Death Penalty Obsessiveness

Poor Monsignor Pope. He writes a bunch of sensible stuff about the culture of death:

We have discussed the “culture of death” numerous times before on this blog. This description of Western Culture was used by Pope John Paul II. Fundamentally it refers to the fact that in the modern, western world, especially America death is increasingly seen as a “solution” to problems. Has a child come along at an inconvenient time? Perhaps the baby has been diagnosed with defects perhaps there is some other wrenching problem regarding the pregnancy such as the poverty of the mother. The solution? Abort the baby. Has a criminal committed heinous acts? Kill him through capital punishment. Is an elderly or sick person suffering from a reduced quality of life? Perhaps they are bedridden or experiencing the pains of the dying process. Solution? Euthanize them. Does raising children and dealing with a larger family cause hardships: economic and emotional? Do children cause stress? Simple, contracept so that they don’t exist in the first place. So you see, the death or non-existence of human beings is increasingly the “solution” to problems and this is what is meant by the “culture of death.”

Oops! Did you catch his sinister sin? He mentioned the death penalty. And sure enough, within a few combox comments, the lovers (there’s no other word) of the death penalty emerge to try, with might and main, to obsess over this issue and show that the Magisterium of the Church is wrong to disagree with American lovers of the death penalty and, in this case, we should be killing as many people as possible. One reader in particular amuses me by displaying something I have seen several times from self-absorbed ideologues whos ears are only attuned to their obsession and no others:

What, do you have to punch your ticket as not being a bad ol’ conservative by once again lumping in just executions with murder?

Apparently for this reader, Msgr. Pope’s note read “blah blah blah death penalty blah blah blah”. Yes. His whole purpose was obviously only to persecute conservatives. It’s all about you, conservative reader.

This reminds me of nothing so much as when the Pope writes an encyclical about economic justice and the press pores over it looking for the word “sex”, then complains that the Church is obsessed with sex.

Msgr. Pope acquits himself well in his rebuttals, but it is fascinating to see “prolife” cafeteria Catholics so readily dismiss, minimize and ignore the teaching of the Magisterium when it fails to ratify their tribal needs.. Particularly strange to see them exhibit such consistent self-regard as more Catholic than the Pope while they do it.

Basic reminder: This is not a left vs. right issue. This is Catholic teaching. Well done, Monsignor!

  • Andy, Bad Person

    It’s interesting to see that Msgr.’s message is nitpicked not with the question, “how does this square with Catholic teaching,” but “how does this square with the Republican Party?”

    It’s not enough to be pro-life anymore. It’s pro-Republican or nothing.

    • ivan_the_mad

      “It’s pro-Republican or nothing.” So very true, Andy. Sometimes some Republican politicians and conservatism overlap, but more often than not these days they do not.

      I am a conservative. If any wish to know what that means, read somebody like Russell Kirk. To roughly quote him, conservatism is not an ideology, conservative movements are local to specific times and places. Conservatives shy away from universal prescription, which is the hallmark of ideologies. Ideologies and the Church do not play well together. You know, that whole “serving two masters” thing.

  • Debra

    If I recall correctly the catechism says something along the lines of civil society having the right to protect itself from those who would commit heinous crimes, and if the only recourse available to ensure society’s safety is to put the criminal to death, then it is justified. However, Pope John Paul II pointed out so very clearly and rightly that we have the means to protect society, as a general rule, without using the death penalty. If we can do so, then we should. In modern America, the only justification I can see for the death of a criminal for the safety of society is a clean shoot by a citizen actively defending himself or a police officer during the commission of said violent, heinous crime. I know people think it is a deterrent, but it isn’t really–not when criminals often die of natural causes before the appeals are exhausted and the death penalty carried out. We have relatively few escapes in our country from hardened criminals at this point.I’ve also heard that society should have to bear the burden of our tax dollars going to feed and house such heinous criminals for life while they “live it up” in the jail cell, and they rightly forfeit their right to life by committing said capital crime. However, I just can’t see how we can reasonably place a dollar value on human life, no matter how horridly lived. Our beloved Christ taught mercy, and I’d hardly call life imprisonment “living it up” regardless of what privileges said criminal might enjoy in prison. He is still deprived of his freedom, which is so fundamental to the human psyche no luxury could possibly make up for its lack.

    I have to agree with the previous two comments that it seems many American Catholics have Catholic values confused with Republican/conservative values. The Church’s teachings don’t really “square” with either party at this point, the the Republicans may be closer in many respects.

    • Ted Seeber

      Plus, of course, the cost of feeding and housing a prisoner is less than 1/2 the cost of a single lawyer’s yearly salary.

    • SecretAgentMan

      Good points. Especially about living it up — anyone who thinks a maximum (or even medium) security prison is some kind of resort hasn’t done time or known anyone who has. I’d maintain, however, that there are individuals who are so dangerous that the death penalty is a legitimate defensive response. Unfortunately, we don’t design our death penalty systems to define and adjudicate these individuals. I suspect if we instructed a juries that they may only impose the death penalty if they conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that death is the only reasonable way of protecting society from an individual, we’d have many fewer death sentences.

      • Ted Seeber

        We’d also need to refine the concept of cruel and unusual punishment to include a positive duty of protection of society instead of “rehabilitation” in the case of violent crime.

  • John C

    Your usual hyperbole on this issue. Your view might make some sense, if you threw the concept of justice out the window. However, I will wait for the Church’s extended, reasoned treatment of this issue – an encyclical, for example, or some other significant document. A couple of ambiguous lines from the Catechism ain’t gonna do it.

    • Mark Shea

      The Church already spoke on this IN AN ENCYCLICAL (Evangelium Vitae). Welcome to the cafeteria. Face it, the Church is not going back on this. You just don’t want to hear what she has to say.

    • http://a-star-of-hope.blogspot.com JoAnna

      Mark is absolutely right.

      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.

      In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” – Evangelum Vitae

      Is that unambiguous enough for you?

      • Sal

        John C has a point. The reason there is such heated debate about the death penalty among Catholics may have a lot to do with politics/ tribal affiliation. Or, it might be that anyone can see that being born handicapped, or developing cancer at 80 are very different from committing a heinous crime. If you’re going to insist that they are all exactly the same, then don’t be surprised when people object to having you pee on their leg and tell them it’s raining. If you understand that they’re different, then explain why protecting life is the solution to all of them – that in the case of the death penalty, we can’t be sure if we’re just, so we have to go with mercy. But do the disclaimer every time. Tedious- but necessary.

        • Ted Seeber

          I don’t see where Evangelium Vitae insists that the death penalty is exactly the same. Abortion and Euthanasia do not contain an exception for the protection of society; the Death Penalty and Just War do ( the one type of war that is always justified is defense of your home against an illegitimate invader, for instance).

          Having said that, we now have non-lethal methods invented in the past 20 years that can often, if not always, accomplish this positive duty.

  • http://disputations.blogspot.com Tom K.

    I would suggest that the confusion of Catholic values and Republican values is a symptom caused by regarding the content of our Faith as a set of rules.

    • http://www.theleenmachine.blogspot.com KML

      Yes. A million times. Also, our penchant for finding labels for ourselves that are not truly rooted in our faith and our distaste for proper discernment. Who has time for that stuff? So much easier to just find a category and align yourself to it.

    • Dan C

      In the conservative narrative, the role of “religion-in-the-service-of-politics” is never discussed. From the Pat Robertson’s beginnings in the late 1970′s to the Moral Majority and Ralph Reed to Deal Hudson’s influence on Catholic thought and discussion to Neuhaus/Novak/Weigel’s overt promotion of Republicanism in the Bush era, conservatives have promoted a religion that serves conservative principles. This is the half of the story Chaput obviously ignores in his most recent essay. Relgion-in-the-service-of-politics has been a tool and these reflexive responses are some of the consequences.

      Even still, conservative Catholics as a whole either grudgingly accept Church teaching on this matter or actively agree that the eagerness of Americans for blood lust is revolting. In a widely-read blog for conservatives, there will certainly be some vocal, rare hold-outs, still assured that that Sean Hannity possesses the teaching charism on this matter, not the Church. The dozen responses to this moment on this blog would not have been imaginable in 2004, however, and should be seen as a mark of hope.

    • Ted Seeber

      And I would suggest that the real cause of confusing Republican Values with Catholic Values is the utter wasteland that is Democratic Values.

      Sometimes when you are too extreme, the middle looks to be the opposite side.

      • Dan C

        I have no illusions about the absence of values on the part of the Democratic Party. On military, they have not differed from Republicans at all. Their economics currently are to the right of GW Bush. They have embraced the death penalty to get elected (because opposition ruined Mike Dukakis) to the point that Clinton stopped his campaign to go to Arkansas and ensure a mentally retarded man was executed. This isn’t even talking about abortion.

    • Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered

      That line about a set of rules is an old canard by now. Useful for every criticism of one’s fellow Catholics, but not enlightening.

      • Mark Shea

        Translation: Say an old truth often enough, and somebody will try to suggest that its age makes it false.

      • http://disputations.blogspot.com Tom K.

        If you want enlightenment, read John C.’s comment, which he submitted as I was typing my own. “Here’s my loophole. Show me the rule that closes it.”

  • Gary B

    I was torn about the death penalty for a while. Then I heard a Secular Franciscan woman’s take on it, which was: If we let the murderer live, then they have a chance to come to Christ before the end of their life, repent and be saved. If we execute them, they lose that opportunity. Once they’re dead, it’s too late. So by executing them, we’re not only “punishing” them for their crime, we’re also ensuring that they’ll be cut off from God for all eternity. If we let them live, at least we give them the chance to repent at some point before they die. That sold me, and I’m now against the death penalty.

    • beccolina

      That’s the reasoning that turned me against it as well, though it can be hard to remember when faced with someone who had done something horrific. I think about the case in the news a while back where two men invaded a woman’s home and raped, tortured and killed her and her daughters, who were 9 & 11 (I think). It is hard to remember that God loves the killers too, and wants them to come to him just as much as he loves the three victims. Obvious newsflash for the day: Doing the right thing and living the Gospel is hard.

    • Observer

      Man is not God. Man is a miracle and not the miracle worker. The point of Evangelium Vitae is not to raise man nor exhibit him as the end all of all of the Gospel (since Christ, who is true God and true man, came to save the world, and not man alone.)

  • Richard Bell

    In theory, the death penalty is a great idea, but it is hard to put into practice. The people that we most want to deter are not planning on getting caught, so no level of humanly imposable punishment will deter them. Then you have the possibility of miscarriages of justice. Donald Marshall was not a nice person when he and his best friend, Sammy Seal (sp?) decided to mug an old man, Roy Ebsary, but he did not deserve to be executed, which nearly happened when the old man killed Sammy in self-defence and lied about witnessing Donald commit the murder.

    • Dan C

      The death penalty should be viewed as a failure in principle and in practice. JP2 had a similar view when it came to war. It is NOT a great idea and such thinking lacks Christian foundation.

      • FrankJ

        “such thinking lacks Christian foundation”

        versus

        “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life.” (Catechism of the Council of Trent on the Fifth Commandment)

        Nota bene: “paramount obedience”

        I’m not a fan of the death penalty given our current jacked up legal system, but your statement above strikes a stark contrast with the teaching of the Church.

        • Ted Seeber

          And yet it isn’t. The Church did not stop doctrinal development with the Council of Trent, and Evangelium Vitae is not in opposition to Trent but is rather the fulfillment of the last sentence in the Council of Trent’s doctrine: The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. ALL human life. That means not only those the murderer might murder in the future (including his fellow prisoners) but also the murderer himself.

          The difference isn’t the doctrine of the church, but the technology (including welding of metal, which didn’t exist at the time of Trent, and weapons detection, which one could argue has progressed by leaps and bounds even since the last 5 years of JPII’s pontificate) to prevent murder is in advance of even what was available before Evangelium Vitae was written.

          And while a Catholic can and should argue against the Death Penalty now, it would be utterly against justice to argue against removing all rights of liberty from a murderer.

          • ivan_the_mad

            Huzzah, Ted. Hermeneutic of continuity 4tw.

            • Ted Seeber

              And I didn’t even bother to mention the research, development, and invention within the last 20 years of non-lethal weaponry that brings the obsolescence of the Death Penalty out of the parliament and courts and into the hands of the police and the soldier. Maybe within my lifetime, we’ll have a new version of Catholic Just War that requires, for a war to be justified, ONLY that force required to accomplish the objective be used- and in most cases, that will be non-lethal.

        • Dan C

          After almost a millenium of Just War proponents, JP2 referred to war as “failure.” It should not be thought of as a “great idea.” That thinking is not grounded in human respect.

    • Mark Shea

      This seems to me like saying, “in theory, quadruple amputation is a great idea…” I think the death penalty is, always, a desperate expedient at best.

  • http://bloggerpriest.com Father Joe Jenkins

    I doubt that my friend Msgr. Pope would absolutely equate capital punishment with abortion in terms of their moral gravity. While both are elements in the culture of death, one references the guilty and the other, the innocent. There has been an organic doctrinal development on the question of the death penalty and we are obliged to acknowledge it. This should not be interpreted as a violation of traditional principles about justice. We still have an obligation to protect the good of society, particularly the innocent; but we are also encouraged to practice mercy toward the guilty. While Thomism made room for the death penalty, a growing appreciation of universal goods would be much less permissive. Human life is valued as incommensurate. This deepening understanding of life as God’s gift has made itself felt on many levels: abortion, euthanasia, infanticide, embryonic research and intervention, capital punishment and interpretations of what constitutes just war. Having said this, we must be careful that the so-called “seamless garment” notion does not water down pro-life efforts. Some treat the list like a report card. That is why someone like the late Senator Ted Kennedy got high marks from liberals on matters like poverty and capital punishment, as if that excused his enabling supports for abortion and partial-birth infanticide.

    • Mark Gordon

      And how many times, Father Joe, have high marks on abortion been deployed to excuse so-called “conservatives” on matters like war, torture, the abandonment of the poor, and so forth? The seamless garment, seamlessly applied, is precisely what we need.

    • Mark Shea

      Nobody says they are to be equated. But death penalty zealots often make this straw man argument in order to go on defying the obvious teaching of Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism.

    • Ted Seeber

      Those who truly understand the seemless garment are not willing to use it as a lever or scales. I make my scales out of metal, not cloth.

      • ds

        Those with REALLY true understanding know it’s spelled “seamless.”

        • Ted Seeber

          Thanks. Usually I use Google’s spell check. Must have missed it in this case.

    • Dan C

      Ted Kennedy’s desire to assist the poor did not excuse him from his support of abortion.

      As such, the War on the Poor, which has begun with a series of caricatures from the 1980′s (welfare queen propaganda, etc) and continued through the 1990′s, cannot be excused either. No Republican has seriously embraced anything but a laissez-faire approach to medical assistance for the poor, until Obama put forth his plan. Such an absence of support for the medical needs of the poor cannot be excused either.

  • Loud

    Hey, Mr. Shea, I recently changed my position on the death pentalty and ‘enhanced interrogations’.

    I am, and always have been pro life…. when It came to infants. I had been considering what it was that made abortions so bad and found that I was guilty of a ‘doublethink.’

    I just wanted to let you know it was some random blogger dude who prompted the train of thoughts causing me to change tracks, and although it wasn’t you, I DO blame you for getting me in the habit of enjoying spending time thinking about my Catholic faith, and led me to be open to this and to better understand the authentic Catholic position on these matters. Dang it! Haven’t you ever heard the saying “Ignorance it bliss?”

    • Loud

      “Ignorance Is B liss”*, sorry.

      • Ted Seeber

        Reminds me of the liberal Catholic argument I used to use against converting primitive stone age tribes: That due to their culture, they had never known the Sin of Eve- and thus were still living in that perfect balance of culture with nature that typified the idea of the Garden of Eden. Who were we to introduce to them the concept of sin and kick them out of it?

        Then I realized that thanks to the modern technology and the nature of how civilization wipes out tribalism; merely being aware of the existence of a tribe means that if the Church doesn’t introduce them to sin, the collectivists who hate the concept of unowned and uncollected natural resources WILL- and there is no place on Earth so remote that they will NOT exploit the local population if given the chance.

    • Mark Shea

      God bless you, Loud! You lift my spirits!

  • Scott

    I admit that I had to “evolve” on this issue. It took some time and some strident studying of Church teaching but I came to realize that the culture of death is very interconnected.

  • http://www.2catholicmen.blogspot.com Ben of Two Men

    A problem I have with the death penalty is that you eliminate any possibility of conversion. Should Saul have been executed by the early Christians before he became Paul? Who would have seen that conversion coming?

  • FrankJ

    “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life.” (Catechism of the Council of Trent on the Fifth Commandment)

    Nota bene: “paramount obedience”

    I’m not a fan of the death penalty given our current jacked up legal system, but come on guys this is the teaching of the Church too. Whatever happened to the hermeneutic of continuity?

    • Ted Seeber

      And yet it isn’t. The Church did not stop doctrinal development with the Council of Trent, and Evangelium Vitae is not in opposition to Trent but is rather the fulfillment of the last sentence in the Council of Trent’s doctrine: The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. ALL human life. That means not only those the murderer might murder in the future (including his fellow prisoners) but also the murderer himself.

      The difference isn’t the doctrine of the church, but the technology (including welding of metal, which didn’t exist at the time of Trent, and weapons detection, which one could argue has progressed by leaps and bounds even since the last 5 years of JPII’s pontificate) to prevent murder is in advance of even what was available before Evangelium Vitae was written.

      And while a Catholic can and should argue against the Death Penalty now, it would be utterly against justice to argue against removing all rights of liberty from a murderer.

    • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00805469860229478026 Irksome1

      The “judicious exercise” and “just use” of capital punishment mentioned by the Catechism of Trent imply the prudent use of the death penalty. Cultural context matters. If the end of protecting the innocent can be reached by methods short of death, then the Church’s hermenuic of continuity remains intact even if the death penalty is never applied.

  • Observer

    @Mr.Shea: My only reluctance for repealing the DP is quite simple. The system which criminals are held ought to be reformed first. I have no desire for the DP. However, when the justice system (particular to imprisonment) is not only flawed; yet quite compromised, repealing the DP doesn’t exactly make for a good argument.

    Suppose the life you’re trying to engage, protect, and save, due to Evangelium Vitae, were in danger of losing their life or were to do under extreme harm, wouldn’t repealing the DP mean the same crook will only resurface to do harm? The same harm done on another individual (a crook or not) means the same and apparent harm which may come upon society. Protecting society, therefore, includes those who are imprisoned.

    Also, another point is the DP can at least press upon the offender to actually for some moment see life has meaning (universally expressed even to their own life.) And as an obvious indication the person will actually need prayers.

    Overall, the process of justice needs to be better governed and the system for the DP needs to be reformed (particularly the people who exercise it.)

    • Ted Seeber

      I would argue that in fact the Death Penalty teaches the opposite- that Life has no Meaning, and that it is to be thrown away whenever the usefulness of a life to society ends. I see no reason why a person who believes life has so little meaning that he is willing to take the life of another human being, even a murderer, would have any compunction against suicide.

      In fact, we recently had a prisoner on death row in Oregon attempt suicide by ending his appeals process. The Governor didn’t fall for it though.

  • Pansy Moss

    I never get being “pro-death penalty”. Let’s just say we didn’t put to death innocent people for the crime of being poor or the wrong race in the wrong place and time. Let’s say it was necessary to protect society. The killing of a human being is always a horrible tragedy, I can’t imagine anybody being for it. It is a sign something went terribly wrong.

    • Ted Seeber

      Yes, Pansy, it most certainly is a sign that something has gone terribly wrong- with a justice system that would ever let a prisoner accused of murder free without evidence of his innocence to begin with.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

    A couple of questions.

    1. What stats, what data was used to conclude that our justice system can now protect the innocent 100%? I’m not saying there aren’t any, but where are those studies?

    2. How does the Church square God sending Jesus to die for the greater good of saving us from our sins with ‘the death penalty is wrong?’ I mean, I know folks are still saying ‘it’s not ALWAYS wrong’, and yet anyone who tries to defend its use is accused of blood lust. That seems to suggest a wanting of cake, and eating it too. If it’s OK to use it, it’s OK to ask when we can. Otherwise, how can the above question be answered?

    3. Referring to the above, how does the Church square the existence of Hell with opposition to the DP? I ask these two questions because the vast majority of Protestants who oppose the DP tend to oppose such things as Hell and God sending Jesus to die for our sins.

    4. A lot is made about the DP cutting off a criminal’s chance for redemption. Really? If the judge stood up and shot a person as soon as the verdict was read, maybe. But most will spend years, if not decades on death row, knowing just how long they have. You and I won’t have that. I could die tomorrow. And assuming the stats don’t show that we are 100% able to ensure the safety of all people, if that person does break out and kill an innocent, what about that innocent’s life cut short before potential redemption? Is that a price the Church is willing to pay?

    Disclaimer: I’ve always opposed the DP, on the grounds that the innocent could be wrongly executed. But the arguments both from the Church, as well as some of Her more passionate defenders, leaves my head spinning, hence these rather brief questions.

    • Ted Seeber

      “1. What stats, what data was used to conclude that our justice system can now protect the innocent 100%? I’m not saying there aren’t any, but where are those studies?”

      It is a purely technological argument, and so you don’t need a study. You just need to do this experiment: Get a plate of 1/4th inch steel. Try to dig through it with your bare hands. That is the proof that a culture that has the technology to weld steel doesn’t need the death penalty if it is cruel enough.

      “2. How does the Church square God sending Jesus to die for the greater good of saving us from our sins with ‘the death penalty is wrong?’ I mean, I know folks are still saying ‘it’s not ALWAYS wrong’, and yet anyone who tries to defend its use is accused of blood lust. That seems to suggest a wanting of cake, and eating it too. If it’s OK to use it, it’s OK to ask when we can. Otherwise, how can the above question be answered?”

      I don’t know anybody who has read Evangelium Vitae and says “it’s always wrong”. It is clearly right in the instance, say, of 12 children marooned on an island with a cannibal and no other technological way of stopping him from eating all of them.

      “3. Referring to the above, how does the Church square the existence of Hell with opposition to the DP? I”

      It’s because of the existence of Hell that the Church is opposed to the Death Penalty. Only a person who didn’t believe in Hell would be 100% for the Death Penalty. Even the Inquisition gave prisoners *every* chance to repent that they possibly could without the heresy spreading. It is a horrid thing to consign a soul to hell without trying to convert them first.

      “4. A lot is made about the DP cutting off a criminal’s chance for redemption. Really? If the judge stood up and shot a person as soon as the verdict was read, maybe. ”

      What is time to God?

      “But most will spend years, if not decades on death row, knowing just how long they have. You and I won’t have that. I could die tomorrow. And assuming the stats don’t show that we are 100% able to ensure the safety of all people, if that person does break out and kill an innocent, what about that innocent’s life cut short before potential redemption? Is that a price the Church is willing to pay?”

      Dealt with that assumption above. We’ve had the technology for 180 years now to build an escape proof cell; it’s not that hard.

      • Sal

        And that would work great if you just put the prisoner in the cell and left them there. But that’s not what happens. And would probably be argued down as cruel and unusual punishment, if it did. Penal security is improved, but not fool-proof. It’s facile to claim that it is. But apparently it’s improved enough that the Church is willing to instruct us to take that risk.

        • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

          So the Church is willing to risk the life of an innocent person who could also be suddenly deprived of the chance for repentance, in order to make sure the guilty is not deprived? That was certainly the attitude of society back in the day – hence the backlash and the whole ‘victims’ rights’ movement. But then, that also speaks to many things about where the Church is placing priorities, at least I would think.

          • Bob

            Of what would an *innocent* person repent?

            And in answer to 2. God *did not* send Jesus to die for our good. And God does not see the putting to death of Jesus as a good, or as remotely acceptable. We sent Jesus to death, because of who or what humanity had become, and God brought good out of it. The suggestion that Jesus’ death proves the acceptability of capital punishment is a strange way of looking at the injustice of the crucifixion.

          • Liam

            Dave,

            Ever heard of the “Texas 7?” They were a group of prisoners who escaped from a maximum security penitentiary in Texas and, in the course of fleeing, murdered a police officer.

            I bring this up to make this point: Of the seven prisoners, only 2 were incarcerated for murder. The others committed horrific crimes, but five had not, legally speaking, taken a life before.

            I would argue that what would most make a prisoner desperate enough to escape and take a life to remain free is the threat of a lifetime in a cell, and not necessarily their past actions. There are murderers who serve their entire sentence without trying to break out, while some in prison for lesser charges more than willing to kill to get out. Past is not necessarily precedent.

            • Ted Seeber

              Liam- the Texas 7 escaped in 1962! Of what relevance to they have to post 1990 penitentiary technology?

        • Ted Seeber

          “And that would work great if you just put the prisoner in the cell and left them there. But that’s not what happens.”

          The argument against the death penalty is “Then it should”. Nobody is claiming we should let unrepentant murderers who are still a danger to society go free.

          “And would probably be argued down as cruel and unusual punishment, if it did.”

          Then we need to change our definition of “cruel and unusual punishment” to include a positive duty to protect the innocent that outweighs the rights to due process of the accused.

          “Penal security is improved, but not fool-proof. It’s facile to claim that it is. But apparently it’s improved enough that the Church is willing to instruct us to take that risk.”

          From a purely technological stand point it can be. 1/4th inch plate steel. Weld an 8′x8′x8′ cube with the prisoner inside. Cut a 6″ hole in the roof for food, and water insertion, and a 4″ drain in the floor for waste, and a series of 1″ holes in the wall for air, confession, and communication. If you really want to provide the prisoner with a parole board, a forklift will do the trick quite nicely. Useful literature the prisoner could be provided with would be the laws surrounding his crime, the Bible or similar scriptures, devotional aids such as rosaries, or better still, victim statements about how his crime affected them.

          The cool thing about this is while 100% escape proof, if new evidence is found proving the prisoner innocent, all that is needed is a cutting torch to release him.

      • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

        The problem is, if we don’t think it is always wrong, then we shouldn’t immediately impugn those defending its use as individuals spilling their seed over their orgasmic lust for slaughtering hapless prisoners out of raw revenge. If it’s not always wrong, we shouldn’t argue as if it is obviously always wrong.

        As for hell, the point is, and a point made across the Protestant spectrum, is that it’s absurd to believe that God would allow a fate like hell, while then turn around and condemn any use of the death penalty – but then, as you say, if it’s not always wrong, then that covers that, no problem. We’re just back at saying all we must do is stop arguing as if it’s obviously always wrong.

        I’m not sure I get your notion that we can make escape proof cells. No matter how horrible the camp or prison, people find a way out. They always have. It’s almost fantastic to think otherwise, and that’s my point. Is the possible death of an innocent person, and that person’s chance to come to the Lord cut short, a risk the Church is willing to take?

        • Mark Shea

          Dave:

          If I write a post saying “I like chocolate, but other people prefer butterscotch” I can can tell you I may get a few comments of agreement or disagreement. No energy is invested in the discussion. If I write a piece saying “Here is some work of mercy for the poor” I will likewise get a generally tepid response. But if somebody like Msgr. Pope makes a mild passing remark making the perfectly valid observation that one of the ways the culture of death manifests itself is in our willingness to solve our problems via the death penalty, I can absolutely guarantee you that zillions of combox comments will be generated by people with a *passionate* love of and zeal for the death penalty: People who want to see as much death as possible inflicted and all questioning of the death penalty smashed and suppressed under the charge of heresy. There is no other way to describe than as a passionate and hyper-sensitive love of the death penalty. It’s weird and creepy.

          • Sal

            Maybe that’s b/c ice cream flavor preferences aren’t matters of life and death?

            Dave G. has a valid point. You do tend to paint all those who are not vehemently anti-death penalty as being rabidly pro-DP, even those whose only fault is to say “I’m obedient to the Church’s new development re; the DP in countries able to not use it, but I don’t think it should be taken off the table entirely.”
            Frankly, I don’t see anyone on this thread demanding that the DP be applied wholesale.
            I’ll throw this out, fwiw: there’s no satisfactory answer to the problem of justice for heinous crime, if you totally abolish the DP and the NoDP crowd knows that. This is why they get very irritated and defensive when others keep bringing up the question.
            So, sometimes “It’s Church teaching!” is just another version of “Shut up”, he explained”.

          • Andy

            Mark – I tend to agree with you about the responses – I believe that yesterday you had a piece on where the US rated in terms of child Poverty rates – it generated only 9 comments. Other times you have provided pieces that deal with poverty and it degenerates into the evil liberals vs. the righteous conservatives. It is indeed hard to follow with magisterium – especially in the areas of social teaching, as they do not lend themselves to easy responses or responses that I can put off to another person. However, in the areas of life – abortion, DP, just war and so on it is far easier to follow as they are far clearer, but equally demanding.
            I think that it is our human nature to look for the ultimate solution to problems, and the DP is an ultimate worldly solution to the problem of murderers, just on the other hand we don’t know.

        • Ted Seeber

          Weld a cube 8 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet on a side. Cut a hole in the top for food and water, a smaller hole in the bottom for human waste to connect to the drain, smaller holes still in the side.

          Make it out of modern cold-rolled steel 1/4th inch thick.

          I guarantee no prisoner will escape from that on his own. He will have to be let out by cutting torch, and even then, likely be treated in a burn unit before being set free.

  • sbark

    I’ve always been against the death penalty. However, there is one aspect of my opposition that has always bothered me. It’s true that we have the ability to incarcerate the criminal for life. I think that for some murderers, incarceration for life with no possibility of parole is the only way to insure public safety. However, that incarceration for life puts prison guards at a very high risk. There are cases where prisoners have killed prison guards. If there is no possibility of any further punishment, there is little to deter a violent murderer from killing a prison guard. After all, they can only put you in prison until your natural death once.

    I don’t think that this risk is enough reason to have a death penalty. However, it does bother me that most people who are against the death penalty don’t seem to think that the safety of the prison guards is important enough to even be part of the conversation.

    • Ted Seeber

      A guard isn’t at high risk if the prisoner is welded into his cell.

    • Observer

      Universal safety should be regarded for both crook and guard. When you unchain the universal to specific principles following the alignment of exlusions, you are creating a divisive construct of humanity regarding the have’s and have nots. Mary Magdalene, as a point and example of time, was a sinner and perpetually fell into prost. However, Christ stood against a humanity wilfully regarding it’s own sake (the pharisee’s) at the disposal of another human being. Any man who wants to cause harm by some torturous form to the point of death or for an enduring life to constantly being filled with pain ought not to exist (but God is merciful and will ensure the person’s hands will be tied up as Christ stated to the Pharisee’s at the pursuant stoning of the lady, “Which one of you has not sinned, cast the first stone?”) At least those men were fearful and humble to lower down their stones. Whereas today, man is so full of pride , he has mirrored the complete nature of the devil (as Sauron mirroed Sauramon – Lord of the Rings.)

  • Mdmike

    Sbark,

    I share your trouble, and think retention of the dp for those who commit murder while under life sentence would be consistent with evangelicum, because in that case there is no further protection or punishment the state can offer.

  • FrankJ

    Folks, I hear your arguments, but doesn’t this discussion really show that the position laid out by Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism really is a prudential position grounded in changing circumstances for at least some nations and not some sort of development of doctrine that binds the universal Church?

    They had steel bars, steel plate, and thick rock walls at the time of the Council of Trent and yet at that time the Magisterium called the death penalty a matter of “paramount obedience” to the Fifth Commandment.

    And is it really true even now, throughout the entire world with no exceptions, that “we” are able to keep violent criminals perfectly incarcerated? How does that play in Haiti? How about in Papua New Guinea? And what of the example raised above of criminals killing prison guards? This position is decked with its own set of prudential problems. And that brings us to the central question: Is the Holy Father really competent to issue sweeping statements on the capabilities of the criminal justice systems of all the nations of the earth? That seems a stretch.

    Again, lest you brand me “pro-death penalty”, I’m really not. But what of the hermeneutic of continuity? If this is really a development of doctrine, or is it rather a prudential judgment on temporal matters that may or may not be correct? It is a fair questions, is it not?

    • Mark Shea

      Did you read my article at the link? There’s no violation of the hermaneutic of continuity.

      • FrankJ

        I had read the first one by Msgr. Pope, but not yours. I have now and in the main I agree with you. I do wish that it was not always left to third parties to try and demonstrate the continuity of various magisterial pronouncements with prior teaching. It would sure save a lot of ink spilled in comboxes if that continuity was just spelled out in the latest pronouncement itself.

        • Mark Shea

          It would save even more if lay Catholics could trust the promise of Christ to guide the Church into all truth and not talk as though the Magisterium is somehow going to suddenly lose that charism and guide the Church into error. It’s a particularly acute problem with the laity since the Council.

    • SecretAgentMan

      I agree it’s a fair question. But a legitimate hermeneutic of continuity need not avoid raising numerous unanswered questions on prudential matters. I submit that Catholics reading Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism for “the Church’s position on the death penalty” are like Catholics who read Rerum Novarum for “the Church’s position on private property.” Sometimes Church teaching intends to guide us on how to think about what to think.

    • Ted Seeber

      “Folks, I hear your arguments, but doesn’t this discussion really show that the position laid out by Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism really is a prudential position grounded in changing circumstances for at least some nations and not some sort of development of doctrine that binds the universal Church?”

      Absolutely it is. I’ll completely agree with you there. I’m 100% against the use of death penalty in the United States; and yet I’m still for it in the third world where their steel is inferior and welding technology may not be available.

      “They had steel bars, steel plate, and thick rock walls at the time of the Council of Trent and yet at that time the Magisterium called the death penalty a matter of “paramount obedience” to the Fifth Commandment.”

      In comparison to the steels we produce today, that which was produced at the time of the Council of Trent was primitive and downright brittle. Heck, that which the Titanic was made out of in 1912 couldn’t even stand up to ICE. There has been a lot of change in mankind’s technological progress since even Vatican II.

  • Elaine S.

    “If we let the murderer live, then they have a chance to come to Christ before the end of their life, repent and be saved.”
    Here’s a tragic, but also inspiring, story of a murderer (of a beloved priest, no less!) who did just that:
    http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/st-louis-priest-s-killer-commits-life-to-redemption-but/article_aeb9c99d-64a4-53cb-bb1b-e569ed74b6a7.html
    The story notes that the three perpetrators were “spared by their ages” from death sentences because they were all 16 years old at the time. One committed suicide in jail, and the other two were eventually paroled. One of the two men who was paroled then devoted his life to works of charity and to mentoring young people. Sadly, however, he himself was recently murdered — probably just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and not due to any deliberate targeting.
    Granted, he was probably not a hardcore psychopath of the type that people often cite to justify the death penalty. It appears he was remorseful about his crime from the start and was genuinely repentant. But there probably would have been no shortage of parishioners at the murdered priest’s church who would have lined up for the chance to pull the switch or button or whatever on this guy had he ever been executed. Even today it appears they don’t have much sympathy for him, and I guess you can’t really blame them.
    I think some people (relatively few, but some) really do deserve the death penalty, and we should never deny or minimize that fact. That said, whether the death penalty should be retained or abolished isn’t simply a question of whether it’s “deserved” — it’s a question of what is best overall for society. If every single person received the just punishment they deserve for every single wrong they had ever committed, known and unknown — where would we be then? As I understand it, the Church opposes the death penalty not because it is inherently unjust or because the crime of taking a life doesn’t “merit” it, but because it tends to feed into the culture of death and make it worse.

    • SecretAgentMan

      This is some of the most cogent thinking about the death penalty I’ve read. Thank you! The only thing I want to add is that the Church’s opposition to the present DP systems isn’t entirely utilitarian, i.e., a politically-necessary move to combat the culture of death. Rather, some (many, all, that’s another debate) inflictions of the DP are direct manifestations of that culture, which is indifferent to the purpose of justice, namely human flourishing. I think Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism expand our understanding of whether offenders “merit” or “deserve” the death penalty into a dialogue with the society they wronged.

    • Observer

      The DP is temporal; he’ll is eternal. A person who see’s life as something short may hopefully by the grace of God convert. And, of course, why a society needs to pray for the salvation of souls (Our Lady stood in the dismal cult. of death when she appeared in Fatima during an onslaught upon humanity in WWII.)

  • Zac

    I still struggle with the Catholic position on the death penalty. The position stated in the catechism and Evangelium Vitae does not address the issue of justice and proportionality. There’s a lot of emphasis on it no longer being necessary for the protection of society, but protection of society wasn’t the primary reason for it in the first place.
    As EV states: “The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”.[46] Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom.”
    The last bit “to regain the exercise of his or her freedom” appears to be the implicit response to the primary role of the death penalty as retributive justice; ie. it implies that “redressing the disorder” should apply as much to the life of the offender as to the victims, society, or justice itself.
    EV continues: “In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.[47]
    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.”

    So it appears that EV is rejecting the idea that the death penalty can constitute a just punishment, since the retributive aspect of justice redresses (or should) not only the disorder inflicted by the offender upon the world, but the disorder within the offender him or herself.

    Perhaps it would be better to say “the death penalty as punishment is never justified, but offenders may be killed for the protection of society”?

    Hence the only real reason to employ the death penalty is out of necessity, for the defense of society from an unrepentant offender. In which case it is not really a punishment, but an act of self-defense, or social defense. But this would still seem to conflict with the earlier position that the death penalty can be a just form of punishment.

    • SecretAgentMan

      One thing to bear in mind is that a) perfect justice is not always the most hoped-four outcome, and b) it is impossible in this life. We can’t restore a lost child to her parents, and we can’t guarantee that the offender who murdered the child will repent and be saved. I think that when we’ve reached the point of using such outcomes as the standard of our justice, we’re expecting too much of Church teaching and the law. Killing an offender may be just, or at least as much justice as we can reasonably be expected to achieve.

    • Observer

      From the behavioral form of tradition which can be labeled as protestantism, society (call it modern) pursues to cling to parts of an anti-religious certitude, and at the same time, trying to hold onto the foundations, values, and virtues of regligion. People want miracles without God. So, as a result, Evangelium Vitae will not work in society set against religion.

  • http://austrolibertariancatholic.wordpress.com Martial Artist

    @Zac, et al,

    Here is a thought from outside the church that I think makes an interesting point. I am not necessarily advocating the view, but only because I haven’t yet studied it thoroughly enough in light of the magisterial teachings on crime and justice:

    The idea of the primacy for restitution to the victim has great precedent in law; indeed it is an ancient principle of law which has been allowed to wither away as the State has aggrandized and monopolized the institutions of justice…. In fact, in the Middle Ages generally, restitution to the victim was the dominant concept of punishment; only as hte State grew more powerful … the emphasis shifted from restitution to the victim, … to punishment for alleged crimes committed “against the State.” … What happens nowadays is the following absurdity: A steals $15,000 from B. The government tracks down, tries and convicts A, all at the expense of B, as one of the numerous taxpayers victimized in this process. Then, the government, instead of forcing A to repay B or work at forced labor until that debt is repaid, forces B, the victim, to pay taxes to support the criminal in prison for ten or twenty years’ time. Where in the world is the justice here?”

    Food for thought.

    Pax et bonum,
    Keith Töpfer

    • Observer

      What was right about justice.

  • Richard Johnson

    “Where in the world is the justice here?”
    An excellent question, one that also applies in these situations.
    listverse.com/2010/01/12/10-convicts-presumed-innocent-after-execution/

  • Observer

    Debra stated, “If I recall correctly the catechism says something along the lines of civil society having…” True, if society remains civil.

    How can you re-peal, then, the DP when you have an un-civil one? Take for instance how many people who side for terming a baby’s life, and yet are against the DP? Or, what of the case where strong movements abiding under the ideals of the dems are against the DP and are for abolishing religion? Isn’t it strange? You have something of a monstrosity (a real curiously strange monster out of it all.) Before anyone can re-peal the DP, you have ensure society (and govt by the way) are well governed. That is, the monster which is an ungoverned creature shredding the nature of humanity must be enchained. Thus, before the DP is re-pealed, the people who are in justice must reform as well as the system. The use of private enterprise to exercise the DP and imprisonment ruins the grounds of democracy. And the re-pealing of the DP as well as the continuous abuses in the prison system are not co-tangible (they don’t work together – as supporting terming a babe’s life is not co-tangible grounds of re-pealing the DP.)

    As long as the cult. of death, the abnormal grounds of a nihilistic age is going to continuely demonstrate ruin upon and towards the basis and foundation of democracy as well as the continous abuse of humanity which will likely continue to its’ worst at re-pealing the DP, I’m in no way going to support re-pealing the DP when Evaneglium Vitae cannot even work nor be consumed by a culture pursuant of nhilistic age of society (didn’t Christ say something about not laying pearl before swines?)


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