The Incoherent Witness of “Pro-Life” Death Penalty Maximalism

is summed up by this cartoon:

Yeah.  I get it.  The Courts are contradicting themselves.  But here’s the thing.  The *other* subtext of this cartoon is that the kid on the left *should* be put to death.    Cuz he is (how does Rush Limbaugh refer to such people?  Oh yeah, “human debris”).  So we have the spectacle of “prolifers” and Christians who profess to believe in the redemption of sinners clamoring to put minors to death lest anything less than the maximum number of people that can be killed, should be killed.  The typical reason given: they have “forfeited the right to life”.  In short, the right to life is not something innate to the human person by the  nature of what he is as a creature in the image of God.  It is a privilege granted by the state which the state should revoke as often as possible should the human person commit some offense we deem heinous enough.  Otherwise, it’s a “slippery slope”.  You have mercy on a kid and you run the risk of being merciful to somebody else.  Better play it safe and kill kids.   The burden is not on the state to show why somebody has “forfeited their right to life” but on the human person (and the Catholic Church) to show why someone should not be killed.

For some reason, even people empathetic to the prolife cause find this sort of “prolife” death penalty maximalism, eager to kill even kids so long as they have been born, ugly and alienating.

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  • Thomas R

    Yeah that is a weird message to a Catholic. However many Pro-Lifers are Protestant. From their perspective I think it really is more about the greater protection of innocent life. Yes none of us are innocent, but I don’t think much of Evangelical Protestantism thinks about that in that way. Evangelicals, that I’ve encountered, are far more influenced by the Old Testament. Killing of the guilty, not solely for self-defense even, is seen as necessary for justice. Protecting the redeemed is fine, but I know of Evangelicals who still insist even the redeemed murderer must die to satisfy the needs of justice. To allow the youthful murderer to live might be as against what they perceive as the Biblical worldview. (Weren’t you Evangelical before conversion? If so certainly this wouldn’t be new to you?)

    Also I don’t understand the complete hostility to the death penalty in the Catholic hierarchy. I will assent to it, if this is required, but I’ve always been clear this would be an unhappy assent. The rare case where being Catholic would mean believing in something I find perplexing and not really defensible from the Bible or Tradition. Because I don’t think it follows from either one. I’m pretty sure St. Paul accepted the state had a right to execute. The Papal States had an executioner and not in some bygone Medieval world. In the lifetime of Cardinal Newman the Papal States had an executioner. The opposition seems, from the document I’ve read of John Paul II, to be based on the idea that penal science and psychology have essentially cured psychopathy or made it harmless. And I just don’t see having that much faith in science as valid. (As I said I will grudgingly accept if I absolutely have no choice in the matter as a Catholic, but not before) I do appreciate you only speaking of “Death Penalty Maximalism” here.

    • It’s worth noting that those in the Protestant world who accept the death penalty, usually believe in the existence of Hell. Those Protestants who rejected the death penalty, in almost every case I was aware of, long ago rejected the idea of the existence of an actual Hell. Most also rejected the idea that God actually sent Jesus to die on the cross (death penalty, hello).

      BTW, you are correct about the science of it. To this day, I’ve found nothing that can demonstrate our modern justice system somehow at some point got it perfect and now is fine for protecting people. If it can’t, then there’s a dilemma. As an opponent of the DP back in the day, I knew that was a weak spot – what if a sadistic killer who may otherwise have been put to death gets out and kills again? It’s far more complex than ‘stupid and evil people support the DP.’ I’ll grant that there are probably some who wake up every day wishing they could fry teenagers, or like Judge Smails, think they owe it to them. It would be nice if the conversation now could move to those who have far more traditional and balanced views of supporting the DP.

      • Thomas R

        Yeah and my support is sort of restricted. What I’ve read of how Japan, or maybe Wyoming, has done the death penalty I don’t have much problem. Many states that have the option use it for a fairly limited number of cases. Oklahoma or Texas, on the other hand, I have some concerns.

      • Beadgirl

        I don’t think we will ever be at a point where we can protect all people perfectly, but that in and of itself is a reason not to support the death penalty. Our justice system is imperfect, and that means people have been convicted of and executed for crimes they did not commit. I think that is a consideration that deserves equal weight with that of a killer escaping prison, or killing others in prison.

        • The main reason I always opposed the death penalty: because you can’t guarantee that the system is perfect, and if you execute, that’s that. I was aware, however, of the problem with that stance – and it was pointed out to me by friends and colleagues who argued for capital punishment as an option: If the courts are so imperfect as to be unable to guarantee perfection during the trials, then the system must also be imperfect when it comes to protecting people all the time from criminals. Therefore, in some cases, where the crime is known (and at times admitted), and it’s clear that individual would kill again if given the chance, and we admit to an imperfect system, aren’t we saying that the potential murder of an innocent person by that criminal is the price we are willing to pay? Even as a former liberal, where rights trump life (hence the tendency of progressives to be passionately opposed to torture, war and capital punishment yet fine with abortion rights), and few if any speak of ‘sanctity of human life’, I admitted that was a dilemma. Is the potential death of an innocent worth the focus of clemency for the admitted murderer? Tough questions.

          • Dave Pawlak

            I would point to Blackstone in reply: “It is better to let ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” Also the same, in the role of the prosecutor: “(to) seek justice, not merely to convict.” And the Talmud: “A Sanhedrin that imposes the death sentence once every seven years is too hotheaded.”

            • Of course seek justice, and opposing the death penalty because of protecting the potentially innocent. But again, what about the potentially innocent who could be killed? That’s a problem.

            • DTMcCameron

              You’re letting that one and many other innocents suffer the depredations of the guilty, should you let them escape. It’s a false dichotomy: spare the guilty or punish the innocent.

    • ivan_the_mad

      The teaching regarding the death penalty has developed over time to become more restrictive in proportion to the the means of the state to pursue alternatives. This is not an adaptation to the times, but a development of the Church’s understanding. As GKC reminds us in his biography of Tommy Aquino, “[d]evelopment is the expansion of all the possibilities and implications of a doctrine, as there is time to distinguish them and draw them out”.

  • JDP

    more strawman caricaturing

  • c matt

    I don’t know that the subtext of death penalty maximalism was necesarily intended. It can be interpreted that way by the observer, but the thrust of the cartoon seems to be the incongruity of protecting the life of a (presumably) guilty youth, but not that of an innocent. It doesn’t say the SCOTUS is wrong to protect the guilty youth, but that if it protects the guilty youth from execution, it should in justice also protect the innocent.

  • Does Rush Limbaugh really call criminals “human debris”?

  • The problem is entirely the courts in my opinion. The courts have set up a strange system where from the moment of conception a human life can be intentionally extinguished without even the barest of due processes then until X years (not quite sure the current figure) nobody may execute not even the state with the protections of due process after which an individual may be killed but only with due process safeguards against mistakes. This makes no sense.

    Now one can try to mind read as to the intention of the cartoonist but that’s not entirely charitable, is it? It is possible that the cartoon author did not go beyond the attack on obvious court hypocrisy. It’s not obvious to me how you would pass the hypocrisy message on in a form consistent with the medium that doesn’t leave things at least a bit vague on non-targeted aspects of the issue.

  • dominic1955

    One shouldn’t pooh-pooh the idea that one can forfeit their right to life, its actually quite traditional.

    “Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.”

    (Pius XII, Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology
    of the Nervous System, 14 September 1952, XIV, 328)

    As to the cartoon, I think its being taken to far. I do not see anything death penalty “maximalism”. I only see the hypocrisy of allowing babies to be murdered without hardly a peep. Aside from original sin, babies are innocent-they haven’t and could not have deprived themselves of the right to life. The person who is below the legal age (which is merely arbitrary) to be put to death morally has the capacity to deprive themselves of the same right yet the courts have said most stringently that this would be some sort of barbarity. Kids after all! If we are going to be merciful to young criminals, it should go without saying that babies should not be able to be executed therapudically with the “blessing” of the State.

    I’m all for putting a moratorium on the death penalty, but the point of this is not frying folks under the age of 18 but rather that we seemed to have justified doing likewise horrific things to other people based on what? They are hidden away in their mothers? They cannot talk? If anything, it goes to show how morally bankrupt our court system is-it is going the way of ruling according to political fads and money.

    • Subsistent

      Here should come into play, I think, the Scholastic distinction between a person’s *possession* of a right, and his *exercise* or assertion of that right. “If a criminal can be justly condemned to die,” writes Jacques Maritain — without conceding that a criminal really ever can be justly so condemned — “it is because by his crime he has deprived himself, let us not say of the right to live, but of the possibility of justly asserting this right: he has morally cut himself off from the human community, precisely as regards the use of this fundamental and ‘inalienable’ right which the punishment inflicted upon him prevents him from exercising.” (*Man and the State*, pp. 101 and 102.)

  • Mark R

    Don’t we Caholics, rather, look self-contradictory calling for an across the board abolition of D.P.? It has been part of the body of the Church’s teaching for centuries, with a strong biblical precedent. Not that I am in favor of D.P., rather its application flies in the face of the equability with which justice is meted out in the politcal and legal system in which we live.

    • Andy, Bad Person

      I, for one, am incredibly concerned with how Catholics look.

  • I grew up in a town in which the only real employer was the prison. The town even included the inmates in the population to woo national franchises to come and set up in town. This is a MAXIMUM security prison, John Wayne Gacey was executed there. Even though it is a maximum securit facility, inmates escape ALL of the time. These are leaders of The Latin Kings, murderers, rapists, and all of the worst offenders and they escape ALL the time!

    Most of my friends who work there who are young men like myself take steroids (I don’t live in the town any more and none of them are my patients, so don’t get the wrong idea.). They feel they need to take them to stay menacing for the inmates. In fact, one of my friends was stabbed in the arm with a shiv that was coated with feces. These prisons are not made to rehabilitate felons, they are to keep felons away from the general populace. I know I’m painting with a broad brush, but you don’t know what it’s like to have to lock your doors and turn on all your lights until they police give the all clear broadcast after a jail break.

  • James Isabella

    From a Catholic point of view, I’m not aware of anything that says that a government or society has a different standard of morality than an individual does. So the way I look at it is this:

    If someone breaks into my house and threatens my family, I have the right to use force (even deadly force as a last resort) to subdue the intruder. BUT, if I have apprehended the intruder and incapacitated him while waiting for the police, it would be completely immoral to then shoot him or kill him (no matter what his intentions were or how much I might like to have revenge on him).

    If the above is true, then how can it be moral for the criminal justice system kill a criminal that can be incapacitated? Would that not be the same situation I was in after apprehending the intruder? In fact, the danger of escape would be much higher in the case of me apprehending an intruder in my home than a criminal escaping a prison, but I still couldn’t justify saying, “Oh, well, he might still escape.” and then putting a bullet into his head.