Deadly unserious

Catholic bishops are obliged to convey the authentic teaching of the Church on matters of faith and morals.  The modern, secular, liberal world utterly despises that teaching, and its hostility has only increased in the decades since the Fathers of Vatican II hoped that some common ground might be found on the basis of which the Church and the world could cooperate.  A bishop can deal with this situation in one of two ways.  He can damn the torpedoes and press on at full speed, Athanasius contra mundum.   Or he can temporize.  We have seen how the temporizing strategy played out during last year’s debate over health care.  It is manifest in many other areas too, such as the debate over capital punishment, as current events in Illinois and Arizona illustrate.

Here’s how the temporizing approach works.  Where the liberal or secularist finds Catholic teaching hopelessly “reactionary,” the temporizing churchman will either keep silent about it or qualify it to the point of blunting or even neutralizing its force.  Hence he will, for example, say nothing at all about contraception.  Homosexuality and abortion he cannot keep silent about, because they are matters of current political controversy.  Regarding homosexuality, then, he will issue a vague statement to the effect that the Church believes that we are all called to honor the Creator’s plan for sex and marriage.  If he can’t avoid doing so, he will acknowledge that this entails that homosexual activity is immoral; but he will also, and almost before he has finished uttering it, proceed to bury this acknowledgment under a mountain of verbiage about the respect, sensitivity, compassion, and understanding owed homosexual persons, about the evils of discrimination, etc.  Regarding abortion, the temporizing bishop will speak vaguely of “promoting a culture of life” and emphasize the compassion owed women who find themselves “in difficult circumstances” – rather than, say, calling attention to the unique depravity of willfully murdering your own flesh and blood for the sake of a hassle-free orgasm.  No matter how wicked the practice or policy and no matter how shrill and dishonest the propaganda of its defenders, the temporizing bishop will respond in the mildest fashion and will attribute only the best motives to the other side.  As George Carlin might have put it, whereas the great churchmen of the past were football players, the modern, temporizing bishop prefers baseball.  Or to switch metaphors, he brings a bean bag to a gunfight. 

Or at least he does so where, again, the Church’s teaching seems “reactionary.”  Where it seems (or can be made to seem) “progressive,” the temporizing churchman suddenly turns into Knute Rockne, or Gary Cooper in High Noon.   He will issue bold statements on immigration, health care, or capital punishment, and will emphasize these purportedly “liberal friendly” issues to the point of exaggerating their significance relative to the Church’s more “reactionary” teachings.  And he will see common ground between Catholicism and liberalism where in fact there is no common ground – sometimes in a manner that seriously distorts what the Church actually teaches.  Again, last year’s health care debate provides an illustration: The statements made at the time by the USCCB gave the false impression that, apart from federal funding of abortion, Catholic teaching would favor the passage of President’s health care bill, or something like it.  But as I noted at the time, the fact is that while Catholic social teaching unambiguously rejects the dogmatic laissez-faire position of extreme libertarianism, it is at the level of general principle nevertheless much closer to the “conservative” end of the political spectrum than to the “liberal” end – insisting, on grounds of justice, on decentralized and private solutions wherever possible, and leaving matters of concrete policy for competent laymen to decide rather than imposing any particular program.

Something similar can be said of Catholic teaching about capital punishment, though you would never guess it from the statements made by some churchmen.  To be sure, the Church firmly rejects the bloodthirsty “hang ‘em high” attitude one finds among some right-wingers.  But she has also firmly and consistently rejected the claim that the death penalty is inherently unjust.  As we saw in a previous post, the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is grounded in natural law and in the infallible moral teaching of scripture, and is the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church from her foundation down to the present day.  It was reaffirmed even by Pope John Paul II, who was probably the most prominent churchmen ever to oppose the death penalty.  Indeed, the late Pope even stopped short of claiming that capital punishment was never justifiable in practice, holding only that cases where it might be called for are “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

The significance of this refusal of the Church to embrace doctrinaire abolitionism cannot be overstated, for it puts the Church fundamentally at odds with liberalism at the level of principle, whatever commonalities there might be between some bishops and some liberal politicians at the level of policy.  And it shows how poorly thought-out and misleading are the statements sometimes made on this subject by Catholic bishops, including the recent statements cited above.  The Arizona bishops assert that capital punishment is “state-sanctioned vengeance that is not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” that “when other means are available to keep society safe from dangerous criminals [capital punishment] denies the intrinsic dignity and sanctity of human life,” and that it “is actually a contribution to a culture of death.”  But these statements are, from the point of view of the actual teaching of the Church, either false or in need of serious qualification.  As with the bishops’ statements on health care, crucial but ambiguous terms are left undefined, nuances in Catholic teaching are ignored, and apparent inconsistencies are unresolved. 

Take the assertion that capital punishment amounts to “state-sanctioned vengeance that is not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  Is St. Paul speaking at odds with the Gospel when under divine inspiration he tells us in the epistle to the Romans that the state “bears not the sword in vain” and acts as a “minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath on him that does evil”?  The answer, of course, is No, and the reason is clear from the Church’s traditional teaching.  As Cardinal Roberti’s Dictionary of Moral Theology tells us, the term “vengeance” has both a broad and a narrow sense.  In the broad sense of the term, vengeance is “the infliction of physical punishment upon someone as retribution for injury caused to another.”  And in this sense, vengeance “if done for good and just motives, e.g., love of justice, or preservation of the juridico-social order, or the correction of an evildoer, by a competent authority, according to laws … of itself, is a good act.”  This is the sort of “revenge” or “vengeance” that St. Paul is endorsing in Romans and that the Church herself has always endorsed precisely because it is necessary to maintain a just social order.  For it is this sort of “vengeance” that the state is engaged in not only when executing criminals, but in inflicting any other punishment – in incarcerating evildoers, levying fines, and so forth. 

Of course, there is also a narrower and objectionable sense of “vengeance.”  In this sense, Roberti’s Dictionary tells us, vengeance is punishment that is “inflicted out of an ill-feeling toward one who has offended, ill-treated or caused suffering to another, or simply to satisfy one’s ill feeling toward his enemy, or for the pleasure of payment in kind.”  It is this sort of vengeance that is contrary to Christian charity, “an evil act” and “a sin.”  But there is no more reason to think that capital punishment is especially linked to “vengeance” in this objectionable sense than there is to think that incarceration or the levying of fines is linked to it.

The Arizona bishops’ statement rests, then, on a fallacy of equivocation.  Capital punishment is indeed “state-sanctioned vengeance” in the first sense of “vengeance,” but in that sense it is not contrary to “the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  “Vengeance” in the second sense is contrary to the Gospel, but capital punishment is not, or need not be, “vengeance” in that sense.

But isn’t “vengeance” even in the first sense ruled out by John Paul’s II teaching – cited by the Arizona bishops – to the effect that “capital punishment should be limited only to extremely rare situations where it is necessary to defend society”?  For doesn’t that teaching entail that the Church’s “current” position is that only “defense” – rather than punishment or retributive justice – can legitimately motivate a resort to capital punishment?

The answer is that John Paul II’s teaching does not entail that at all; in fact it entails just the opposite.  For neither the late Pope nor any other orthodox Catholic moralist would ever advocate executing an innocent person, or someone guilty of only a relatively minor offense, in the name of “defending society.”  They would never say, for example, that teenagers guilty of minor acts of vandalism should be summarily shot in circumstances where there are no prisons to hold them.  The reason is obvious: Teenage vandals have done nothing to deserve the death penalty, whereas murderers haveThat is why the latter might at least in principle be executed in the interests of “defending society,” while the former may not be.  Far from pointing away from the Church’s traditional teaching that capital punishment can be merited on grounds of retributive justice, then, the late Pope’s position implicitly reinforces that traditional teaching.

One must also be careful in interpreting the claim that “defense” alone can justify capital punishment.  Both in this context and when discussing just war theory, those inclined toward a more “liberal” position typically presuppose an arbitrarily narrow construal of what counts as a “defensive” action.  In particular, they appear to assume that lethal force can only ever be deployed in direct response to some immediate attack – when an enemy army is actually pouring over the border, say, or when a captured murderer could at any moment break his guard’s neck and escape.  But moral theologians have traditionally used “defense” to cover a much wider range of actions.  For instance, older manuals of ethics and moral theology (such as Fagothey’s Right and Reason) allow that a “punitive war” carried out against a “gangster nation” can in principle count as “defensive,” especially insofar as this would help to preserve “right order and the future peace of the world.”  (I have discussed this issue at length in a series of posts on just war – here, here, and here – at the old Right Reason blog.) 

By the same token, capital punishment would surely be justifiable in principle as a way of “defending society” if it has significant deterrence value.  Of course, whether it really does have such value is a matter of controversy.  But it is also an empirical matter concerning which bishops have no special competence, and about which Catholics might reasonably disagree.  (This is no doubt why then-Cardinal Ratzinger affirmed in 2004 that faithful Catholics could in principle “be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment” and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about… applying the death penalty.”)

For these reasons, it simply will not do glibly to assert that capital punishment under modern conditions “denies the intrinsic dignity and sanctity of human life” and “promotes a culture of death.”  Does putting criminals in prison “deny the dignity of human free will” or “promote a culture of slavery”?  Does levying fines on them violate the right to private property or “promote a culture of theft”?  Obviously not, and the reason is that a criminal can, by virtue of his actions, forfeit his right to liberty and to his property.  But in the same way, he can “deprive himself of his own right to life” (as Pope Pius XII put it).  That does not mean that the state should always exercise its right to take his life.  But it does entail that capital punishment cannot possibly be intrinsically contrary to “the sanctity of human life” or conducive to a “culture of death.”  If it were, then the Church would not and could not teach that capital punishment can at least in principle be legitimate.

Why, then, does the Church “currently” take a more negative view of capital punishment than she has in the past?  The answer is that she does not do so, at least not at the level of principle.  And even at the practical level, the novelty of John Paul II’s teaching has been exaggerated both by his critics and by some of his admirers.  For one can find similar views expressed earlier in the Catholic theological tradition, including in the supposedly more “reactionary” moralists of the Neo-Scholastic pre-Vatican II period.  Consider Volume 1 of the 1925 edition of Fr. Thomas Slater’s A Manual of Moral Theology, which tells us, on the one hand, that:

The right of the State to punish criminals with the infliction of death is either expressly conceded or clearly supposed in Holy Scripture.  It is sufficiently evident, too, from natural reason…

while nevertheless affirming, on the other hand, that:

If the time should ever come when the infliction of less severe penalties will suffice to punish crime and safeguard life and property, then capital punishment should be abolished, but that time does not seem to be at hand yet. (p. 196)

Or consider the 1921 edition of Spirago and Clarke’s The Catechism Explained, which, after affirming that “the officers of justice are warranted in punishing evil-doers with death,” emphasizes that this punishment should be inflicted “only… when the welfare of society demands it” (p. 388) and insists that:

It is an error to suppose that the Church advocates capital punishment on the principle of retaliation; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth… The Church does not like to see blood shed, she desires that every sinner should have time to amend.  She permits, but does not approve capital punishment. (p. 389)

This particular passage indicates that the reason for a more lenient treatment of those guilty of the most serious crimes has to do not with justice, but with mercy – with giving “every sinner… time to amend.”  As the 2005 Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, the Church prefers when possible that punishment “do[es] not remove definitively from the guilty party the possibility of reforming himself.”

This is the deep reason why the Church’s position can never be assimilated to that of the liberal secularist opponent of capital punishment.  In fact the two positions are diametrically opposed.  The Church insists that it is in principle just to execute a murderer, because such a person has forfeited his right to life and done something worthy of death.  The Church’s appeal is rather to mercy, for the murderer has also merited a punishment far worse than death – eternal damnation – and the Church hopes that the murderer might still avoid this punishment if given time to repent.  The liberal secularist, by contrast, insists that capital punishment is unjust, on the grounds that no one ever forfeits his right to life and that no one is deserving of execution.  The liberal does not fundamentally appeal to mercy, then, because in the legal context, one typically shows mercy precisely by refraining from inflicting a punishment that is deserved.  The liberal secularist also denies that there is any afterlife in which we are to be punished or rewarded, and objects to capital punishment in part precisely for this reason.  In short, the Church’s recommendation against capital punishment is not absolute, and presupposes that we have a supernatural end; the liberal secularist’s abolitionism is absolute, and presupposes that we do not have a supernatural end.  The liberal secularist cares only about this life.  The Church cares primarily about the next life.  (On this point, see this 2007 Anthony McCarthy piece from Touchstone.)

Any statement of Catholic teaching that does not make these differences crystal clear is simply not theologically serious.  For the inescapable fact is that the contemporary Magisterium of the Church, two millennia of tradition, and the infallible moral teaching of scripture all affirm the legitimacy in principle of the death penalty. It would be foolish and intellectually dishonest to pretend that this is a minor point, which can safely be ignored for practical purposes.  The affirmation exists for a reason, and commands our attention.  It teaches us something important about the nature of justice, about the gravity of certain crimes, and about the relative insignificance of this life compared to the next.  To cite only those scriptural passages or ecclesiastical documents which emphasize mercy while minimizing or ignoring those which emphasize the legitimacy of the death penalty is to distort the significance of the former.

My own view is that when every aspect of Catholic teaching is carefully considered, it should lead even those Catholics who are skeptical about capital punishment to oppose a thoroughgoing abolitionist position.  For to take the death penalty off the books entirely would “send the message” that the liberal secularist approach to the issue is correct, and as we have seen, no Catholic can possibly endorse that approach.  Better to maintain capital punishment as an option in principle, then, even if its actual application is “very rare, if not nonexistent.”  And if it does indeed have significant deterrent value – a position that a Catholic has a right to hold if he believes the evidence supports it – then its application arguably should not be rare.

In any event, it seems to me that a summary of the Church’s teaching that takes every aspect of it into account might look something like this:

The Catholic Church teaches that those guilty of the most serious crimes, such as murder, have forfeited their right to life and thus merit the penalty of death.  For this reason, lawful authorities can in principle justly inflict this penalty on such criminals in circumstances where following such a policy is the best way of protecting society against them.  However, the Church also fervently desires that every sinner have an opportunity to repent and thereby to avoid eternal damnation while he still has a chance to do so.  She also teaches forgiveness and mercy, and insists that no punishment ever be inflicted in a spirit of vengeance.  Accordingly, the Church maintains that it is more in harmony with the special dignity entailed by the supernatural end to which we have been called that justice be tempered with mercy, and that the death penalty not be inflicted when non-lethal means are sufficient to protect society.  Exactly when such means are in fact sufficient is a prudential matter for competent lawful authorities to determine, and about which Catholics can legitimately disagree.  They must be careful to keep all aspects of the Church’s teaching in mind as they form their thinking on this subject.

But I do not expect to hear such a statement any time soon.  Athanasius has, alas, been dead for some time.
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