Russell Saltzman on the Lust for Vengeance

Russell Saltzman on the Lust for Vengeance April 11, 2015

in his essay “I Wanted That Kid Dead“:

I don’t ever remember such personal outrage as I felt watching that smirking kid in court. My feelings were primeval, primitive, and raw. That’s why I oppose the death penalty, not because killers don’t deserve it, but because in some way its application is intended to assuage all those visceral sensations, yet rarely does.

The mistake that is consistently overlooked by death penalty advocates is that they do not take into account the effect it has on those who support it and, especially, on those who inflict it.  The appalling spectacle of death penalty zealots waving frying pans and calling it a sober love of justice or, worse, of Catholics making sick arguments like “the crucifixion of Jesus shows that God loves the death penalty” demonstrates the warping effect of this hostility to the Church’s teaching.  When Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and the Communist Chinese are the closest allies you have in your quarrel with the Magisterium, the odds are extremely high that the Church is right and you are wrong.

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  • Dave G.

    My problem with this whole debate is how so many bad arguments are made on both sides of it. If it was a slam dunk, I’d think one side would be devoid of such bad arguments. The ‘you’re like China and Saudi Arabia’ if you support the Death Penalty has been dismissed by opponents of the Death Penalty,and for good reason. If you’re against the Death Penalty, then your closest allies are in Europe, where gay marriage, abortion, assisted suicide, and increasingly euthanasia are more or less the norm. A bad argument. Not that there aren’t good arguments. But saying that a consequence of the Death Penalty is bad arguments used to support it, followed by a bad argument used against it, seems self defeating.

    • Self-Abusin’ Pete

      Indeed. And those making the “only bad countries are with you” argument are going to wish they hadn’t made it when the baddies are the only ones left that haven’t legalized gay marriage.

      • Dave G.

        Yeah, I don’t get it. Staunch opponents of the Death Penalty have said that’s a bad argument. Bad in every way. And yet Mark keeps using it. Over. And over. And over again. I don’t get it. It’s so easy to see why it’s bad. Which is why I have to wonder. If it’s so true, why rest on bad arguments to defend the position? Especially when making the case that the opposite position leads to bad arguments.

      • On the other hand, there is no death penalty in Philippines. It is unlikely that same sex “marriage” will ever be legal there. Just sayin’.

        • Dave G.

          And Japan has the death penalty. Hence the problem with the argument. Not to mention the Philippines abolished it, then reinstated it, and recently abolished it again. So even there it is obviously not so easy as ‘evil countries vs. wonderful ones.’ Again, bad argument.

        • D.T. McCameron

          Not many would have predicted Ireland’s current course.

          • Having never been to Ireland, I can’t speak to that, but having spent a lot of time in Philippines (I live there now) I stand behind my statement that “It is unlikely that same sex ‘marriage’ will ever be legal there”.

  • kirthigdon

    The effect on those who inflict it was the main reason Catholic
    writer and lecturer Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn used to give for opposing
    the death penalty – many years before the publication of the Catechism.
    He often said, “Being an executioner is not a fit occupation for a
    Christian.”

    Kirt Higdon

    • sez

      I was always against it, because I could never throw the switch. So, how could I insist that someone else do it? That was before I found my faith, and came to know the mercy of God. Then I realized that depriving the sinner of his life deprives him of a chance to repent.

  • capaxdei

    Mark: You write of a “quarrel with the Magisterium.” What do you think the nature of this quarrel is? Do you consider “The U.S. ought to abolish the death penalty” to be a teaching of the Church?

    • chezami

      The death penalty ought to be abolished is the teaching of the American bishops and the last three popes. It is a “teaching” in the sense that it is the prudential policy of the bishops and the pope, not in the sense that it is a dogma of the Church.

      • A teaching is not magisterial when it is a prudential policy. If the bishops, as Lumen Gentium (25) said, are teaching “one position as definitively to be held” then it would not be a prudential policy.

        The anti-death penalty position looks very attractive right up until its advocates who should know better start misstating what Church policy actually is and only backtracking when they are called on it.

        As an aside, it is pretty clear that the death penalty as currently administered in the USA is in need of examination and very likely improvement. One can take either position on the death penalty and be in favor of that.

      • capaxdei

        Right, so it’s not necessarily a “quarrel with the Magisterium,” it’s a judgment contrary to the judgment of the last three popes and (all? most of?) the American bishops.

        There is still, I think, teaching involved in the public and repeated statement of the popes’ and bishops’ judgments against the death penalty. In Evangelium Vitae, St. John Paul II illustrates his teaching on the death penalty with an argument with the famous “very rare, if not practically non-existent” conclusion. Someone can say, “In fact, Holy Father, *not* practically non-existent,” without formal disagreement with EV 56, but I think you’d have to still do some thinking about why the Pope might think circumstances were such that, given his teaching, “practically non-existent” is a reasonable prudential conclusion.

        But it’s a tricky argument all around. If some people have to watch that their lust for vengeance not cloud their reason, others have to watch that their fear of vengeance not cloud theirs.

  • Dan Berger

    I have to say that C.S. Lewis’ argument in favor of democracy has an analogy here.

    Lewis wrote (and I probably misquote a little): “Aristotle said that some men are fit only to be slaves. I do not gainsay him. I believe in democracy because I see no men fit to be masters.”

    A minor modification of that argument would work against the death penalty: I see no men fit to judge another man worthy of death.

    • Alma Peregrina

      Nice quote from Lewis… which book was that?

  • I think the key is to understand the difference between justice and revenge. Anyone know a good article covering that topic?

    • capaxdei

      St. Thomas is always a good place to start. He treats vengeance as a virtue connected to justice. http://newadvent.org/summa/3108.htm

      And always remember Water Farrell, OP, has done the work of translating St. Thomas from the Thirteenth Century classroom to the Twentieth Century armchair. You might see http://opcentral.org/piety-gratitude-truth/ and search for “Revenge by society”.

  • iamlucky13

    This particular argument is not one against the death penalty, but one against applying the death penalty for the wrong reasons.

    If there is another way to reasonably protect society from a dangerous criminal than killing them, and there almost always is, then we really have no logical case for killing them. Certainly this is the case with most of the executions conducted in the US in recent decades.

    In those few cases, however, where they demonstrate themselves an ongoing grave danger even despite our best efforts to keep them contained…well, that’s why the Church teaches it’s not absolutely forbidden, while strongly tempering that very narrow allowance with the point that such cases, “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

    • PalaceGuard

      Which is exactly what I told the judge when I was in the potential jury panel on a death penalty case. And exactly why I was excused. One further consideration, on my part, is that the dead cannot repent.

  • B

    It’s hard for me to condemn the practice of capital punishment given the reason and clear sanction for it in Scripture (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:4) and the Saints’ approval of it over the centuries.

    • capaxdei

      Not only does the Church not condemn the practice of capital punishment per se, she even positively teaches that the state has the right to execute prisoners under certain circumstances.

      I won’t pretend all Saints over the centuries would agree on those circumstances, but I will point out that St. John Paul II has commented on the circumstances that obtained as recently as twenty years ago.