A reader writes about the Death Penalty (and I make comments throughout)

Just read your comments about Antonin Scalia and the death penalty. As a Catholic who favors the death penalty, I believe you have forgotten several important points:

1. In Genesis 9:6, God expressly commands the imposition of the death penalty for murder on the grounds that when a human being is murdered, God’s image is descecrated (read the passage for yourself). This command predates the Mosaic law by centuries.

True. God also commands stoning adulteresses to death. Yet, Jesus fulfills the law with mercy. I think it quite possible to view the command in Genesis 9:6, like the allowance for divorce under the Mosaic covenant, as a concession to human sinfulness, not as an ideal. Certainly, we know that He who is the fullness of the Image of God and who bears the very stamp of his nature willed, at his own tortured death, the forgiveness, not the execution, of the those who shed his innocent blood. Appeals to the Old Testament which do not take into account the fullness of revelation in Christ are problematic.

2. In the Mosaic law itself, God commands, “Thou Shalt Not Murder” (not “Thou Shalt Not Kill”, a common mistranslation of the Hebrew). Obviously, the OT distinguishes between moral and immoral killing. In fact, God ordered Moses and the Israelites to commit genocide against the inhabitants of Canaan as divine judgement against their abominable practices (such as child sacrifice).

Red herring. The Pope does not call capital punishment immoral.

3. Throughout the OT, God has stated that those who shed innocent blood are an abomination to Him. Like many Catholics, you might think that the NT cancels the OT but this is flat-out heresy. First, Jesus came not to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it — and Jesus was a Jew who would be quite familiar with what we call the OT.

Thanks. I know Jesus came not to abolish but to fulfill the Law. But the fulfillment of the Law in Christ is by no means a simple matter. In some cases, OT practices are done away with, which is why Christians are not circumcised. In other cases, the moral teaching of the OT is left as is. In still other cases, Jesus surprises us by elevating the moral teaching of the law in shocking ways (“love your enemies”) and lives it out in way which, to the unaided eye, appears to flatly contradict the OT (such as refusing to stone the adulteress woman). Your too-facile attempt to propose that Jesus would enthusiastically cast the first stone in his zeal to uphold your vision of the Law is, well, too facile. So is your too eager attempt to suppose that I think the Law is “canceled” by the NT.

Second, to believe that God would somehow “change his mind” on the matter of murder is to believe that God is morally schizophrenic

Balderdash. God does not change. But our understanding of revelation does. (Though it should be noted that Jonah does, in fact, speak of God under the image of a man changing his mind at the repentance of the Ninevites.) The fact is God commands stoning for adulteresses in the OT. He then refuses to stone an adulteress in John 8. I can account for that using Newman’s tools of the development of doctrine. I don’t know how your rigid exegesis of the OT accounts for it. But those same tools are also useful in accounting for JPII’s prudential judgment that the death penalty is usually best left unused.

(You mention that you oppose the death penalty in the “First World”. Sorry, but “First World” and “Third World” are arbitrary designations that have to do with economics, not morality. God shows no partiality to the rich or poor when it comes to obeying his moral directives. The fact that Catholics somehow believe this shows how secular thinking has infected the Church).

My distinction between First and Third World has nothing to do with morality. It has to do with technology. First world prisons are much more efficient at keeping their prisoners imprisoned. In some Third World mud hut of a prison it is much more likely that a prisoner can get loose to hurt more people. In such cases, it would probably be better to execute him.

4. The Pope’s views on the death penalty are nothing more that pseudo-intellectual revisionism. His opinions contradict the opinions of Augustine, Aquinas, More and Newman (among others) on the matter of the death penalty being an appropriate punishment for murder at all times. To insist that Catholics believe those opinions would be for him to place himself above Tradition and Scripture — which would be nothing short of idolatry.

As to the charge of “pseudo-intellectual revisionism” I don’t think this means much of anything beyond polysyllabic name-calling. His opinions do not “contradict” the worthies you mention for the simple reason that JPII does not call the death penalty immoral. He merely says that it would be best to employ it as rarely as possible. Since none of the worthies you mention urge death as often as it can possibly be inflicted (and Augustine, if memory serves, actually intervened to stop executions of death-deserving prisoners just like that pseudo-intellectual revisionist JPII), all we’ve really got is a disagreement about how often death should be inflicted, not about whether Caesar has the right to inflict it in grave crimes.

5. The Pope’s views also contradict common sense: Suppose I broke into your home and murdered your wife and children in cold blood. Why should I retain my life — even if I spend the rest of it in prison — after wantonly taking the lives of people who did no evil to me, whom I have deprived of enjoying the world God created, whom I have deprived of bringing good to others, and after wantonly plunging you into untold, unnecessary grief? And if I did spend the rest of my life in prison — and became not only a model prisoner, but also a devout Christian — you know that many Christian liberals would want my sentence commuted because of my “repentance”.

It is curious that you put “repentance” in quotation marks. And, of course, the scenario you propose is not an easy one to dismiss. The murderer of Samantha Runnion provides an extremely powerful case for the death penalty. Some people, it appears, just need killing. And yet, we are bound to try to think with the Tradition. When I do that, I find that the highly emotional case for vengeance you make is difficult to square with the counsels of mercy. It’s those little quotation marks of yours that give me pause. For it appears to me that Saul of Tarsus comes remarkably close to fitting your description. He after all, persecuted perfectly innocent people “to the death” and so is guilty of innocent blood and fully deserving of all the punishments of Genesis 9:6, according to you. Shall I spit on his repentance and argue for an inflexible application of the OT lest it appear that I’m becoming one of those damned “Christian liberals”?

This is not a matter of believing the “Minimum Daily Adult Requirement” of Church doctrine. This is a matter of serious, intelligent moral decision-making (something that the Church seems less and less able to do, unfortunately, as exemplified by its response to the sex-abuse scandals).

Right. The American bishops are always in lockstep with JPII.

I will never forget the response by a relative of victims of the Oklahoma City bombing to the Pope’s letter asking President Bush to commute Timothy McVeigh’s death sentence. She asked, “Where’s my clemency? When do I get clemency? When does my family get some clemency? When the Pope can answer that, we can talk.” (I’ll send the reference to you, if you like). I also will never forget the sterile, academic statements made by the American bishops about McVeigh’s execution; the death penalty can never bring the murder victim back, only God can take life (even though He gave guidelines in Exodus and Deuteronomy under what circumstances it might be taken) and other such drivel. Cardinal McCarrick of D.C. even compared those relatives who witnessed McVeigh’s execution to those who watched gladiatorial contests in the Roman Colisseum.

Actually, on this point, the bishops are perfectly right. The paragraph above reflects the completely false notion that killing McVeigh would bring peace. It didn’t, doesn’t and can’t. The only thing that can heal is forgiveness. McVeigh will, in death, continue to torment those he so brutally wounded until the day they can forgive him and let him go into the hands of God for judgment. The man whose daughter was killed at OKC and who struggled through from bitterness, by the grace of God, to forgive McVeigh, to befriend McVeigh’s father, and to plead he be spared, is freer than most of us will ever know or understand.

And, of course, there is also the simple point: since when do we settle matters of crime and punishment by appeals to how angry the victims feel? This was indeed the purpose of the lex talionis. If its up to victims it would be a life for eye, a life for tooth.

Such statements revealed the bishops’ ultimate insensitivity to the victims of murder and their survivors. But why should we be surprised? After all, as the Talmud says, “Those who are merciful when they should be cruel will be cruel when they should be merciful”.

Last I checked, the Church’s tradition is formed more by the New Testament’s call for mercy than by Talmudic proverbs. It is curious that you put “repentance” in quotes but see a place for cruelty in the gospel.

Doesn’t that saying typify the bishops’ (and the Pope’s) delayed reaction to sexual abuse by clergy?

I don’t think the Pope’s reaction is delayed. I think he is leaving the bishops to bear the cross they tried to place on innocent shoulders. But that, of course, is neither here nor there in your demand for a crueler Church that doesn’t let “repentance” get in the way of the lust for blood.

I commend to your attention the following Web sites: www.dennisprager.com (Prager is a nationally known author and syndicated radio host) and www.prodeathpenalty.com (which has excellent references on the morality of the death penalty).

Thanks for those reliable sources steeped in the Catholic Tradition.

Bravo to Justice Scalia! He has tremendous courage. Would that more Catholics had the same instead of the lemming-like deference to authority that marks too many so-called “orthodox” Catholics.

I guess if you are going to put “repentance” in quotes, it’s probably not surprising you put Catholics who disagree with you in quotes too. FWIW, I think Catholics (like Scalia) who disagree with the Pope’s prudential judgment have a perfect right to do so. I do not put them in quotes and insinuate they are heretics. I merely ask the same courtesy from you when I agree with the Pope and see mercy as the preferable option whenever it can be granted.