A Consistent Ethic of Life

A Consistent Ethic of Life October 23, 2007

As Catholics, we believe that the dignity of the human person is paramount, as each person is made in the image and likeness of God, a God who shared our human form. Every human being is intrinsically valuable. In the public sphere, we are called upon to act on our beliefs and promote the gospel of life, a holistic and encompassing ethic. Things tend to go awry when people try to compartmentalize life issues, and align the gospel of life with various political parties or movements. Nowhere is this more true than with the abortion issue.

Today in particular, there is a tendency by some to restrict the term “pro-life” to mean “opposed to abortion”. They argue that, since abortion is an issue of such enormous magnitude, it makes little practical sense to water down the cause by adding a host of extraneous social issues. A more subtle argument holds that the gospel of life can indeed encompass other issues that can never be defended– such as euthanasia and embryonic stem cell research– but not topics where there can be legitimate diversity of opinion. This is flawed.

When you see the arguments of those who oppose the anti-abortion movement, one theme stands out quite clearly: hypocrisy. The pro-lifers’ concern for life, they will say, ends at birth. They do not care about poverty, economic conditions, health care, war, the death penalty, even torture. They are not consistent in the zeal for life, even though the Christian message calls for consistency– indeed, cries out for consistency. We are called to uphold an all-encompassing gospel of life based primarily on the dignity of the person. The standard should not be the minimum set of beliefs that one can hold and remain a member of the Catholic church in good standing.

The predominant secular humanist ethic places great emphasis on human rights and human dignity. When they refuse to extend that dignity to the unborn, we must challenge, we must persuade. We will not even get a foot in the door by callously dismissing broader life issues. If we are respected as staying above the political fray on the gospel of life, they will listen.

Everything is related. As I’ve noted before, abortion and economic circumstances are inseparable. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 57% of women opting for abortion are economically disadvantaged. In fact, the abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level. And when asked to give reasons for abortion, three-quarters of women say that cannot afford a child. Over the past few decades in the US, declines in abortion rates tended to accompany declines in poverty rates. You cannot isolate abortion from the broader issues. Of course, the pro-lifers often counter that abortion should be dealt with first and foremost by the force of law. But enacting coercive laws in a democracy requires persuasion, which goes back to my point that pro-life movement cannot be persuasive if it is seen as hypocritical. Tom Berg recently made an excellent point recently over at Mirror of Justice when the strong safety net in western Europe not only reduces abortion directly, but also makes people more willing to accept greater restrictions on abortion. Everything is related.

Just because there is no one particular way of dealing with poverty does not mean it should be ignored. Those with concerns about welfare state dependency should be pushing policies like in-work benefits and active labor market policies. But they often ignore the issue totally. Frequently, the rigid division between the small group of “hard-core” pro-life issues and everything else reflects an unwillingness to step outside the dominant laissez-faire liberal mindset. An unwillingness to forsake a tawdry partisan alliance with a party that preaches the gospel of life, and often does the opposite. Just look at the recent debate over S-CHIP where many “pro-lifers” applauded attempts to deny insurance to 4 million children that are currently uninsured, for fear that it would be a Trojan horse for government health care. This begs the question: what principle are they truly supporting– the gospel of life, or the gospel of the market? Among those who disagree with the role of government in health care, I see very few serious proposals to achieve universal health care (and no, tax credits will not do the job- not even close).

It’s not just economics. The prevalence of the death penalty cheapens life in the US. Last year, 9 out of 10 executions in the world took place in 6 countries: China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and…… the United States. Something is wrong here. Simply pointing to the discrepancy between the number of abortions and numbers executed by the state misses the broader point, the effect of the death penalty in contributing to a broader culture of death. I could go on. The widespread availability of firearms in the US contributes to murder and suicide rates that are off the charts in relation to countries of similar economic development. That too is a life issue. The choice of the culture warriors to place more importance on sex than violence in popular culture is also a life issue. When children become numb to murder and violence on TV, is it any wonder that life is cheapened in society? And what about a culture that glorifies military action as the first response to problems in the world? What about the ready acceptance of torture as an interrogation tool? These are all life issues.

To be followers of Christ in the world, we must always be consistent.

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  • Donald R. McClarey

    Comparing abortion and the death penalty is comparing apples and rock salt. Until John Paul II the Church had no problem with the death penalty being exercised by the State. The traditional teaching of the Church is well set forth in this provision from the Catechism of the Council of Trent :

    “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. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.”

    As opposed to abortion which the Church from the time of the Apostles has condemned, Catholic opposition to the death penalty is a very recent development. Time will tell whether it remains part of the Faith, or the traditional teaching comes to the fore.

  • There have been 42 executions in the United States this year as of today. About half that number of abortions – and probably more – will have been performed in the time it takes me to write this comment.

    Of course, if the death penalty is intrinsically immoral, then the number shouldn’t matter, or so I can already see the response. Well, the problem is – as Donald points out – the death penalty is not instrinsically evil, or at least it has not been treated as such by the Church. I say this as someone who personally opposes the death penalty. To try to tie these two issues together is, quite frankly, repulsive.

  • Jonathan

    I think you’re in error here.

    If I may summarize:

    When you see the arguments of those who oppose the anti-abortion movement, one theme stands out quite clearly: hypocrisy. The pro-lifers’ concern for life, they will say, ends at birth. They do not care about poverty, economic conditions, health care, war, the death penalty, even torture. They are not consistent in the zeal for life, even though the Christian message calls for consistency– indeed, cries out for consistency. We are called to uphold an all-encompassing gospel of life based primarily on the dignity of the person. The standard should not be the minimum set of beliefs that one can hold and remain a member of the Catholic church in good standing.

    But, what the pro-abortionists say and what is true are two different things. They perceive “conservative” arguments on poverty, economic conditions (other than poverty), health care, and the death penalty as uncaring, rather than prudential or even wise arguments. The label of “hypocrisy” is often (though not always) simply a way for those who prefer certain political responses over others or non-political response to avoid engaging the opponents arguments directly.

    The predominant secular humanist ethic places great emphasis on human rights and human dignity. When they refuse to extend that dignity to the unborn, we must challenge, we must persuade. We will not even get a foot in the door by callously dismissing broader life issues. If we are respected as staying above the political fray on the gospel of life, they will listen.

    As before, a rejection of legislative or executive political action in favor of subsidiarital action is often a cause to be labelled as “uncaring” or “hypocritical.” Catholics and other religious conservatives whom I know are very active in their own lives in charitable, both physical and spiritual, ways. I have been called a “hypocrite” or similar terms for saying that I have prayed for mothers who desire abortions – as if prayer weren’t the single greatest action a Christian can take.

    Everything is related. As I’ve noted before, abortion and economic circumstances are inseparable. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 57% of women opting for abortion are economically disadvantaged. In fact, the abortion rate among women living below the federal poverty level is more than four times that of women above 300% of the poverty level. And when asked to give reasons for abortion, three-quarters of women say that cannot afford a child. Over the past few decades in the US, declines in abortion rates tended to accompany declines in poverty rates. You cannot isolate abortion from the broader issues. Of course, the pro-lifers often counter that abortion should be dealt with first and foremost by the force of law. But enacting coercive laws in a democracy requires persuasion, which goes back to my point that pro-life movement cannot be persuasive if it is seen as hypocritical. Tom Berg recently made an excellent point recently over at Mirror of Justice when the strong safety net in western Europe not only reduces abortion directly, but also makes people more willing to accept greater restrictions on abortion. Everything is related.

    Of course one cannot separate abortion from the broader issues, whatever they are. But I counter that abortion is more related to the decline in the extended family (causing more poverty) and related rise in single motherhood and death of the nuclear family – in other words, to spiritual trends. Spiritual renewal of our society will contribute more to a fall in abortion than attempting to fix physical problems, especially when the physical issues are often a symptom of the spiritual issues. Prof. Berg also failed to demonstrate, as you do, that a particular part of the “safety net” – wide availability and distribution of contraception – is not responsible for the lower rates of abortion.

    Just because there is no one particular way of dealing with poverty does not mean it should be ignored. Those with concerns about welfare state dependency should be pushing policies like in-work benefits and active labor market policies. But they often ignore the issue totally. Frequently, the rigid division between the small group of “hard-core” pro-life issues and everything else reflects an unwillingness to step outside the dominant laissez-faire liberal mindset. An unwillingness to forsake a tawdry partisan alliance with a party that preaches the gospel of life, and often does the opposite. Just look at the recent debate over S-CHIP where many “pro-lifers” applauded attempts to deny insurance to 4 million children that are currently uninsured, for fear that it would be a Trojan horse for government health care. This begs the question: what principle are they truly supporting– the gospel of life, or the gospel of the market? Among those who disagree with the role of government in health care, I see very few serious proposals to achieve universal health care (and no, tax credits will not do the job- not even close).

    Once again, this paragraph ignores the Catholic subsidiarity principle, and ignores the problems of coercive taxation that any Catholic must engage. Charity is mystical and it is personal. It cannot be forced – “forced Charity” in the form of coercive taxation is not Charity at all, it cannot therefore be just, and cannot therefore be social justice. You may reply that this is the cost of living in a democratic society, that we are often asked to pay for things with which we do not agree. Catholics, however, cannot ask a secular society to forward Christian goals. Or, if our goals are not Christian, why do we engage them at all? Government-run universal health care is not a Catholic goal – but perhaps you can cite the example of encyclicals which hold that it is?

    The market is only a description of how people in a culture engage in their daily activities – it is an organic thing and it is descriptive of the underlying ideals of the culture. Christ works through individual conversion – He cannot convert individuals through political change. This is why the most enduring testaments to social change are extra-governmental organizations who effect change at the smallest levels – groups of individuals working together towards a goal. When Catholics turn to legislative ends to achive goals, they have tacitly admitted they do not see the point of following Christ’s examples and those who interacted with Him, and have turned to Ceasar to achieve their goals. Christ did not say to the rich man, “To achieve salvation, give all you have to the poor and follow me. If you do not, I will go to the Sanhedrin and convince them to take all you have and give it to the poor.”

  • Blackadder

    It’s true that more than 9 out of 10 executions in the world took place in China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sudan, and the United States. That’s because more than 9 out of 10 executions in the world took place in China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Sudan. One could just as well note that the U.S. has approximately 5% of the world’s population, but carries out only less than 2% of the world’s executions.

    http://www.nationmaster.com/graph/cri_exe-crime-executions

    Statistics can be funny things sometimes.

  • Blackadder

    I goofed on my math in the last post. The U.S. carries out 4.2% of the world’s executions, not 2%. Still, that’s less than it’s percentage of the world’s population, and puts the U.S. 20th in terms of per capita executions. The nation with the most executions per capita? The Bahamas.

    http://www.nationmaster.com/red/graph/cri_exe_percap-crime-executions-per-capita&int=-1

  • Paul and Donald–

    You are missing the point (I’m not going to get into Donald’s dismissive attitude to the teaching of John Paul II). As Cardinal Bernardin never tired of pointing out, a consistent ethic of life does not mean all issues are equally important. It means that they are all tied together. As Cardinal Dulles noted, the death penalty cheapens the value of life in general.

  • Rick Garnett

    I agree, MM, that there are lots of “life issues.” But, what do you think of the following claim: “No one who supports abortion-on-demand can plausibly claim to be ‘pro-life’, no matter what he thinks about torture, the environment, war, or health-insurance. On the other hand, a person who opposes abortion-on-demand may conclude that market-oriented policies do a better job of promoting human flourishing and protecting human dignity than do more state-interventionist proposals, and still plausibly claim to be pro-life.” Do you disagree?

  • No, MM, I am not missing the point. Abortion is absolutley condemned by the Church, and the death penalty is not. To even remotely conflate the two issues in some sort of pseudo seemless garment argument is absurd.

  • conflate: to fuse into one entity; merge

    MM isn’t suggesting that we “conflate” the issues. They are distinct issues. They cannot, by definition, be “conflated.” But the Church does, authoritatively, link the two issues as undeniably related. It’s called the “culture of death.” Not only JPII but your buddy W has used the phrase. See Evangelium Vitae. Perhaps you have heard of it.

  • . Until John Paul II the Church had no problem with the death penalty being exercised by the State.

    I know. Why would John Paul II ruin the party? Sigh…

    The Church does not exist in a vacuum and if we want to discuss this seriously, we cannot ignore this fact.

  • Until John Paul II the Church had no problem with the death penalty being exercised by the State.

    Ultramontanist Donald strikes again with a mind boggling statement. Are you suggesting that JPII just came up with the idea that the Church should oppose the death penalty, and no other sectors of the Church opposed its brutality until him?

  • As Cardinal Dulles noted, the death penalty cheapens the value of life in general.

    Not sure I agree with this presentation of Dulles’ understanding of the death penalty — he conveys his personal agreement with the prudential judgment of John Paul II, but his assessment of the issue is both fair and complex, and does not repudiate the legitimate arguments for the death penalty. In fact, referring to Bernadin’s “seamless garment” argument, he says:

    3. “Capital punishment cheapens the value of life. By giving the impression that human beings sometimes have the right to kill, it fosters a casual attitude toward evils such as abortion, suicide, and euthanasia.” — This was a major point in Cardinal Bernardin’s speeches and articles on what he called a “consistent ethic of life.” Although this argument may have some validity, its force should not be exaggerated. Many people who are strongly pro-life on issues such as abortion support the death penalty, insisting that there is no inconsistency, since the innocent and the guilty do not have the same rights.

    4. Some hold that the death penalty is incompatible with the teaching of Jesus on forgiveness. This argument is complex at best, since the quoted sayings of Jesus have reference to forgiveness on the part of individual persons who have suffered injury. It is indeed praiseworthy for victims of crime to forgive their debtors, but such personal pardon does not absolve offenders from their obligations in justice. John Paul II points out that “reparation for evil and scandal, compensation for injury, and satisfaction for insult are conditions for forgiveness.”

    … In practice, then, a delicate balance between justice and mercy must be maintained. The State’s primary responsibility is for justice, although it may at times temper justice with mercy. The Church rather represents the mercy of God. Showing forth the divine forgiveness that comes from Jesus Christ, the Church is deliberately indulgent toward offenders, but it too must on occasion impose penalties. The Code of Canon Law contains an entire book devoted to crime and punishment. It would be clearly inappropriate for the Church, as a spiritual society, to execute criminals, but the State is a different type of society. It cannot be expected to act as a Church. In a predominantly Christian society, however, the State may be expected to lean toward mercy provided that it does not thereby violate the demands of justice.

  • Irenaeus

    OK, fine, except most of the consistent-ethic-of-life-people with whom I’ve interacted aren’t consistent: abortion is the least of their concerns and they are very uncomfortable with the issue; they seem to use the phrase to justify their concern for poverty and death penalty issues to the exclusion of concern for abortion issues — or euthanasia, for that matter. Further, I find that such people want government to act, act hard and act fast to eliminate the death penalty and alleviate and eliminate poverty , but then get very sceptical about the necessity of government action in limiting and outlawing abortion, saying instead we should focus on ‘changing hearts.’ So you’ll forgive me if I’m a little sceptical of this ‘consistent ethic of life’ sort of thing.

    Further, one can indeed, in theory, make a consistent argument that one can be pro-capitalist and pro-death penalty and pro-life re: abortion and euthanasia.

  • Rick:

    No, I don’t disagree. However, I find many opponents of “state intervention” have few answers to many of the pressing issues of the day. If you can show me how “market oriented” policies can foster social solidarity and the preferential option for the poor, then fine. I am not an ideologue, or a socialist (but I do follow Pius XI in believing that socialism and laissez-faire liberalism are the “twin rocks of shipwreck”). I find that too many simply wave the “prudential judgment” flag to mask putting ideology above theology. But that’s not good enough. For example, I don’t see many anti-state types promoting policies like in-work benefits or active labor market policies, both of which are compatible with high employment and low poverty rates. It’s the same with health care. If you don’t like single payer, that’s fine, but you can’t ignore 47 million without insurance. And pushing tax credits will do not it, sorry.

  • Iranaeus:

    Pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-capitalist? I’m sure you can come up with some justification for that, but why would you want to diverge from Church teaching on 2 out of 3 issues? At least us seamless garment types try hard to think with the Church on all life issues.

  • Further, I find that such people want government to act, act hard and act fast to eliminate the death penalty and alleviate and eliminate poverty , but then get very sceptical about the necessity of government action in limiting and outlawing abortion, saying instead we should focus on ‘changing hearts.’ So you’ll forgive me if I’m a little sceptical of this ‘consistent ethic of life’ sort of thing.

    Who else but the government CAN act to end the death penalty, since it is the state who does the killing???

  • Donald R. McClarey

    “Ultramontanist Donald strikes again with a mind boggling statement. Are you suggesting that JPII just came up with the idea that the Church should oppose the death penalty, and no other sectors of the Church opposed its brutality until him?”

    No Catholic Anarchist, some Catholics of course opposed the death penalty prior to the late pope. If they merely argued that in their opinion the death penalty was unneccessary or inhumane, no problem. The State in the traditional teaching of the Church had the option to exercise the death penalty. Catholics wishing to convince the State not to impose the death penalty did not run afoul of the magisterium, just as they could not enlist the magisterium to support their efforts. However, Catholics who argued that the death penalty was immoral and contrary to the Faith would have been directly contradicting the clear and consistant teaching of the Church. For example, the Vatican kept the death penalty in its code of penal law until 1969, and the Vatican Constitution mentioned the death penalty until a new constitution was promulgated by John Paul II on November 26, 2000. The traditional teaching was restated by PiusXII on Sept. 14, 1952: “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.”

  • radicalcatholicmom

    MM: You bring up a great issue here. I have found that when pro-aborts ask me “Are you also against the death penalty?” and I answer “yes” they cannot say anything else. In a way the burden is placed back on them, especially when I ask them why they are not consistent. It may not change their mind, but it certainly makes them think.

  • Daniel H. Conway

    Prof Garnett,

    The market exists as a predicatble promoter of economic activity. But why? Here is an hypothesis: That the market reflects the predictable, animal-based, hard-wired, (in the spirit of Augustine and Paul) “of-the-flesh” human functions. Just like predicting sexual arousal. Less “of the Spirit.” Greed and consumption determines market functions.

    And we try to leash this demonic device for the cause of Light and Truth. Good luck on that for the long term.

  • Blackadder

    I’m not sure why being pro-death penalty and pro-capitalism means one has diverged from Church teaching. After all, Centesimus Annus has many positive things to say about capitalism properly understood, and Evangelium Vitae allows for the use of the death penalty in certain circumstances.

  • X-Cathedra

    It seems to me that the real issue isn’t whether or not the death penalty is contrary to the faith per se, but rather, granting as I do that it is a matter of prudential judgment, whether each specific instance of its application is contrary or not. One need not “conflate” abortion and the death penalty in arguing for a consistent pro-life ethic, because in theory they are connected insofar as the teaching on each derives from the same fundamental principles of the faith. One can do this granting 1) that abortion has more moral weight and is always contrary to the faith, and 2) that the death penalty is not contrary per se, but is a matter of prudential judgment.

    What I’d ask is: what about each instance of the death penalty? It seems to me that no Catholic death penalty advocate (and by this I mean those disagreeing with the prudential judgment of our last Pope) has ever attempted to show why the American justice system displays a prudential judgment more in line with the principles of the faith than, say, John Paul II. It’s rather easy to argue that the death penalty is not abortion; it seems rather harder to show that that excuses us from the duty to examine whether or not judgments are made case-by-case that reflect Catholic theological ethics. Wasn’t that what John Paul was making (whether it was included in the Catechism or not): a prudential judgment? And wouldn’t one be forced to examine whether, in fact, with regard to each case, the American implementation of the death penalty is consistent or not?

    So, sure, the death penalty is not abortion and is not contrary to the faith per se. I would never dare conflate the two and frankly don’t know how one could reasonably argue the contrary. But it seems to be that “a consistent ethic of life” means with regard to the death penalty examining the prudential judgments, not bickering about whether its theoretically licit.

    Don’t we have a duty as Catholics, exercising reason, familiar with the ethical principles of the faith, to stop jabbering about whether the death penalty is ever licit, and start asking whether it actually IS licit AS it is being practiced? It seems to me that there are a number of factors that lead one to sincerely doubt the ability of the American justice system to function according to a Catholic ethic of life…

    Pax Christi,

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  • Policraticus

    The State in the traditional teaching of the Church had the option to exercise the death penalty.

    Given that “The State” is an abstract entity whose concrete instantiations are neither congruent nor monolithic, would not this so-called “traditional” teaching be subject to a critical read? Is not Donald already uncritically and dogmatically accepting the validity of this teaching over and against that of Pope John Paul II? Is not this teaching, due to the fluctuation and historical contingency of “The State,” the epitome of what some would call a “prudential judgment”? And if so, could not this prudential judgment be subject to adaption, modification or reversal?

    My point? This “traditional” teaching is being taken for granted as binding and irreformable when it is. by its very nature, neither.

  • Policraticus

    I have found that when pro-aborts ask me “Are you also against the death penalty?” and I answer “yes” they cannot say anything else. In a way the burden is placed back on them, especially when I ask them why they are not consistent. It may not change their mind, but it certainly makes them think.

    RCM, you touch on a very important point. Generally, people are not going to wait while a Catholic explains the difference between death penalty and abortion in terms of ethic of life. Any Catholic who so eagerly defends the use of the death penalty must eventually face the reality that such a defense will often be met by cynicism and dismissal in conversations with pro-choice individuals, for there is something fundamentally counter-intuitive about the supposed consistency of defending unborn life and defending State-sponsored executions. The Church has never promoted the death penalty. She has, at times, conceded its use to the State with sharp conditions for its possible moral legitimacy. On the other hand, the Church actively promotes the value of life from conception to natural death. It seems to me that any Catholic who strongly defends the use of the death penalty does so without the blessing of the Church. I would venture so far as to suggest that the defender of the death penalty has ceased to think as a Catholic. It is one thing to accept that the State may use the death penalty–this is, in my opinion, no threat to one’s faith. It is quite another to promote and defend the use of the death penalty.

  • Jonathan

    What is the source of your argument that the State should be the solution, Morning’s Minion?

  • Zak

    Policratius, are you deconstructing the state? When Christ says, “Render to Caesar…” is your response, “Caesar is a historically contingent construct” or “an abstract entity whose concrete instantiations are neither congruent nor monolithic”? That may be true, but I think the burden of proof is on you to say why the traditional Catholic understanding of the legitimate role of the state in enforcing justice is no longer valid. That what the “state” is changes does not seem to undermine the authority of government. How that authority ought to be exercised is certainly in the realm of prudential judgement, buts existence might not be. It seems to me, one struggles to imagine worse rulers than those who led Rome when Jesus and Paul preached, and yet their authority was deemed legitimate.

    Pope John Paul II’s teaching seems to be that for a variety of reasons, the practice of the death penalty should be dramatically proscribed, so that we may bear more complete witness to the value of human life, showing the same mercy in our administration of justice that we hope our Lord will show to us. He further supports this message of love with a number of prudential and practical reasons why the death penalty may be limited, the foremost of which is that it is no longer needed (in almost all cases) to protect society.

    He makes this case without deconstructing the notion of the state or deeming its possession of authority a matter of prudential judgment. In doing so (or appearing to me to do so), you seem to be letting post-modern philosophy get the better of you. When you start deconstructing, it’s hard to stop, and you wouldn’t want to dismantle your foundations, which it seems like you could do by opening virtually all ‘”traditional” teaching’ that relates in some way to the exercise of prudence.

  • Policraticus

    Zak,

    No, I am not deconstructing the state, if you are referring to the philosophical trend known as Deconstruction. But if you are asking whether I am relativising the State, then I answer, yes, I am. “The State” in itself is a mental creation, a concept without feet. In the lived world, “The State” is manifold, differentiated, diverse and fluctuating. The State is, by definition, a contingent entity. Therefore, it cannot be considered an unchanging term in any Church pronouncement.

    When Christ says, “Render to Caesar…” is your response, “Caesar is a historically contingent construct” or “an abstract entity whose concrete instantiations are neither congruent nor monolithic”?

    Christ gets it. “Render unto the State?” No. “Render unto Caesar.” Caesar, whose actual image appears on the coin, is an historical entity, who lived and died in a given time and place, and whose office continued for a time before being extinguished (5th century AD if you count the fall of Rome, 15th century AD if you count the fall of Constantinople). Christ did not speak of rendering anything to the Caesar except the tax, so we must be cautious as to how we use the particular verse you quote.

    But such is immaterial to the original point. The State, by definition and in formal instantiation, is a contingent and fluctuating entity. Which State? Any State? State in the Euro-American sense? State in the African sense? The tribal sense? The corporate sense? One must take into consideration that the very concept of State is historically conditioned, since there have been, there are, and there will be societies and cultures who lack the neat, tidy Western category of “The State,” and because no two “State” are the same. And if we want to be Catholic (i.e. universal), well, we have to beware that we do not universalize and canonize contingent and relative categories.

  • Rick Garnett

    MM, thanks for the response. I agree with pretty much all you said: yes, “prudence” can’t be just an excuse for preferring an un-Catholic ideology. I don’t have an “ideological” objection to a single-payer system, either; I’m just skeptical that such a system would, or could, deliver high-quality care to as many people as ours (for all its faults) does. (I *do* have an “ideological” objection to government-run elementary schools — or rather, a *Catholic* objection — but that’s a matter for another day!)

  • Michael Enright

    Consistency is in the eye of the beholder. When I was a philosophy undergraduate, most teachers assistants could not understand how one can consistantly be pro-life when it comes to abortion and not be a vegitarian. The rationale is that there are many pigs that are smarter with more developed nervous systems than a fetus. One’s opponents can read contradictions in numerous positions, none of which one has ever thought of or taken seriously, based solely on the way one’s opponents does philosophy. Similarly, even though I am against the death penalty and pro life, one can make distinctions that would be pro-life and pro-death penalty without being self contradictory.

  • Blackadder

    It takes about five seconds to explain the difference between abortion and the death penalty, and the explanation is much simpler than, say, Policraticus’ explanation of the contingency of “The State.” And since liberals clearly don’t see anything wrong with being pro-choice and anti-death penalty, I suspect that a concern about “hypocrisy” is not the real reason why people are pro-choice.

  • Policraticus

    And since liberals clearly don’t see anything wrong with being pro-choice and anti-death penalty, I suspect that a concern about “hypocrisy” is not the real reason why people are pro-choice.

    I am considered by most of my family and friends to be a “liberal,” and yet I see something very wrong with being pro-choice and anti-death penalty. The problem is being pro-choice, not anti-death penalty, however.

    It takes about five seconds to explain the difference between abortion and the death penalty,

    Indeed…perhaps even less than five seconds! But you are talking about the difference in entity. I am talking about the difference in ethic–a much more substantial topic that requires a bit more time and effort to explain.

  • I didn’t intend this post to turn into a death penalty debate, but such is the way the winds blow…

    My take is very simple. The teaching that the death penalty is only valid when necessary for the defense of society is not a prudential judgement, as it does not refer to particular facts or circumstances. It is a statement on principles that warrants religious submission (even if you do not think it is infallibly defined). When John Paul argued that such situations are practically non-existent in modern society– that is indeed a prudential judgment, but one that is hard to refute given the underlying premise (again, prundetial judgments must be in accord with reason, and should not simply be a “get out of jail free card” for Catholics who disagree with particular teachings).

  • Blackadder

    Morning’s Minion,

    What John Paul II said that the circumstances in which the death penalty were justified today were “rare, if not practically non-existent.” Pretending the first three of these words are non-existent does you no credit.

  • “…rare, if not practically non-existent.”

    Meaning that in theory the circumstances are rare and that in practice (i.e., REAL LIFE) they are non-existent.

    Pretending that that is not what JPII meant does you no credit.

  • Policraticus

    Michael I.,

    Right! The structure of John Paul II’s statment is: If P, then Q.

    P: Circumstances that warrant the just use of the death penalty are practically existent.

    Q: Circumstances that warrant the just use of the death penalty are rare.

    “Practically” here does not mean “virtually” or “just about.” “Practically,” in moral theology, refers to actual concrete situations. The argument, then, begins with P and not Q: We must first determine whether there are any circumstances at all to warrant the just use of the death penalty. If there are not, then Q does not necessarily follow. If there are, they must be rare (Q).

  • Blackadder

    If P, then Q is logically equivalent to Not P or Q. Not P or Q, however, is not logically equivalent to Not P. So when JPII says that the circumstances in which the death penalty are justified are “rare, if not practically non-existent” this is equivalent to saying that they are either rare or practically non-existent. It is not equivalent to saying that they are practically non-existent.

  • Policraticus

    If P, then Q is logically equivalent to Not P or Q.

    No. Denying the antecedent does not lead to an outright denial of the consequent. This is a logical fallacy.

    So when JPII says that the circumstances in which the death penalty are justified are “rare, if not practically non-existent” this is equivalent to saying that they are either rare or practically non-existent.

    No. You are arguing for either/or when the clear statement is a conditional. As I noted in my previous comment, P may or may not be the case, but in order of consideration (as opposed to the rule of logic), P precedes the consideration of Q. This is very plain from the text. Considering John Paul II was a philosopher by trade, his logical and moral precision probably does not need to be called into question, especially if we are attempting to force his work into a conventional framework.

  • Meaning that in theory the circumstances are rare and that in practice (i.e., REAL LIFE) they are non-existent.

    Michael,

    There was a very recent case IN REAL LIFE, where the death penalty was not only allowed, but necessary. This was the case of Saddam Hussein. He was guilty beyone any doubt, and while he was incarcerated, his followers would kidnap and execute innocent people to try and foce his release.

    Saddam’s execution ended that.

    In modern times, in the case of high profile terrorists, I see this as becoming more and more common.

    Does the exception justify the regular case? No. I am opposed to the death penalty when keeping the perp warehoused until he’s room temperature will accomplish the same purpose.

  • X-Cathedra

    MM’s last post summed it up nicely. The next and important step is to ask: are the prudential judgments of the court systems in this country consistent with Catholic moral principles?

    Pax Christi,

  • Tony — The view you expressed is precisely OPPOSITE of the view expressed by the hierarchy of the Church. Who is YOUR magisterium?

  • Blackadder

    Policraticus,

    If P, then Q is logically equivalent to Not P or Q. See the third table here:

    http://www.math.hawaii.edu/~ramsey/Logic/IfThen.html

    Denying the antecedent is when you infer Not Q from If P, then Q, and Not P:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denying_the_antecedent

  • Tony:

    If you think Saddam Hussein’s execution was justified, please read more on Churhc teachings are regards the death penalty. Cardinal Dulles, who acknowledges that the death penalty received support from the Church in the past, comes out in agreement in John Paul II. He asks the question: does retributive justice have any role in the death penalty? He answers in the negative, while not denying the theological basis on retributive justice, on the grounds that in modern society has lost all notions of divine justice. What happens instead is that retributive justice morphs into vengeance, which is always bad. As Dulles puts it “the death penalty expresses not the divine judgment on objective evil but rather the collective anger of the group”. Nowhere is this clearer than with the execution of Saddam Hussein.

  • MM – In addition, the Church spoke out explicitly against the execution of Saddam Hussein.

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  • Policraticus

    Ah, Blackadder, you mean: (not(P)) or Q. Yet, you wrote Not P or Q. The nomenclature of symbolic logic is quite specific, so what you originally wrote “Not P or Q” was not what you meant.

  • If you think Saddam Hussein’s execution was justified, please read more on Churhc teachings are regards the death penalty. Cardinal Dulles, who acknowledges that the death penalty received support from the Church in the past, comes out in agreement in John Paul II. He asks the question: does retributive justice have any role in the death penalty? He answers in the negative, while not denying the theological basis on retributive justice, on the grounds that in modern society has lost all notions of divine justice. What happens instead is that retributive justice morphs into vengeance, which is always bad. As Dulles puts it “the death penalty expresses not the divine judgment on objective evil but rather the collective anger of the group”. Nowhere is this clearer than with the execution of Saddam Hussein

    MM, my support of the execution of Saddam has nothing to do with retribution, and everything to do with the protection of innocents from the aggression of his followers.

    Maybe those who executed him were of the wrong mind set. I can’t judge their hearts. But I could support the execution of Saddam with a clean conscience for the reasons I stated. No hatred, no malice, no anger, simply the admission that it was the only way to protect innocents in that society.

    And Michael, I didn’t forget about you. I’m ignoring you.

  • “The only way to protect innocents in that society” Just listen to the rubbish you are writing! How many innocents are dying in Iraq on a daily basis, long after Saddam has gone to his grave, thanks to what the US military unleashed? Life is worse today than under Saddam– don’t take my word for it, listen to the Bishop of Baghdad. Unless that is, you take the word of your president above that of your fellow Catholics in Iraq.

  • And Michael, I didn’t forget about you. I’m ignoring you.

    Me, the teaching of your church, and the voices of the victims of the death penalty. Keep your ears shut, Tony.

  • “The only way to protect innocents in that society” Just listen to the rubbish you are writing! How many innocents are dying in Iraq on a daily basis, long after Saddam has gone to his grave, thanks to what the US military unleashed?

    So this is a game of numbers to you, MM? We’re not discussing the licitness of the Iraq war, we’re discussing the applicability of the death penalty. Try and keep on task.

  • You, Tony, are the one who brought up Saddam Hussein. You are the one who cheered his execution, and you are the one who decided to ignore Michael for pointing out that the Vatican opposed something you seemed to take pleasure in.

    John Paul taught that the death penalty should not be used unless there are other means of defening society. The only possible way you could apply that to Saddam would be to attach a very high probability of him; (i) being busted out of jail; (ii) restored to power; (iii) initating a campaign of murder and mayhem. This is an extremely unlikey chain of events. Moreover, Iraqis (especially Iraqq Christians) are worse off today than under Saddam, irrespective of how vile he was. No, Tony, you want vengance.