treating the death penalty, then we differ.
      On Benedict you read the wrong section.  It's not 40 but 42.  My responsibility is done.  God stay with you.
     

bill bannon said...

   Well here's the passage:  " Of course we must recognize that in the Old Testament this sense of the value of life, though already quite marked, does not yet reach the refinement found in the Sermon on the Mount. This is apparent in some aspects of the current penal legislation, which provided for severe forms of corporal punishment and even the death penalty. But the overall message, which the New Testament will bring to perfection, is a forceful appeal for respect for the inviolability of physical life and the integrity of the person."
     He is clearly saying there is an evolution from the unrefined ( OT death penalties) to the refinement of the Sermon on the Mount ( no death penalty but instead inviolability.)  Yet he never shows throughout all of EV... Romans 13:4 ...which postdates the Sermon on the Mount and which to the Church for ages said that physical life was not inviolable at all as he claims it is.. and it said for the Church, that one should fear the sword of the state because physical inviolability is not part of life in the state.
      Nor is John Paul's refinement theme found in Acts 12 when our unrefined OT God kills Herod and has worms devour his body.  Is Acts 12 an unrefined God while the Mount sermon is a refined God.  Likewise read EV someday slowly and look for the death penalty section of Gn.9:6.....it never appears though it's other part does even though that other part was the reason God gave for the death penalty for murder to Jews and Gentiles once God knew kingdoms would begin in Genesis 10 with Nimrod.
      John Paul did this same old way...new way scenario on wifely obedience in both TOB and in Dignity of Women....wherein he also contrasts OT as deficient and Ephesians only as valid ( he lets 5 other "wives obey your husbands" passages in the NT vanish because he absolutizes " be subject to one another" as a sine qua non of every decision).  The result is that the CCC has not one word on wives obeying their husbands even though the Holy Spirit dealt with it 6 times in the NT.
     Look in EV  for Romans 13:4...it never appears.  If that is normal to you in an encyclical treating the death penalty, then we differ.
      On Benedict you read the wrong section.  It's not 40 but 42.  My responsibility is done.  God stay with you.
     

dudleysharp said...

A note on Troy Davis.

Had you fact check the case, you would not have reservations.

Troy Davis & The Innocent Frauds of the anti death penalty lobby
Dudley Sharp

The Troy Davis campaign, like many before it (1), is a simple, blatant fraud, easily uncovered by the most basic of fact checking (1).

The case for Davis' guilt is overwhelming, just as were his due process protections, which may have surpassed that of all but a few death row inmates.

The 2010 federal court innocence hearing found:

" . . . Mr. Davis is not innocent: the evidence produced at the hearing on the merits of Mr. Davis's claim of actual innocence and a complete review of the record in this case does not require the reversal of the jury's judgment that Troy Anthony Davis murdered City of Savannah Police Officer Mark Allen MacPhail on August 19, 1989." (2)

"Ultimately, while Mr. Davis's new evidence casts some additional, minimal doubt on his conviction, it is largely smoke and mirrors." (2)

"As a body, this evidence does not change the balance of proof that was presented at Mr.
Davis's trial."(2)

"The vast majority of the evidence at trial remains intact, and the new evidence is largely not credible or lacking in probative value." (2)

None of this came as a surprise to anyone who actually followed the case, in contrast to the Save Troy Davis folks who were, willingly, duped.

1) a) "Troy Davis: Worldwide anti death penalty deceptions, rightly, failed",
http://homicidesurvivors.com/2011/09/25/troy-davis-worldwide-anti-death-penalty-deceptions-rightly-failed.aspx

b) "Troy Davis fairly convicted, not 'railroaded' "
http://savannahnow.com/column/2011-10-06/column-spencer-lawton-troy-davis-fairly-convicted-not-railroaded

2) "Innocence Hearing", ordered by the US Supreme Court, US DISTRICT COURT, in the SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF GEORGIA, SAVANNAH DIV.,RE TROY ANTHONY DAVIS, CASE NO. CV409-130
http://multimedia.savannahnow.com/media/pdfs/DavisRuling082410.pdf

Dave Armstrong said...

My statement on Davis was:

"if there was significant, reasonable doubt raised about the man's guilt." I didn't render an opinion one way or the other: not having studied the matter myself.

But even if the evidence was overwhelming, I would not be in favor of capital punishment. Hence, I wrote, "I don't favor it, anyway, in the case of single murders."