I can’t really write a massive post about our Christian duty to conform ourselves to Christ through submission to the Magisterium and not take my own medicine. We are all called to struggle with Church doctrine, to let ourselves be transformed by the renewal of our minds, through the Spirit of sonship.
Hence, the death penalty. Years ago I wrote this post in support of the death penalty, and, I guess, I still think it’s valid. There are no absolute rights; prison, particularly life imprisonment, is spectacularly cruel.
And now, as a Catholic, it’s easy to lawyer your way to where you want. After all, Catholic doctrine has long accepted the death penalty; John Paul II and subsequent Popes made it clear that their stance on the death penalty was not dogma.
But, here’s what the Catechism says (§ 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.”
In a sense, this is “beside the point”: the Catechism argues on the basis of consequences; which I guess it has to, because Church doctrine allowing the death penalty was also argued on the basis of consequences, which is what the Church does when it wants to commit the apostasies it can. (If we let heretics live, how many poor souls will end up in the flames of Hell!) To me the argument is not about consequences.
But there is also a key phrase here: “the dignity of the human person”. If Christianity really represents, in David Bentley Hart’s phrase, “total humanism”, the belief that each and every human person is of infinite value, then, well, there you go. If each and every human person is of infinite value, there is no value that is commensurable; and civil authority certainly should not kill anyone when there are other available means of protecting the common good.
Another way to look at this is through the Girardian critique of scapegoating. All civil punishment, necessary though it is, is always ultimately an instance of scapegoating. Civil authority accomplishes justice by punishing and excluding an individual from society. It is the restoring of social order through sacrifice, and whether this sacrifice is “just” might be a matter of sheer coincidence more often than we can contemplate. We humans, as the parable of the Grand Inquisitor reminds us, spend our time killing Jesus, and our duty as Christians, as apostles of the Kingdom, is to work towards a world where we do that less and less.
Perhaps a first step towards not killing Jesus is not killing anyone at all.