"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

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Once More, from the Top

Over at his blog, Bishop Finn has written another attempt to justify abolition of the death penalty on religious grounds. Over at his blog, Mark Shea as usual heaps opprobrium on anyone who does not submit to the Magisterium of Mark and Bp. Finn.

Now, Bp. Finn's reasoning is curious to say the least. He begins by citing St. Thomas Aquinas: "The Church’s stance on capital punishment has always been based on the responsibility to protect society. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the legitimate civil authority is obliged to defend people from a dangerous criminal. " But Finn is only telling us part of the truth, which is, as the saying goes, as good as a lie. St. Thomas held that the death penalty is legitimate not simply for reasons of self defense, but with the entirety of Tradition and Scripture supporting his position, and as summarized here by the Catechism of the Council of Trent, he held that:
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.
It is this traditional teaching that constitutes the stumbling block for our contemporary ecclesiastical death penalty abolitionists, because it rests not on social science, but on the recognition that capital punishment is a vindication of the Fifth Commandment and of the requirements of justice.

Recognizing this, most allow, as they must, that the death penalty still may be morally resorted to. Witness Abp. Chaput of Denver who has stated "in Catholic thought, war and capital punishment can be morally legitimate under certain carefully defined circumstances."

Bp. Finn, unfortunately, glibly comments that "legitimate authority can fulfill its responsibility using lesser but sufficient means for protecting the common good." This is an apparent hearkening to #2267 of the contemporary Catholic Catechism, which says,
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

But as we've pointed out before that this passage glaringly fails to identify precisely which "possibilities" exist for a modern state to render offenders incapable of doing harm (it certainly can't be suggesting solitary confinement for life, which would surely be viewed as cruel). And we've cataloged at some length here, in the US at any rate, even life without parole does not render offenders harmless.

So we're left with the conclusion that what we do in this country with the death penalty is in accord with Catholic moral principles: we execute only a "rare" tiny fraction (one-tenth of one percent) of the most serious offenders (murder is the only death-eligible crime in the US) and only after fair trials with extensive appellate review with the safety valve of executive intervention (i.e., commutation or clemency).

Bp. Finn concludes by suggesting that the virtue of mercy should be an even more important grounds for not executing criminals than the mysterious and unidentified "possibilities for rendering offenders harmless."

But surely the good bishop understands that counsel of mercy is directed to individuals not to states, which, as Trent pointed out, are charged with carrying out their divinely appointed duties to ensure the public safety and the common good, to deter future offenders, and to render justice to wrongdoers. A state cannot be merciful or unmerciful, only individual souls can. The bishop's advice is well-taken if directed to victims of these criminals, who should have mercy and forgiveness in their hearts.

But the State may not fail in its primary duty under the rubric of exercizing a private virtue which would result in a failure in deterrence, a failure in justice, and a failure in ensuring the safety and the common good of society.

Sadly, these social evils, far more prevalent and costly to society than the occasional execution of a murderer, do not rate a blog entry by a bishop or a pastoral letter by the Bishop's conference.


Anonymous said...

Bravo....see section 40 of Evangelium Vitae wherein you will see that John Paul did not really believe that God gave the death penalties of the OT...but thought rather that they were from the unrefined cultural level of the Jews.  Cafeteria Biblicalism is what these last two Popes do when physical force is involved.  No conservative Catholic writer will point it out because their income depends on their not noticing anything negative about a sitting Pope.  Liberal Catholic writers want to end the death penalty and they dislike 80% of the Bible anyway.  Bishops want to advance to Cardinal....so the system preserves through varying dependency motives
the attack of two Popes on the death penalty.  So Tradition is vital on birth control and thrown out the window on the death penalty and husband headship by the same Magisterium.

Anonymous said...

ps. Plato or Aristotle or Socrates...one of them said that too much cultural pursuits to the exclusion of sports make men feminized. That is what is happening in the Catholic clergy aside from the gay problem....aside from that.

Roger Conley said...

I think this is a great post. I think it would be improved if your discussion was little less personal, but I admit that the pompous, dismissive and self-important way Mark Shea addresses people who disagree with him on prudential questions like this one makes my advice very hard to follow. And, by the way, Bishop Finn does have some Magisterial authority. He's not infallible, not preserved from error, but he does have the authority to think about these issues and tell people about his conclusions. The problem here is that he is in error, not that he's telling people what he thinks.

Anyway, great job.