Cleansing Fire

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Four Catholic Journals and the Death Penalty

March 7th, 2015, Promulgated by Ben Anderson

I’ll merely point you to Ed Feser: Capital punishment should not end

and to Steven A. Long: Four Catholic Journals Indulge in Doctrinal Solipsism

all the Doctors and Fathers of the Church–with the exception of Tertullian who died outside the faith– have taught the essential validity of capital punishment; and that it is the teaching of the Council of Trent that where all the Fathers and Doctors hold one interpretation of Scripture as the proper one, Catholics are to accept it, are two propositions that signify very little in the oppressive culture of mutationist accounts of doctrinal development.

and to Cardinal Ratzinger: Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles (feels like I just linked here).

While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

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10 Responses to “Four Catholic Journals and the Death Penalty”

  1. avatar annonymouse says:

    I read Dr. Feser and I read Dr. Peters, and neither adequately addresses what the catechism and St. John Paul II of fond memory taught: “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent (John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56).’”

    Dr. Feser asserts that capital punishment is about protection of the common good and about justice. The catechism recognizes the first, but says nothing about the second. Capital punishment MAY serve the common good, if it is the only means of protection against the perpetrator. These days, in the west at least, that is simply a non-starter. In our country, we have the means of protecting society from criminals without resorting to killing them. Which is why St. JP2 said it should be “practically non-existent.” As to justice – maybe I’m simple but that sounds an awful lot like retribution / vengeance.

    Now, something that nobody seems to be focusing on, is that the Church sees capital punishment as allowable in cases in which there is no doubt as to guilt, which is a different (higher) standard than our legal system is designed to meet. We prove defendants guilty beyond a “reasonable doubt” and continue to execute criminals according to this standard, so at a minimum, Catholics, it seems to me, should oppose executions in any case in which there remains some doubt as to guilt. Which is most cases.

    Finally, as disciples of One who suffered execution (and what might be perceived as a “just” one at that – lacking convincing evidence that He was Who He said He was, there was no doubt as to His guilt of blasphemy!), is the death penalty really what converted lovers of the Lord – deserving of death for our own sins but washed clean in His blood – is that really what we should be advocating?

    All that said, I sincerely wish that the four esteemed Catholic journals spent this much effort and spoke with such force and unanimity against a much more cut-and-dried and urgent issue – that of abortion, on which we Catholics are not allowed disagreement with the Church’s teaching. I won’t hold my breath waiting.

  2. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    I quickly read through Feser’s article and didn’t thoroughly read Peters’, but I did read Dr. Steven A. Long’s article twice. The 2 main points I took away were:

    1) Application of the death penalty is a prudential judgment call – not something all Catholics *must* be against. And in fact, no Catholic can call it “malum in se”. This is a *very* important distinction if we are to make sense of doctrinal continuity (a distinction which the journals didn’t care to make). If we’re OK saying that what was established Church teaching is now intrinsically evil, then you’re making the case for Catholicism pretty weak (incoherent).

    2) This is a call for the US Supreme Court to go against the Constitution. As Long states:

    Thus the journals’ insistence that the court once more ignore the Constitution seems to imply a memory lapse that normative reference to that document in its integrity is necessary to several ongoing legal cases of Catholic institutions attempting to preserve their just right to operate as such without being coerced to cooperate in triggering financing for essentially vicious action. The four journals that published this editorial would have done better to join in a statement defending these endangered institutions. Certainly urging the US Supreme Court toward further deconstruction of the US Constitution serves neither the just interests of the common good nor the evangelical mission and liberty of the Roman Catholic Church.

    As far as the prudential application of the death penalty goes – I really don’t have a strong opinion or care to debate here. The point of this post was to respond to the fact that … I’ll just quote Long again:

    Four Catholic journals–the National Catholic Register, America, The National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor–have decided to press for the total abolition of the death penalty in the United States in a shared editorial, making only faintly veiled suggestions that it is essentially evil, “abhorrent”.

    Once again we’re left with proof that the magisterial authority of our cherished “orthodox” and “conservative” Catholic media is quite fallible (and even harmful).

  3. avatar BGP says:

    Thanks for posting this Ben. The notion that a Catholic must be absolutely, and unconditionally opposed to the death penalty is untrue (and is a cudgel used by certain leftist proabortion ‘catholic’ politicians against their opponents.)

    I don’t have a very developed opinion on the matter myself but I have a difficult time buying the frequently cited idea, that we don’t need the death penalty in our (supposedly) civilized age because we can just lock people up. We are all the time hearing about horrific crimes committed by people who have served past prison sentences for horrific crimes. There are certain people we can’t have in society and if we aren’t willing to throw away the key then we ought to be honest about it. I have often struggled with how St. JPII having experienced the horrors of the Nazis and communists seemed to be naïvely optimistic about humanity, always taking a pacifistic approach to war and the death penalty as if it was wrong to protect oneself and others from those who choose to do evil.

    The question of justice while absent from the most recent universal catechism it is very much part of the churches traditional thinking on the matter as can be seen in the writings of S. Thomas Aquinas and others.

  4. avatar Jim says:

    Ben, Just some thoughts on capital punishment and the Catholic Bishops’ views on it from years ago. The bishops recognized that the State has the right to exercise the execution of criminals, but asks them not to carry it out. I used to be an advocate for capital punishment years ago, thinking it as a deterent against crime. But as I grew older, the thought of taking a perfectly healthy human being and putting him or her to death seems pretty gross and inhumane. Jesus stopped the stoning execution of the woman who committed adultery, advising her to change her ways. When I see the mass carnage in the middle East, and the total disrespect for any human life plastered on the tv every day, I know that we are living in the culture of death. I would support the killing of enemy combatants like ISIS….animals who prey on the innocent. But putting someone in a cage, where they can no longer commit any harm (ideally a life sentence), and then just outright killing them seems to serve no real purpose to me.

  5. avatar annonymouse says:

    Jim – well said.

  6. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    http://www.catholiccourier.com/news/world-nation/christian-leaders-call-for-end-to-profound-evil-of-the-death-penalty/

    “Torture and execution is always a profound evil, made even more abhorrent when sanctioned by the government in the name of justice when other means of protecting society are available,” said the statement released March 31. “All who reverence the sanctity of human life, created in the image of God, must never remain silent when firing squads, lethal injections, electric chairs and other instruments of death are viewed as morally acceptable.”

    This goes directly against the teachings of the Catholic Church.

  7. avatar Jim says:

    Whatever floats your boat, Ben. I’m sure Jesus would just love to see the use of all of the killing methods mentioned above. The Church teaches that we have the right to defend ourselves and someone else’s life, even if that means killing an unjust aggressor, if we and others are in danger. But, if the threat is neutralized, it does not condone the use of torture and execution. I believe in waterboarding, if that method is used to protect the life or lives of innocent people. Many people see it as torture, but waterboarding in itself rarely does harm to the person.

  8. avatar Ben Anderson says:

    Jim,
    Thanks for your input, but I’m afraid you might be missing my point (admittedly, I can make my point difficult to find sometimes 🙂 )

    setting torture aside.. my beef with the quote in the CC article (and similarly the 4 journals) is “execution is always a profound evil”. This is problematic per the Steven A. Long article in the original post (reading the excerpt should be enough).

    btw – I’m not an advocate for the death penalty. I’m an advocate for a intellectually coherent religion – not one that changes with the times (thus cutting off its own feet).

  9. avatar Jim says:

    Ben, I’ll have to do more homework on this topic from the Church’s perspective on capital punishment from over the centuries. I know St. Thomas Aquinas and some of the Church Fathers supported it. These men lived in different times and I’m sure society looked upon it from many different perspectives. I just know from the scriptures that Jesus didn’t condone violence and rebuked James and John from calling down fire from Heaven, on an evil town that wouldn’t welcome them, as well as the incident of the woman taken in adultery

  10. avatar militia says:

    There seems to be a mysterious silence among churchmen who teach that the death penalty is no longer necessary because murderers can be incarcerated without risk of escape. If that is true, what are those two escapees doing roaming around the north country, breaking into cabins and stealing guns? Oh, let me guess — it must be the fault of gun owners.


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