Some Remarks on Pro-Death Penalty Arguments

Yesterday, the Register, along with America, the National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor, made me proud to be a Catholic by joining together in the unity of the Faith and asserting the obviously right and Catholic position of calling for an end to the death penalty.  Predictably a loud chorus of objections was heard from the comboxes making arguments that have been made many times before.  

It's justice! Something hard to maintain given the hugely disproportionate number of minorities slated for death, not to mention the disturbing number of innocent people on death row who have been exonerated by, for instance, DNA evidence.  Also, one doesn't really get the sense of sober concern for justice in the mob that set off fireworks and waved frying pans in the kegger that accompanied the execution of Ted Bundy (a murderer whose life touches mine since I have a relative who came within seconds of being one of his victims).  Don't kid me.  That crowd (and the death penalty) are about vengeance, not justice.

It's biblical! God commands it!  So was stoning people for adultery.  And yet the thoroughly biblical King David--caught bloody-handed in both adultery and murder--is spared the death penalty by God.  So we see that capital punishment is treated, not so much as a positive commandment but as a concession to human weakness, rather  like the "commandment" to allow divorce.  "From the beginning it was not so", which is why the murderer Cain, guilty of what Shakespeare calls "the primal eldest sin" of murdering his brother, is not killed for his crime.

It's a deterrent! Which is, of course, why we shroud the whole thing in secrecy.  Hint: Deterrents are supposed to deter.  A noose or chopping block in the city square might be a deterrent (though historically they were forms of municipal sport and entertainment).  But our present bizarre system of medicalized slaughter that dragoons medical professionals into violating the first precept of the Hippocratic Oath ("Do no harm") and does the whole thing carefully out of the public eye is no deterrent.

What if it were your loved one who was the victim? I would very possibly want the culprit disemboweled in my rage and pain.  Which is, of course, why civilized societies do not leave the process of justice to hysterical and angry victims but instead put that process in the hands of an impartial judge and jury who stand at some distance from the crime and consider the evidence, and the infliction of punishment coolly and rationally.  Setting up the victim's feeling as the gold standard for how to mete out  punishment would not only result in a life for a life, but a life for an eye, a life for a tooth, a life for a wound, a life for a burn.  More than that, it does not address the fundamental fact that the human sacrifice to vengeance that is the death penalty does not heal victims.  Forgiveness does.

There is the cynical But What About My Precious Money? argument for killing people ("Better to execute criminals than let them live off our dime.")  In addition to be being a bangup argument for euthanasia for what the Nazis called "useless eaters", it also turns out not to be true. The death penalty, in addition to being an indulgence of vengeance and unworthy of our dignity as human beings, is also fiscally stupid.

There is the My Favorite Saint or Theologian Says Differently argument: as though any saint in the Church would respond with anything but horror at being impressed into a war with the Holy Spirit guiding the Magisterium.  St. Thomas also rejected the Immaculate Conception and speculated that ensoulment occurred on the fortieth day.  Guess what?  He was wrong.  More than that, he was writing in an entirely different social situation than the one the Church is in today.  After a century of a couple hundred million legal executions of innocents at the hands of Caesar and the push to reduce the human person to a problem to be cured by death, the Church has concluded that the safest course of action is to minimize Caesar's legal power to kill us.  It's a prudential judgment to be sure, but so what?  I'll take seriously the prudence of those who want to inflicted the death penalty when they demonstrate some.  Urging the sword into the hands of an increasingly de-Christianizing American culture is like the Christians of Rome shouting for Nero to get tough on those weird new religions. 

This leads to the The Death Penalty is a Cherished Part of Tradition argument.  No.  It's no more cherished than the Church's patience with such manifestations of human weakness and failure as slavery and war.  The death penalty, like these other evils, has been tolerated by the Church while at the same time the Church's teaching about the dignity of the human person--of all human persons--is fundamentally hostile to these evils.  The Church's teaching and practice have always looked for ways to minimize them where possible.  The question the Church asks, in light of the redemptive love of Christ for the sinner made in the image and likeness of God, is "How can we do what is possible to minimize the taking of human life and promote human flourishing even for the guilty?"  The question the worldly mind--the mind of the Culture of Death--asks is "When do we get to kill somebody?"  That's not the Tradition talking.  That's old sin talking.

Then there is the This is Modernism! argument.  The claim is that Scripture says the thieves crucified with Jesus got their just punishment, so the death penalty is fine.  What that argument overlooks is that Scripture says the Good Thief said this, not God.  What it also overlooks is that the people who make this argument seldom go on to make the case that the United States should therefore revive the practice of crucifixion as the just punishment for capital crimes.  One cherishes the faint and flickering hope that no advocates for this position can be found in the pro-death penalty crowd.

Related to the cries of modernism is the Nations That Have Abolished the Death Penalty are Snooty Secular Euroweenie States and We Certainly Don't Want to Associate with Them argument.  Prescinding from the fact that we are already associated with them (they are called "allies"), the main problem is that it leaves only nations like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Yemen and similar barbarous Islamic despotisms, as well as bloody-handed Communist regimes like China and North Korea on the list of respectable nations for America to pal around with in our moral crusade to give Caesar a free hand in slaughtering his citizens.  We don't want to be on any list with those nations on it.

There is the Sinners Repent Faster When You Sentence Them to Death argument.  Odd that Jesus and the apostles never tried this inventive evangelistic strategy.  Their namby-pamby approach tended to center around mercy, even when the criminal was caught in the very act of capital crimes, such as with the woman taken in adultery, or the people who carried out the beating and crucifixion of the Son of God.

This brings me to perhaps the weirdest and most distorted argument for the death penalty (voiced repeatedly throughout the blogosphere): "If ancient Rome hadn't had a death penalty, we wouldn't have a Savior" (I am not making that quote up.)  Yes.  Because nothing says "justice" like the crucifixion of Jesus.

There is also the incredibly strange logic of the Support the Death Penalty or the Baby Gets It argument. This expresses itself in variations on "I refuse to oppose the death penalty until abortion is banned!" as though supporting the dignity of human life of the prisoner is the opposite, and not the obvious corollary, of support for the dignity of the human life of the unborn, the elderly, the disabled and of all the other sorts of human beings the Culture of Death seeks to devour.  It is passing strange to hear allegedly prolife people using the unborn as human shields for their advocacy of killing.

But it's not a dogma!  So what?  Obedience is not a game of Simon Peter Says where we only have to listen to the Church when she speaks dogmatically.  It is a posture of trust in the Spirit's guidance of the Church even in her ordinary, non-dogmatic counsel.  See for yourself:

Among the principal duties of bishops the preaching of the Gospel occupies an eminent place. For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent. This religious submission of mind and will must be shown in a special way to the authentic magisterium of the Roman Pontiff, even when he is not speaking ex cathedra; that is, it must be shown in such a way that his supreme magisterium is acknowledged with reverence, the judgments made by him are sincerely adhered to, according to his manifest mind and will. His mind and will in the matter may be known either from the character of the documents, from his frequent repetition of the same doctrine, or from his manner of speaking.” (Lumen Gentium, no. 25)

A suggestion to those who wrestle with the guidance of the Church here: learn the meaning of "docility" to the Church's teaching.  It means "being apt to listen to and obey the Church's guidance at all times, not just when she speaks dogmatically and not just when it accessorizes my personal ideology".  Holy Church is speaking and speaking clearly.  Let us listen and obey.