A reader asks:

What is a death penalty maximalist?

Since the death penalty is simultaneously permissible and yet also discouraged by the Church’s counsels of mercy (and *always has been as far back as Cain*) the question of prudential judgment essentially compels us to focus on how much it should be employed. That choice lies on a spectrum–and always has. There has *never* been a time when the State executed absolutely everybody who deserved it. There has always been a time when God has granted mercy to those who deserved death.

So our task as humans is to figure out how often the death penalty should be imposed. A death penalty minimalist says, “As rarely as possible” but does not go to the extreme of saying that it can never be imposed because it is intrinsically immoral. A death penalty maximalist argues that the death penalty should be imposed as often as possible. This refers, of course, to somebody who wants to execute as many *guilty* people as possible. We’re not talking mass murder here. We’re talking “people who have been found guilty of capital crimes.” Think “the population of death row in the US.” A death penalty maximalist says, of that population, “Execute them all, and do it swiftly.” One example of somebody who pretty much argues this position can be found here.

A death penalty minimalist says, “Unless they constitute an ongoing menace to the common good, spare them.”

The problem for the death penalty maximalist is that he (now) is setting his face *against* the express teaching of the Church. That express teaching is as follows:

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 are 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 non-existent.”

That is as succinct a summary of the DP minimalist position as there is–and it also happens to be the teaching of the Church.

Much is made, as I have already pointed out, of the term “prudential judgment” in approaching what is admittedly not a dogma but more on the order of a counsel. As somebody who does not take a Minimum Daily Adult Requirement approach to the Church’s teaching, I think that when Holy Mother Church says, “X is a good idea” it’s generally wise to listen to Holy Mother Church even when she does not preface it with “We declare, pronounce, and define…”

Some Catholics are fine with this. The reasons for this vary. Some already oppose the death penalty on other grounds and, in fact, go further than the Church by trying to say the Church errs in permitting it at all. I think they are wrong both for theological reasons (i.e. Scripture clearly permits it at times) and for practical reasons (sometimes people just need killing for the common good). Some agree with the Church’s teaching as it is laid out in Evangelium Vitae.

But some, at the end of the day, are very uncomfortable with the Church’s teaching. And some flatly reject it. Indeed, some even lie about it and try to claim that it is a rejection of and a contradiction to previous Church teaching. Some declare JPII a heretic and routinely label any bishop who articulates the Church’s teaching a Euro-weenie, a liberal, etc. The usual reactionary blah blah.

But the fact remains that there has *always* been a spectrum of possible applications of the DP. Appeals to previous prudential judgments mean absolutely nothing in terms of showing that the Church’s present judgment is in error. So, for instance, saying:

Is it not true that, until modern times, all (or the vast majority) of Catholics Popes, Saints, etc. supported the death penalty as a way of maintaining order?

Reading from the lives of the Saints, such as Anthony Mary Clarett who prostrated himself before 4 gentlemen and begged them to repent before their hangings, but did not denounce the mayor who did so, suggests that the historical Church accepted the death penalty. And not in a “minimalist” way.

…does nothing to show that the Church’s present position is not a perfectly reasonable adjustment in light of a modernity that is drunk on state-sponsored death on a scale unimaginable to pre-20th Century generations. Indeed, it is highly arguable that it is precisely the task of the Magisterium to read the signs of the times and adjust the Church’s prudential teaching precisely in response to such downturns in human culture.

The death penalty maximalist–the one who pushes for the largest number of executions possible–has his work cut out for him. And he knows it. For the obvious and clear teaching of the Church is now minimalism. The honest maximalist will acknowledge this. After that, I don’t see what choice he has but to become a minimalist too. But I suppose I could be wrong and would be interested in hearing an argument to that effect.

But the dishonest maximalists (and there are regrettably a lot of these) will often take the words “prudential judgment” and make them refer, not to the only legitimate question, which is “Does this particular case fit the Church’s minimalist criteria and give us grounds to execute the prisoner?” Instead, he will refer “prudential judgement” to the legitimacy of the Magisterium to teach and ask, “Do Euroweenie ninnies and heretics like John Paul and those prissy bishops have the right to teach against the death penalty when it offends our National Greatness Narrative?”

Whenever the discussion turns from “What is compatible with Church teaching?” to “How can we show that the Magisterium is a bunch of idiots whom we can safely ignore?” I tend to get suspicious. At present, the Magisterium is firmly minimalist. I think that wisdom is to pay attention to the Magisterium, not try to figure out why it’s wrong and find ways to ridicule it.


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