"And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"
-- Micah 6:8

"The duty of the prosecutor is to seek justice, not merely to convict."
-- American Bar Association Standard 3-1.2(c)

"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."
--Pope Benedict XVI, June 2004

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Pounding Tables (again)

There is certainly much invective involved for taking the position that the Church has always believed the common good to be a prime justification for the death penalty, and not simply defense of society.

Let's see... I hate John Paul II, am a fool and a bloodthirsty American opposed to Polish Euro-weenies; I'm "orgasmic" about the death penalty (yes, that on Shea's Catholic blog), etc, etc.

A few gentle reminders: I am a prosecutor. This is not a hypothetical discussion for me. When I was a state trooper, one of my friends and colleagues was gunned down. As a prosecutor, I have had to sit with the families of murder victims and witness first hand the social, moral, and personal destruction wrought by murderers. Last week, our office saw off to his reward John Schmitt, who killed a bank guard during a robbery. I have personally prosecuted capital cases. I do not sit behind a computer and simply sling my intellectual hash. I have personally seen the devestation wrought to the common good by the sin and crime of murder.

Am I "obsessed" or "orgasmic" about the issue, then? Hardly. But I believe, as a faithful Catholic, that the proportionate, careful use of the death penalty is important to vindicate the lives of victims, to exact a fitting punishment proportionate to the crime, and yes, to protect society from further harm. A few short years ago, this would have been entirely unremarkable and a simple statement of correct Catholic belief. Now it makes me a "fool" to some.

Do I document cases where the death penalty is appropriate to illustrate these principles? Do I defend the use of the death penalty when the liberal political establishment challenges it? Do I defend the right use of the death penalty when even Catholics misstate the teaching of the Church? Absolutely, on all counts. Cdl. Martino's remarks are prime examples of this. A Curial cardinal, mind you, not some rogue bishop in the hinterlands, states that the death penalty must be abolished in order for a society to be considered civilized. This is an outright falsification of Catholic teaching, even that of EV and JPII.

It bears remembering also, that even if one cannot see beyond 1978 and will accept nothing in the body of moral teaching that predates JPII, the death penalty is in fact "rarely, if ever" used. Of all the murders in this country, a scant one-tenth of one percent are punished by death sentences. Yet the ecclesiastical establishment still hyperventilates over every eminently justified execution. So rest assured, if you care nothing for the common good, don't worry. We don't execute enough murderers to vindicate it. We barely execute enough to protect society.

Yet to point this simple fact out becomes something over which one is thrown to the combox lions. The smear machine is up and running, and I am called every name in the book, and don't forget guilt by association, whereby I am supposed to have adopted every statement made by every commenter who supports my position on the death penalty. Shea, of all people, with his comboxers, should know how dubious making that connection is.

It's the old legal saw: when you have the law, pound the law, when you have the facts, pound the facts, when you have neither, pound the table.

I have not changed, the Church's perennial teaching has not changed, the natural law has not changed.

All I can hear from the other side is table-pounding.


Anonymous said...


Tom, Shea's attacks against you have no merit because the current pope, as head of CDF, allowed for disagreement concerning capital punishment, as his letter to the American bishops in July 2004 demonstrated:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. 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.

Steve Golay said...

The Natural Law - especially that has not changed. One can do all sorts of trickery with Church documents; it's difficult to start text-proofing with the Natural Law.

Sarah said...

Hey Tom, I've been keeping up with the debate and I must say that I am disappointed with Shea's failure to grasp the fullness of Catholic tradition. Adherence to one individual's personal beliefs is a recipe for heresy, especially when the adherent propounds these beliefs with such vitriol toward Catholics who can seperate a "wouldn't this be nice?" view from "this is reality."

Keep up the good fight!

faithmy said...

Testify, brother, testify!

Victor said...

Let me put forth four propositions, Tom.

(1) Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism as written are consistent or can be interpreted so as to be consistent with prior teaching;

(2) Some Churchmen distort EV and/or the Catechism, or apply it foolishly, in their public pronouncements or their moral witness about given cases;

(3) The moral limitations on the death penalty in EV and the Catechism can be met in principle;

(4) The death penalty as currently practiced in the US meets those moral requirements.

One other general thought -- like with torture three years ago, I haven't thought much about the details and internals of this matter, though I have acquired a strong distaste for the DP abolitionists -- what did the previous teaching mean by "redress the moral disorder" and, given that we're talking about a secular matter, is it so neatly separable from the "protection of society," since the Church teaches that society is, among other things, a moral order.

Victor said...

Ooops ...

I should have made it obvious (or actually, even mentioned at all), that I was putting forth those four propositions to ask Tom for his reactions to them -- agree, disagree, agree with reservation X, etc.

Just to clarify his position in a way that I can understand. I think it's very easy to assume bad or wrong things about someone who blogs a lot in "negative" mode (i.e., reacting to news that one thinks is bad, in this case, the war by liberals and some Churchmen against the death penalty; I do not mean "morally negative"). It can be very hard in those circumstances to determine what someone actually DOES think.

Tom McKenna said...


The task of an orthodox theologian in this situation, as in the torture issue, is to address an apparent contradiction by attempting to reconcile the two apparently different teachings; if this cannot be done, to seek clarification from the teaching authorities.

EV and the Catechism both propose a novel understanding of the death penalty which is that society may only resort to it when needed for "self-defense" from the offender, in the very rare cases where an offender will not otherwise be neutralized by confinement.

The traditional teaching, on the other hand, held that the "common good" was the source of the validity of the death penalty. The common good is a fairly broad concept in Catholic thought and includes deterrence; rendering to the criminal his due, or just desserts (i.e., "justice"); vindication of the importance of the lives of the victims; and of course, physical protection of society from the offender.

The conflict has arisen because the new teaching restricts the death penalty to cases touching only one aspect of the common good. In other words, the new theory restricts the application of the death penalty from the common good to merely physical protection of society.

Can these propositions be reconciled? It's hard to see how, but it seems certain that EV and the Catechism undoubtedly restrict the rationale under which the death penalty is justified.

To answer the questions, then:

1) There is an (at least)apparent inconsistency between the new teaching and the old;

2)Some, like Cdl. Martino go further in their statements than either EV or the Catechism;

3)The limited rationale for use of the death penalty can and has been met in this country; but its use would limit the number of cases that under the old teaching would have been otherwise considered appropriate death cases.

4)I have argued at length elsewhere that in fact the death penalty in this country easily meets even the cramped rationale of the new teaching;

Shea unfortunately understands little if any of this, since in one of his comments in the combox on his site he claims to uphold the principle that the death penalty can be used to advance the "common good." This is the old teaching that EV and the catechism have abandoned in favor of a much narrower "physical defense of society only" rationale, which is only one aspect of the common good.

Anonymous said...

Victor and Tom, I believe that John Paul used EV as an intellectual cover for his personal campaign to abolish the death penalty worldwide. Don't forget that in 1999, the late pope successfuly convinced Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan to commute the death sentence of someone convicted of murdering three people -- including a disabled 19-year-old.

Neither should you forget that two years later, JPII wrote to Pres. Bush and asked him to grant clemency to Timothy McVeigh.

The late pope express his true views two days after Carnahan communited the death sentence at a Mass in St. Louis:

The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.

Sorry, but the late pope's actions and public pronouncements contradict EV, let alone previous teaching -- and, as we all know, actions speak louder than words.

cinecon said...

Sorry, but the late pope's actions and public pronouncements contradict EV, let alone previous teaching -- and, as we all know, actions speak louder than words.

Actually, they don't. At least in the narrow matter of determining "what does the Church teach?" I agree with you that Pope John Paul's campaign against the death penalty in every case (even Timothy McVeigh) was foolish, but he was speaking as himself, not as the Magisterium in such cases.

Anonymous said...


cinecon, how many bishops (such as Chaput), let alone laymen, can differentiate the difference between when the pope speaks as himself and as the head of the Magisterium?

I point you to Chaput's criticism of Scalia's disagreement with the church's current stand. Chaput equated Scalia to Frances Kissling in terms of "cafeteria Catholicism." If that's not irresponsible ignorance, I don't know what is.

Steve Golay said...

Richard Comerford wrote on Mark Shea’s combox:

“The conversion and reconciliation method normally has three key components:
1) Dialogue
2) Amnesty for the insurgents
3) Recognition of legitimate grievances and resolution
Executing Saddam will turn him into a martyr and delay dialogue with the insurgents.”

Since we’re not to hang the guy, we’ll go that way:

1) Dialogue:

Dear Saddam (or is it Dear Leader; would President do). Thanks for talking. This sit down is real nice. Yes, we did read your poetry. It was, well . . . not in the Romantic strain. Shelley wrote his and got drowned dead off the coast of Italy; Lord Bryon got his up and expired in Greece. Poets are special folks. Wasn’t it Bryon who versified himself into martyrdom - oops, that was against the Islamic Ottomans.

As for talking, there’s been plenty of that. Ever since you were hauled in from that spider hole, talk of you and your deeds have been incessant, voluminous as unending edits of Wordsworth’s “Prologue”. (Now, there’s a poet for us: he kept changing his mind about the beheading of French kings.)

Don’t quite know what is wanting. We’ve heard stories aplenty: stories about you and gassed Kurds, you and stripped to the bone generals, you and dead son-in-laws; you and piles of Shias and Marsh Arabs, all human debris. Rape rooms, millions of film feet of executions, torture; concentration camps for children of your adversaries; and, not to forget, tales of those sons of yours prowling the streets, their lust hanging out and unquenched. We’ve heard all the stories. Anything left untold? Maybe some undiscovered tape of your Presidential Self reciting poetry to the forerunners of Cindy Sheehan.

With all these stories on the table – what’s left for you to say? Do you have under arm a portfolio documenting that these stories are (yes) events, stuff that happened, but turned in and under by any story’s truest meaning: that hidden under subtexts and the mysteries of narrative mode – meaning made dark to eyes not under submission to diversity, multiculturalism and the religion of peace. In proper dialoguing, the stuff of events must be shelled and tossed, only subtext meanings count. That way the poetry comes through.

2) Amnesty for the insurgents. You Saddam, you were once the big daddy insurgent: how you butchered your way to the top, and all that. That was such a blessed life: dozens of palaces, French, German and Russians showing the profit of it, plenty of supplicants to twist the knife.

Doubt, though, if the local insurgent boys have you much in mind these days: the course of butchering violence has other motivations. But since amnesty makes evil men good, why not let you in on it. Your grievances (according to the subtext) were rooted in cares and concerns. Once we see those heaps of human debris you piled as a redeeming act (saving the unfortunates from the predications of little and big Satans) they are not so much heaping piles of flesh and bone but death cradling them from a greater damnation.

Looked at this way, amnesty is your due so that a subtext’s truest meaning (trumping the gritty event of slaughter) can shine bright and righteous. All we need to do is to hear the poetry of it, its rhythmic words hissing past the chatter of those noisome testimonies.

3) Recognition of legitimate grievances and resolution. By not giving all that “chatter of noisome testimonies” its full weight and voice we legitimatize your grievances. To have listened humbly, and with heart, to their witness would weigh down (into drowned death) the poetics of your own grievances.

Some say that bloody witnesses cry the loudest to heaven; that this is the only voice God hears. Since God is One (it is told) he hears by acting; that he voices his consolation by roping THEIR grievances to the nearest tall tree. Sometimes (we hear) God so loves that he ends up stomping his foot (his very Jewish foot) on the oppressors of the poor and faint of heart.

But, alas, where is the poetry in that!

Oh sweet Jesus, I’m all talked out. When amnesty washes out the truth justice is not served. Sometimes the resolution is simply in the stories being told.

I don’t get it. All this sub-text poetics is exhausting. Feel I need a good Psalm or two, one of those retribution jobs from King David.

Damn you. Damn that curial cardinal. Those lives piled high in Saddam’s heaps of human debris cry to high Heaven. But thank God, Heaven honors their human dignity to the point of righteous retribution. The Hebrews understood. To say that the Father of Jesus is not the God of Moses (to think and act as if this is so) is the cheapest of heresies – and the cruelest.

Forget you, Saddam. Let God’s footstep fall. As we say out here in the American West – hang ‘em high!

By the way, Michael Ledeen (Jew and Neocon) never thought we should have “gone into Iraq”. Too bad we were not more RESPECTFUL of his advise, you, Saddam, may still be alive, free and negotiating your way out of this mess, while keeping a palace or two. But, sigh, Michael is such a nasty fellow there was no point dialoguing with him; without giving amnesty to his views we weren’t willing to listen to his legitimate grievances and come to some resolution. The Absolutist/Pacifist Party was very strict about that.

Anonymous said...

Tom, Hey! Are you on vacation!?!? I need a new post to read with my morning coffee! Don't leave me hanging . . .

Vir Speluncae Catholicus said...

You keep givin' 'em hell, Tom.

The truth is rarely palatable.