"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

Thursday, July 06, 2017

Justice in Virginia


Despite the pleas of the UN and the daughter of one of his victims, killer William Morva is slated to be executed at the Greensville Correctional Facility in Virginia tonight.  I've written before about Morva,  pointing out that he's a poster child for the death penalty, since he was in jail custody at a hospital when he escaped, killing a hospital guard and later a deputy sheriff who was searching for him. He was awaiting trial on a robbery charge.

The purported reason he broke out of custody and killed two men? The hospital was not treating his Irritable Bowel Syndrome well enough.

As the "system" has proven unable reliably to render this wretched murderer harmless, it is fitting and just that we expel him permanently from among us.

We remember the innocent victims of this vile killer. Hospital guard Derrick McFarland left behind two children and many family members.  Cpl Sutphin was a decorated deputy and father of two young children.

May these men rest in peace and their families take some solace that the man who shattered their lives will pay the highest price we can impose for his actions.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Executions Continue to Be Very Rarely Carried Out in US

We're on pace in the US to execute more criminals this year than last year, something that hasn't happened in a decade.

Yet in absolute terms, we're still executing very rarely.

In 2015, the last year for which we have complete statistics, there were 15,696 murders in the US


While executions will likely rise slightly in 2017, the murder rate will likely rise significantly as well, following a tragic upward trajectory in the last few years.

Of interest to those who believe executions should be "rare," I can report that in 2015, again, the last year for which we have complete numbers for murders, we executed in only 0.17 percent of murder cases.

In other words, executions were carried out in a tiny, under two-tenths of one percent of murder cases. Our problem in this country doesn't seems to be out of control, indiscriminate use of the death penalty, but the devastating contempt for life expressed in the enormous number of murders committed by criminals who seem not to fear serious punishment.

Seems like death penalty occurrence is "rare, if not non-existent" to me.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Guns, Criminals, and the *Real* Victims

In an update on an earlier "Rendering Offenders Harmless" post here, I'm happy to note that the two vicious murderers of Georgia prison guards Chris Monica and Curtis Billue were apprehended... by a gun-toting homeowner.
A Tennessee homeowner held two escaped inmates wanted in the killing of two prison guards at gunpoint Thursday until authorities arrived and made the arrests.
Tennessee Highway Patrol spokesman Lt. Bill Miller said late Thursday that the homeowner caught Donnie Rowe and Ricky Dubose trying to steal his vehicle.
Miller says the escaped Georgia inmates had crashed a car while being chased by law enforcement and fled on foot into woods along Interstate 24 near the rural community of Christiana.
Miller says something alerted the homeowner that people were outside his home and he saw the men trying to steal his vehicle. The trooper says the homeowner held the two at gunpoint with a neighbor he called until the Rutherford County Sheriff's Department could get there to arrest them.

Since people like Mr. Shea wax eloquent about violent murderers being the "victims," it's important always to remember and acknowledge the actual victims of these horrendous crimes:
Sgt. Chris Monica was "a man who loved deeply, shared abundantly and laughed often," his niece, Brooke Lawson, told mourners Tuesday during Monica's funeral.
 [He was] dedicated to his job, but his favorite part of each day was going home to his family, said Baldwin State Prison Warden Cedrick Taylor. Monica was a devoted husband, father, grandfather, uncle and friend, and a constant source of support to his family, Lawson said.
Among his survivors are his wife, Denise Monica; two daughters, Ashley Rae Thurston and Zoey Rae Monica; two grandchildren, Kelsey and Keylan Barnes; and a sister, Laural Mixon. His mother, Mary Moyers Thomas, and a brother, Robert Anthony Monica, preceded him in death.
He was proud to be a "dance dad" to Zoey Rae and invited his co-workers to her "Nutcracker" performances every year, Lawson said. He enjoyed accompanying his grandson to Boy Scout activities and teaching his granddaughter how to swim.
Monica loved to tell stories, entertain, pull pranks and joke, and he used his sense of humor to diffuse difficult situations, Lawson said. He was a terrible cook but a great taste tester and a food lover, the Rev. Mac Efinger said. He was kind, giving and genuine to everyone he knew.
"He was in the prime of his life," he said. "He knew what mattered in life. He gave his very best self to every day. He worked hard, and sometimes he played hard."
Hopefully now swift justice will be done, and these killers will be charged, convicted, and sentenced to the death they so richly deserve for cutting short the lives of the two men attempting to render them harmless. They've proven that incarceration will certainly not protect others from their animalistic devotion to violence. Frankly, I care more about the lives of these two peace officers than about keeping their killers alive in the hope they won't murder again.

RIP, Officers Monica and Billue, and may their loved ones have peace.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Fisking Mr. Shea, Part X, or "Development: I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means"

At long last, we come to the final part of Mark Shea’s meandering series on capital punishment, which originally seemed to promise an explanation on how Catholic doctrine on the death penalty has “developed” so as to require us to believe that abolition of the death penalty is required.

Mr. Shea first veers off into a discussion about torture, and likens proponents of the traditional teaching of the Church on the death penalty to supporters of torture. No, really. He claims both positions are “driven entirely by politics.” Now, how Mr. Shea knows that all the defenders of Christian orthodoxy concerning capital punishment are just being political hacks is unclear. But it's hard to see a connection between Moses, David, Jesus, the Church Fathers, St. Thomas Aquinas, the Council of Trent, and various Popes up to and including Benedict XVI and the American "conservative Catholics" Shea despises. The only politics I can detect is Shea's nauseating sucking up to his Australian readers for their country's decision to drop the death penalty and his apologetic "America is a backward land of hicks" tone. This is delightfully ironic, since the Australian Labor Party, under which the federal ban on death penalty laws was enacted in 2010, is socialist, pro-"LGBTQ," and pro-abortion. But for Shea, civil pacifism trumps all that. 

After spending some five paragraphs rehashing his past battles against “torture” proponents, he concludes that both torture and the death penalty come down to the Church never asking “’when do we get to kill’ just as it never asks ‘when do we get to torture?’” Now this is an odd statement, since Shea consider what he defines as torture to be always and everywhere immoral. But he’s admitted throughout this series that capital punishment can, given certain conditions, be a moral choice. His attempted equivalence between torture and the death penalty, then, falls short even by his own reckoning.

But is he wrong of course when he asserts that we should not ask “when do we get to kill?” Now, he puts the pejorative “get to” in that question because of his (subjective) belief that proponents of the death penalty are *really* just engaging in panting bloodlust. But of course, the moral theologian, and the public official who must in the last analysis make the decision to pursue the death penalty, rightly ask, “when is it permissible to execute an offender?” This question is not a sign of unhinged bloodlust, but one that has been conscientiously asked by committed Christians for centuries. And the Church has answered these honest questions with a deeply thought-out reply based on the Church’s understanding of God’s commandments in Scripture and tradition, and of human nature and natural law.

Yet, hysteria rising to new heights, Shea repeats many of his oft-rehashed non-sequiturs, ad hominems, and logical fallacies in one heaping paragraph of steaming…error.
In what conceivable universe is it wise for Christians to side against the Magisterium and with Communist China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and a handful of other barbaric Islamic despotisms? In what world does it make sense for Christians to urge a sword into the hands of a rapidly de-Christianising Caesar and beg him to slay those he deems to be a threat to his power? And how, above all, is it prudent for those who champion the Church’s teaching on the dignity and sanctity of human life in the question of abortion to divert a single second of our time and energy away from that to fight against the Church so that we can maximise the shedding of human blood in the largest gulag on Planet Earth? 
It's a credit to Mr. Shea that he can compact so much baloney into so few lines. We’ve debunked many times his logical error of association (“y country executes criminals; bad country x executes criminals; therefore execution in y country is bad). Does Shea imagine that the death penalty can only be used in morally perfect society? That the Fathers who approved the practice lived under perfect societies? If justice had to wait for the perfect society, we’d never have even a bit of it and should close all courts immediately. But no, Our Lord Himself recognized that Caesar deserved his due and should be obeyed in all morally lawful activities. And of course, it’s inane to suggest that we don’t have time or ability to reason about what uses of the death penalty are moral because "abortion!" Shea's America is a bloodthirsty gulag state, imprisoning the innocent, victimizing the criminals, and randomly seeking the death of folks who really, after all, deserve mercy.

He begins his last peroration with the grandiose and utterly unproven claim that “Retributive punishment is ordered toward redemption, not toward some abstract karmic code of justice that rules like Javert’s fixed stars even over God.” Again with the slur that justice=karma, and the flushing of over 6,000 years of Judeo-Christian understanding of the natural virtue of Justice, which, of course, being a reflection of the divine law, does not bind God, but binds *us.* Shea’s profound ignorance and rejection of natural virtue needs an entire article to address (and perhaps stems, as does his anti-intellectualism, from his Evangelical background), but it’s enough here to note that any Christian who claims that the Church’s moral teaching can be at odds with natural virtue is knowledgeable about neither. Grace builds on nature, and does not destroy or contradict it.

But Shea is not finished, and says, “shifting from ‘Life can be spared sometimes’ to ‘Life should be spared as often as possible and we now have the technology to always spare it’ is simply to move in a direction the Church was already headed.” Ah, we must be “on the right side of history,” apparently, as the Left urges us. But he again assumes without proving that the Church has actually said what he claims it says. The Church has never, even now, claimed that we can “always” avoid the death penalty because of “technology.”

As I’ve noted before, the Church’s current position is that when means exist which can render offender harmless, then use of the death penalty should be rare if not non-existent (hardly Shea’s “always”). In other words, the “rare” part is contingent on the “means to render harmless” part. But this is exactly where “prudence” actually enters the picture--not the phony strawman “prudence” Shea mocks-- but the real-world business of figuring out what these “means” are, because the Church has never identified them.  Shea assumes without proving that the “means” are “technology” of some unspecified kind, but cannot point us to what technology renders offenders harmless so that we don’t have any further need of capital punishment.

Nor would I expect him or anyone not deeply involved with penology or the criminal justice system to be able knowledgeably to speak to any such means. I’ve produced many counter-examples showing that such means do not in fact exist in the real world and have never seen a specific, detailed claim as to what “means” would keep killers from acting violent in jail or escaping to do harm. It happens frequently.

Now if use of evidence, facts, and real-world observations reveal that “means to render offenders harmless” do not in fact exist, then one is not thumbing one's nose at the Church, as Shea sneeringly suggests. But he wants none of it, and in his frenzy of  slander, continues: “Christ thirsts not for blood, but for love.” Yes, that’s right. If you disagree with Mark Shea, your Christ is bloodthirsty and if you agree with Mark Shea, your Christ is one of love. Whatever else he is, subtle he’s not.

Lest there be any mistaking his despising of those who adhere to the traditional teaching, he concludes his series:
Jesus Christ, King of Death Penalty Victims, pray for us that we may wisely and prudently distinguish between this real development of doctrine and merely clinging to sinful vengeance and the love of death.
(emphasis added).
Got it? The victims in Shea’s universe are not the innocent women, men, and children, some raped, some tortured, some mutilated, whose right to live out their lives was cut short by some “enemy of the species” (as the Council of Trent labelled murderers). The victims aren’t the wives, husbands, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, friends, and others left to grieve and deal with the psychological scars from their loved-ones' suffering and violent deaths.

No, for Shea, the victims are the barbarous killers, rapists, and torturers who have figuratively “laid violent hands on God Himself” (again in Trent’s words) in presuming to take the life over which He alone is Lord.

On the one hand I’m glad to see, at the end of this series, the endurance of the Church’s teaching that a just and measured use of the death penalty is entirely appropriate and morally justified when we can’t have reasonable assurance an offender will be rendered harmless by the only means we really have, incarceration. It's a conclusion I'd come to some time ago, based on my study of Scripture, sacred tradition, and natural law. In fact, I'm not surprised to see Shea fail to show a development towards abolition, because the "old" teaching and the "new" are really not much different. And if you truly understand the newer teaching, it's abundantly clear that America's use of the death penalty does not conflict with Church teaching at all.

I’m genuinely saddened, on the other hand, to witness a twisted effort to pervert basic justice and observance of God’s own approbation of capital punishment into some kind of “sinful vengeance” and “blood lust.” Rather than offer proof through citing authority or intellectual argument, he seems rather more concerned to peer into others’ hearts and make universal and public conclusions about their interior dispositions, even (especially?) those who he does not even personally know. Such a cavalcade of name-calling, ad hominem, and mockery is presented as an “argument” but is rapidly seen for what it is: a cartoon presentation by one who has demonstrated himself to be a intellectual cartoonist.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Fisking Mr. Shea, Part IX

Mark Shea began this series to tell us why and how the Church has “developed” it’s teaching on the death penalty to assert that abolishing the death penalty is the only true Catholic position.

But now, in the latest installment, we learn that after all, as Pope Benedict said (as quoted at the top of this blog), there can indeed be a legitimate diversity of opinion on the death penalty in the Church.

Mr. Shea actually cites the very words of Benedict. But, he says, “Benedict did not say ‘You can ignore the Church on the death penalty and still be a good Catholic.’” Now, as with many of his assertions, this one smells strongly of straw-man. The main project of this blog has been to demonstrate that a just and measured use of the death penalty, like what we have in the US, is in total conformity with even the last ten or twenty years of Papal commentary on the death penalty.

I’m happy to report my agreement with Mr. Shea’s admonition that:
it is not an exercise of “prudential judgement” to say, “The Church is just dead wrong about the death penalty. In fact, we need to fight the Church’s teaching and make sure the death penalty is inflicted to the maximum extent possible and battle to make sure this development of doctrine is ignored as error.”
I don’t know anyone who thinks capital punishment must be inflicted “to the maximum extent possible.” Just the right amount will do, namely when it’s required to protect us from offenders who seem very likely to continue to be violent, or when the justice of a given case cries out for it. There are plenty of examples to be had of both kinds of cases.

But what Mr. Shea has claimed in various places, is that the Church magisterially teaches that Catholics must support abolition. He assumes and gratuitously asserts, as I’ve noted earlier in the series, that the call for abolition is in fact a magisterial teaching of the Church.  But the burden is his to demonstrate the binding, magisterial nature of Francis' and some bishops’ claims that the death penalty ought to be abolished. His mere insistence is not proof.

Abolition is not magisterial teaching, of course, and Mr. Shea tacitly acknowledges as much when he shifts gears and spends his entire column claiming that some unknown, unidentified Catholics oppose the Catechism’s position that because of unspecified “improvements” in penology (we’re left to assume), capital punishment should only be used “rarely.”   

Yet I know of no Catholics who deny the Catechism’s position that, *if* we could keep offenders from killing other inmates, guards, prison staff, or escaping or being pardoned so they could kill or harm again (the condition precedent in the Catechism and John Paul II’s own teaching), then we would need have recourse rarely, if ever, to the death penalty.

I do know of Catholics, like myself, who both seek to reconcile the new teaching with the old, and respectfully question what to make of this new position ignoring the whole question of justice, and focusing solely on public safety. I think it’s fair to ask the Church to clarify what has become of the justice consideration which weighs so heavily in the 6,000 prior years of Judeo-Christian teaching on this subject.

Pope Benedict could, as Shea acknowledges, admit the possibility of diversity of opinion about application of the death penalty precisely because abolition is not a magisterial teaching. Whether circumstances render the death penalty virtually inadmissible (the “new” or “developed” teaching) is precisely what we have Christian freedom to have a diversity of opinion about.

So, if Benedict could clearly foresee reasonable disagreements about the existence of circumstances which might render the death penalty more or less permissible (a position never specifically rejected by Francis), why can’t Mr. Shea accept the Pope’s teaching and stop insisting that Catholics must insist on abolition?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Rendering Offenders Harmless, Part 49

Donnie Russell Rowe, 43, and Ricky Dubose, 24, overpowered and disarmed the two guards around 5:45 a.m. as about 30 inmates were being driven between prisons, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said in a news release. One of the two inmates then shot and killed both guards, Sills said.The Georgia Department of Corrections identified the guards as Christopher Monica and Curtis Billue, both officers at Baldwin State Prison. Monica had been with the department since October 2009 and Billue since July 2007.
How can this happen? That expert on the criminal justice system and penology, Mark Shea, just the other day informed us that "advanced prison technology" now renders offenders harmless, such that the death penalty is not "absolutely necessary to protect others from harm."

Officers Billue and Monica, and their surviving loved ones, were not available for comment on Shea's claim that we can now protect people from violent convicts.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Fisking Mr. Shea, Part VIII

In his latest installment Mr. Shea rightly observes that with respect to the death penalty, “Pope John Paul II and the post-concilliar (sic) Church downplays ‘retributive justice’ and focuses only on preventing danger to the community.” In fact, it’s more than a “downplay,” the “new” or supposedly “developed” teaching simply omits ANY mention of natural justice at all in its treatment of the death penalty, focusing entirely on the public safety issue.

But, pace Mr. Shea, the objection is not that “there is some necessary demand that murder be met with death;” the traditional Catholic (which is to say, the Catholic) wonders where 6,000 years of teaching about the death penalty being in accord with right reason and justice suddenly went. His oft-rehashed straw-man that Catholics who adhere to the Church on this issue simply want to execute every murderer is so laughably false that it hardly merits mention. As Shea’s own comments about ancient ecclesiastical discipline demonstrate, the Church was never surprised that some murders went unpunished by death.

Moreover, the use of right reason to discern the outlines of the virtue of justice in this regard is not, as Mr. Shea insinuates, a resort to “abstract fulfilment of karmic balance to which the sovereign omnipotent God himself is subject.” No, we Christians who have always spoken about the virtue of justice are not pagan philosophers, and are not dealing with karma. (Karma, for Mr. Shea’s information, has nothing to do with “payback” for deeds done in this life, but relates to the Buddhist notion of explaining current inequities and evil tendencies by, in part, wrongdoing or evil committed in one’s prior incarnations).

But at the very moment he disparages and attempts to jettison the Christian notion of justice as “karma,” Mr. Shea has to hold on to it, as he gratuitously asserts “life in jail is sufficient retribution since retribution is ordered toward redemption.” He seems unaware or unashamed that his very argument about what constitutes “sufficient retribution” is itself an argument based in the language of justice.

Why does Mr. Shea think that “justice” is suddenly a dirty word, that must be equated with karma, and that is somehow antithetical to a Christian understanding of civil punishment? Perhaps, not being educated philosophically, he simply does not even know what justice in this context really is.

After all, Augustine, as the Christian thinkers who followed after him, far from rejecting it as a form of pagan karma, placed justice among the four “cardinal” or central virtues, and he defines it simply as “the virtue by which all people are given their due.” So important is justice, and so connected with the moral law derived from revelation, that Augustine could famously claim that “an unjust law is not even a law.” And it was the same Augustine who began to articulate the just war doctrine that has endured: he was no pacifist, either militarily (war) or civilly (capital punishment).

For St. Thomas, justice “stands foremost among all the moral virtues, for as much as the common good transcends the individual good of one person. On this sense the Philosopher declares (Ethic. v, 1) that ‘the most excellent of the virtues would seem to be justice, and more glorious than either the evening or the morning star.’” (ST II, II, Q.58, art. 12).

Of course, as we’ve seen before, Aquinas also was not a civil pacifist, and clearly taught the compatibility of capital punishment with the virtue of justice.

So justice cannot, as Mr. Shea attempts to do, be severed from the discussion, since, as he himself perhaps unknowingly admitted by referring to “retribution” having “redemption” not “karma” as its end, this virtue is part of human nature. As such, God, as the author of that nature, intends men and societies to act in accordance with it.

After getting past his philosophical confusion about justice, Mr. Shea begins a somewhat incoherent discussion about another straw-man of his creation, that a central argument of Catholics who accept the Church’s teaching about the death penalty is that sinners will likely repent in the face of execution, so the death penalty is good.

He spends the next several paragraphs fighting that idea, which has never been a central argument in my view, although it is certainly a common-sense observation, and was borne out in the famous “Dead Man Walking” case, where pacifist nun Sr. Prejean witnessed the movement of the criminal in that case from unrepentance to repentance while on death row. But I won’t spend more time on the rabbit trail that Mr. Shea heads down.

At last, at the end, Mr. Shea gets around to the actual issue of his entire series, when he tries to answer the objection that the pacifist position is not binding dogma:
True enough.  Almost everything the Magisterium teaches is not binding dogma.  Indeed, even most Scripture, inspired though it all is, is not binding dogma.  For instance, when Paul writes to the Corinthians about marriage, he makes a distinction between the words of Jesus (“Not I, but the Lord…”) and his own views (“I, not the Lord…”).  And yet though Paul does not lay down a dogma, he still speaks with authority.  Something similar obtains here.  The Pope, by virtue of his office, says, “Don’t execute people unless it is absolutely necessary to protect others from harm.  In the first world, what with advanced prison technology, that effectively means, ‘Abolish the death penalty’.”

He should have stopped at “true enough.” The rest of the paragraph is utterly misleading. While it is true that not everything the Magisterium teaches is binding, Shea has not shown that pacifism is taught by the Magisterium. He simply begs the question.

But then, as he has during the whole series, he repeats the actual current teaching and immediately contradicts it, and calls the contradiction authoritative teaching. Yes, the Pope indeed has said “don’t execute unless absolutely necessary.” But Shea, hand in the cookie jar, adds his own gloss to that: “In the first world, what with advanced prison technology, that effectively means, ‘Abolish the death penalty.’”

First, the Pope to my knowledge has never identified “advanced prison technology” as the reason we must abolish the death penalty. In fact, he speaks in moral absolutes about the death penalty, not in contingent language of whether penology has controlled offenders, when he calls capital punishment:
inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed...It is an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God's plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.
 So Shea is just misinformed or refuses to acknowledge the truth: the Pope is philosophically a pacifist on this issue, and is not grounding his statements in the teachings of the past, even the 'yesterday' of John Paul II, the Catechism, and Benedict XVI.

Second, I’m aware of no official teaching of the Church that has connected the “possibilities” for rendering offenders harmless, which is the condition precedent for abstaining from use of capital punishment, to “advanced prison technology,” whatever in the world that might mean.

Perhaps in the next part of his series Mr. Shea might illuminate us as to what these “technologies” are that have rendered offenders harmless so that we shouldn’t resort to capital punishment. Part of his assignment is to explain how my extremely incomplete representative counter-examples, which show there are no such means, are inapplicable.


Friday, June 02, 2017

Fisking Mr. Shea, Part VII

As we plod along, through Part 6 of Mr. Shea’s epic series on why the desire for death penalty abolition on the basis of its immorality is a development of Catholic doctrine, we see he begins by reminding us that the movement of history has been from public, barbaric execution methods, to non-public, more humane methods.

This, to Mr. Shea, demonstrates the But isn’t is equally plausible that while Christians admit the moral and just of the death penalty, we also recognize that it should be used only in serious cases, and without undue pain and suffering inflicted on the offender? Other than Mr. Shea’s ipse dixit, why conclude that Christian “squeamishness” about the propriety of the death penalty per se accounts for the tightening of the use of it and how it is carried out?

Next, we’re told (yet again, as this is a regular canard used by Mr. Shea) that since unsavory countries use the death penalty, our use of it must be somehow tainted. But I’ve made the obvious response before, that this is a very basic, junior-high level logical error of association. If my neighbor is a thief and wife-beater and recycles his garbage, and I also like to recycle, the fact that a bad guy likes to recycle does not logically implicate recycling at all.

Mr. Shea also makes the risible claim that now, at long last!--the Christian world  “wonders if it has made some fundamental mistake, and starts to rethink what ‘made in the image and likeness of God’ could ultimately mean and whether there is a better way to think about this.” As if the modern, blood-soaked world is somehow more sensitive about the value of life than those barbaric authors of Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the Popes. As if the Church has never wondered about the morality of the death penalty before 1988, or encountered the argument that human life is so precious that it can never be taken, whether, as the Waldensian heretics claimed, by capital punishment, or as the Quaker heretics claim, by even a just war.

Of course the Church has always been the guardian of the truth of the value of human life, and while extirpating human sacrifice and private killing (such as dueling), nevertheless, has always and everywhere acknowledged that societies rightly protect themselves and avenge wrongdoing by just wars and capital punishment. The Church has always rejected pacifism, and the related error propounded by Mr. Shea, the “civil pacifism” of death penalty abolition. After all, if the state can defend itself by a just war, it must be that it can defend itself from violent men within.

Mr. Shea, after complaining about the high incarceration rate in the US and suggesting (without evidence) that racism is responsible for “people of colour” (sic) being disproportionately incarcerated, informs us that,
The obvious priority – particularly for a gospel that proclaims liberty to the captive – is not 'How can we send as many people on death row to their doom as quickly as possible?' but 'Might we be making a mistake somewhere? Is it worth the life of a single innocent human being to slake our thirst for the blood of the guilty?'

Now, this is interesting, because we are to believe that there are “possibilities” for rendering murderers and rapists harmless short of execution. What might such “possibilities” include, if not life imprisonment? At least that is what some have suggested as a reason why we no longer need the death penalty. Yet the Christian Left complains about incarceration rates. Is Mr. Shea suggesting, then, that the "gospel proclamation of liberty" (which is of spiritual liberty of course, not liberty to sin or be free from jail when you commit a crime) means we shouldn’t even impose lengthy incarceration? Indeed, he’s strongly suggested just this before, as a necessary corollary of “mercy” and “turning the other cheek,” which he claims applies not just to individuals but to states.

Note, too, his oft-repeated claim that our choice is either pacifism or being a bloodthirsty mob seeking out people to send to their doom. Is that really the only possible choice open to us? The Church has never presented its affirmation of the propriety of capital punishment in those terms.

He concludes this Part by saying that,
 since [the Church] was never under a divine demand for the death penalty, she finally concluded that while it is not intrinsically immoral, refraining from inflicting it is still the best and most prudent course of action whenever possible.

Again, I’m a bit confused about Mr. Shea’s entire project, which began by proclaiming:
Abolish the death penalty. It is poisonous vengeance, not justice. it is, as the Church makes clear, essentially unnecessary. It makes us worse, not better. No Catholic on the planet should be fighting the Church to defend it.

Sure sounds like he's saying the death penalty is an intrinsically immoral practice. And,

the Church’s actual teaching on the death penalty [is] that it should be abolished. 

Supposedly, it is a “bronze-age concession” to bloodlust and is withering away in our enlightened modern age.

Yet he repeats at the same time the actual teaching of the Church, which is that the death penalty is not immoral and “ought” to be resorted to only in rare cases.

I’m afraid, then, that we won’t see the actual proof that a development of doctrine has occurred mandating abolition of the immoral death penalty. At best, it seems, we’re to believe that our modern age is beyond the need for such barbaric methods of crime control.

That whole justice thing the Church has used to justify the death penalty? Mr. Shea says he’ll tell us in the next installment why that’s a bunch of hooey.

Can’t wait.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Rendering Offenders Harmless, Part 48

8 California guards, 7 inmates injured in mass prison brawl at Pelican Bay state prison in California.
Several hundred of the prison's roughly 2,000 high-security inmates were in an exercise yard when two began fighting, she said. The melee began when the two prisoners refused to break up their fistfight despite guards' use of batons and pepper spray. Large groups of prisoners then ran toward the fight and attacked the guards. “We're encouraged that the officers weren't injured more than they were,” Thornton [the prison spokesman] said.
The Catechism tells us (#2267):
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 definitely 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 nonexistent."
What are these "possibilities" the state has for rendering offenders harmless? This, after all, is the condition precedent for not exercising the acknowledged right to resort to the death penalty.  Given all the examples I've cited of the failure of any possibilities I'm aware of to render offenders harmless, I have to conclude that whatever those possibilities are, since they are not effectual in the US, the limited, careful use of the death penalty we have in this country is in perfect accord with Catholic teaching.

Perhaps those who clamor for abolition could spend some time actually addressing the practical issues raised by the actual text of the Catechism, and show us which possibilities we have that would render offenders harmless. Until this is addressed, it seems that the abolition movement is just attempting to bypass the Church's stated teaching, not to implement it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Fisking Mr. Shea, Part VI

Comes now Part 5 of Mr. Shea’s series about the Catholic “development” of the teaching about the death penalty, wherein we have been promised that we would see why and how this “development” requires us now to seek abolition of the death penalty altogether.

I wonder if we’ll get there, however, since this Part of the series again begins by conceding that “the Church grants a certain place for ‘retributive justice.’”

He then continues to argue that while Christians grant that “Caesar” has authority, we’ve always had a “certain unease with capital punishment” which led us, when we could influence public policy, to allow for punishments other than death for the crime of murder. Whereupon Mr. Shea quotes from some Church Fathers and disciplinary canons to the effect that penances could or ought to be imposed on those committing certain crimes, including murder.

Of course, what Mr. Shea breathlessly portrays as some kind of insight, that Christians do not, and never have, viewed the death penalty as required, but as permitted, is no news to anyone even facially familiar with the traditional view, which in the seminal 1916 Catholic Encyclopedia was described without fanfare as follows:
capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, and the power of the State to visit upon culprits the penalty of death derives much authority from revelation and from the writings of theologians. The advisability of exercising that power is, of course, an affair to be determined upon other and various considerations.

That said, the Church has never been hesitant or squeamish about the power of the state to execute where and when the circumstances were found appropriate, and the very Fathers he cite witness to this.

St. Augustine is representative of the views of the Church Fathers on the question, and he states that:
The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’, for the representative of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to the Law or the rule of rational justice.

In another place, the great Father argues against the notion that the guilty should live in the hope of their conversion, stating that “inflicting capital punishment…protects those who are undergoing capital punishment from the harm they may suffer … through increased sinning which might continue if their life went on.”

Tertullian, in his De Spectaculis, ch. 19 and  De Anima, Ch. 56 says:
It is a good thing when the guilty are punished.  Who will deny this but the guilty?
But death that comes from the hands of justice, the avenger of violence, should not be accounted as violent.

But is it true, as Mr. Shea claims, that the death penalty “stuck in the Christian craw and never quite felt right?”

Not so much.

The Church obviously did not conduct executions, and left criminal justice to the “secular arm.” But in that age, certain serious offenses were dealt with by the Church’s penitential practices, which were, for serious offenses, standardized and not subject to the judgment of individual confessors. This practice still survives in the sins noted in Canon Law that are “reserved” to the local bishop or the Holy See.

The Church therefore was faced with situations where a murderer for whatever reason had been charged but not been executed, or perhaps never even apprehended or charged by the state, and who presented himself to the Church for sacramental forgiveness. What penance should be imposed when a murderer wishes to reconcile with the Church?

The fact that the Church accordingly established set penances for these offenders who had not been executed (the canons cited by Mr. Shea) is hardly evidence that the Church was hesitant about imposition of the death penalty as he asserts.

While this sidetrack to look at ancient Christian penances for murder is interesting, it does not support in the slightest Mr. Shea’s position that what the Fathers themselves viewed as a moral and just practice is now to be viewed as immoral and abolished.

But we’re patient, and will see what he comes up with next.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Fisking Mr. Shea, Part V

Some thoughts before turning to Mr. Shea’s fourth article promising to demonstrate the development of doctrine which requires abolition of the death penalty.

First, when we consider past developments of moral doctrine, such as the shift from prohibition of usury to a limited allowance of it; or of the approbation of slavery to the condemnation of it, we see generally that development does not happen in a generation, but over hundreds or more years. What death penalty abolitionists propose is going from full-throated approbation to absolute condemnation and abolition is less than one generation. Really, in less than 10 years, since the Catechism and the prior pope, Benedict, have, as we have seen, reiterated the moral legitimacy of the death penalty and the real possibility of its use.

Can a genuine “development” really happen in what would be in effect a blink of philosophic or theological “time?” It’s a question not asked, much less answered, by Mr. Shea.

Second, the real “development” if that’s what it is, in this area is that where Tradition and Scripture give primacy to the theological and philosophical underpinnings of the DP (congruent satisfaction and a vindication of the value of human life given in the Fifth Commandment), and the public safety/self defense/defense of society as a secondary justification, the “new” teaching of Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism references only public safety as a justification. The “new” does not expressly reject the philosophy and theology of the traditional teaching, it simply ignores it, passing it over in silence.

Is this the real development? Can it be called a conscious development when the prior teaching is just ignored? Can a moral doctrine be “developed” out of existence by mere silence? Overturned sub silentio?

Personally I was hoping against hope that Mr. Shea would address these real and interesting issues, but alas, thus far all we’ve been given is hyperbolic bombast about blood lust vs. mercy, a phony straw man opposition that exists only in his mind.

Indeed, so far, Mr. Shea hasn’t even established a change (a “development”). He admits several times the teaching of the CCC.  So to the extent he argues that the DP is inherently immoral and needs therefore to be abolished, he has not demonstrated that this novel view is an authoritative teaching at all which represents a development of some kind instead of an informal (and possibly erroneous) position held by various clerics and laity, and yes, maybe even by the current Pope. Again we are faced with the principle of non contradiction: the Cathecism, Benedict, and John Paul II’s teaching that “the DP is moral in limited situations” AND “the DP is immoral and should be abolished” can’t both be true at the same time.

One must be discarded; which one, Mr. Shea?

Perhaps his answer lies in the next chapter of his manifesto, which begins to approach these issues, mainly by arguing that we’ve just never really understood Scripture correctly, and all this stuff about justice that the Church Fathers and St. Thomas talk about is a bunch of karmic hooey.

First, the revision of the Church’s understanding of Scripture. He begins thus:
the words of Genesis 9:6 (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed”) are best understood as a concession to human weakness, not as a positive command or ideal, like the Old Testament’s concession to human weakness in the matter of divorce. 

Best understood that way why? By what authority? What Church Father, Pope, or Catechism viewed this passage thus? It’s mere ipse dixit, not an argument. This interpretation ignores the plain language of command (“shall”), and conveniently omits the rest of the passage, “for in the image of God made he man.” Thus God indicates that murder is to be abhorred and punished not because of human weakness, or public safety, but to vindicate the value of a life made in God’s own image! As a former Protestant, Mr. Shea ought to know better than to cite Scripture incompletely to make a point.

Nor does his interpretation hold when other passages are considered, such as Numbers 35:33:
Defile not the land of your habitation, which is stained with the blood of the innocent: neither can it otherwise be expiated, but by his blood that hath shed the blood of another.

Note, categorical language about expiation, and the command “defile not.” Nothing about concession to bronze age weakness. And look at this capital punishment law for the Jews in Leviticus 20:9-20:
He that curseth his father, or mother, dying let him die: he hath cursed his father, and mother, let his blood be upon him. If any man commit adultery with the wife of another, and defile his neighbour's wife, let them be put to death, both the adulterer and the adulteress. If a man lie with his stepmother, and discover the nakedness of his father, let them both be put to death: their blood be upon them. If any man lie with his daughter in law, let both die, because they have done a heinous crime: their blood be upon them. If any one lie with a man as with a woman, both have committed an abomination, let them be put to death: their blood be upon them. If any man after marrying the daughter, marry her mother, he hath done a heinous crime: he shall be burnt alive with them: neither shall so great an abomination remain in the midst of you. He that shall copulate with any beast or cattle, dying let him die, the beast also ye shall kill. The woman that shall lie under any beast, shall be killed together with the same: their blood be upon them. If any man take his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother, and see her nakedness, and she behold her brother's shame: they have committed a crime: they shall be slain, in the sight of their people, because they have discovered one another's nakedness, and they shall bear their iniquity. If any man lie with a woman in her flowers, and uncover her nakedness, and she open the fountain of her blood, both shall be destroyed out of the midst of their people. Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy aunt by thy mother, and of thy aunt by thy father: he that doth this, hath uncovered the shame of his own flesh, both shall bear their iniquity.

These are commands of the Mosaic Law, the Divine ordinance of the God of Israel, not some kind of concession to weakness. Note, many of these crimes in no way affect the public safety or would need to be dealt with by death in order to defend the physical safety of society; they are purely punitive in the case of the sexual offenses listed. There is no mere pragmatic concession to an un-advanced society, but a command to purge even secret sins.

This entire effort to undermine the Scriptural support for the DP by appealing to the “mean” God of the Old Testament who had to be really tough on those unruly bronze age Hebrews, will not survive the fact that in the New Testament, far from moving away from the death penalty, Paul tells the Romans (Rom. 13:2-4):
Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist purchase to themselves eternal damnation. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. . . For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is the minister of God: and avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.

If Christ could, as part of the New Covenant, abolish the Jewish concession of divorce (a fact Shea bizarrely cites to argue that DP abolition is a development), why then did He and His apostles not take the opportunity to abolish the supposedly “bronze age concession” of the death penalty?

And while, as Mr. Shea notes, God showed mercy to Moses and David after they committed murder, the Law was very clear about how murder was usually to be punished. Mr. Shea seems not to realize that there is a difference between God sparing Moses and David and what the ordinary course of justice should be for the Jews where God does not sit in civil rule of the state. King David was not at all confused, since he said, “I will early destroy all the wicked of the land; that I may cut off all wicked doers from the city of the LORD.” (Ps. 101:8)

After attacking the Old Testament justification for the DP, Mr. Shea turns in passing to the philosophical justification for it, the virtue of justice:
Punishment is ordered toward redemption, not toward restoring some abstract karmic “balance of justice” somewhere in the universe to which God himself is subject.

Again, the assertion that punishment is ordered toward redemption is mere ipse dixit, unsupported by evidence or citation.

Is the natural virtue of justice now just a pagan “karma” as Mr. Shea sneeringly terms it? And if God is the author of natural law, why is it incongruous to expect that in the ordinary course of events, following natural law and virtue, including the demands of the virtue of justice, is in accord with the Divine will, not opposed to it?

In any event, that noted modernist, Venerable Pope Pius XII, back in the “bronze ages” of the 1950s, viewed things a bit differently:
when it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.

Address, 9/14/52.

Shea tries to bootstrap his Moses/David redemption trumps justice point by asserting another whopper unsupported by anything but his own say-so, arguing that Christ makes clear that “turn the other cheek” is the new way, and applies not just to individuals but to states. Thus, Shea claims, redemption is the ultimate goal of punishment, not justice, of which redemption of the offender is but one consideration.

Shea seems seriously to suggest by this that punishment has nothing to do with justice, or that inflicting a just punishment could be incompatible with redemption. It seems that Shea, by positing this newly discovered opposition of punishment and redemption is trying to get us to conclude that we could never execute offenders, not even for the Catechism’s public safety rationale, because after all, aren’t mercy and redemption more valuable than an indeterminate risk that a killer will kill again, or a lower-order consideration like justice (viewed as karmic revenge)?

Of course, under this revolutionary view, we could not punish murder even by life imprisonment, a sentence that seems decidedly to close the door on redemption and mercy. After all, if I murder, but am “redeemed” a year later, doesn’t “mercy” dictate my immediate release since punishment is ordered to redemption?  I wonder what Shea and his abolitionist comrades would suggest as the proper punishment, then, for murder?

St. Thomas, whose views have to be discarded by Shea to advance his novel theory, had this practical observation about redemption and the death penalty:
The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.

Summa Contra Gentiles III, 146.

But as with the Popes, Councils, and Fathers preceding the current Pontiff, we are to dismiss such authorities as hopelessly opposed to mercy and redemption. But I don’t see Shea’s newfound interpretation of Scripture and dismissing of justice as “karma” to be as persuasive an interpretation as this one given by the Fathers of the Council of Trent, expressly interpreting the Fifth Commandment:
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.

As if to underscore this teaching, the Council Fathers urge as a remedy against violating this Commandment a reflection upon the evil of homicide, which is surely vastly more relevant to our murderous age than to theirs:
The enormity of this sin [of murder] is manifest from many and weighty passages of Holy Scripture. So much does God abominate homicide that He declares in Holy Writ that of the very beast of the field He will exact vengeance for the life of man, commanding the beast that injures man to be put to death. And if He commanded man to have a horror of blood, He did so for no other reason than to impress on his mind the obligation of entirely refraining, both in act and desire, from the enormity of homicide.

The murderer is the worst enemy of his species, and consequently of nature. To the utmost of his power he destroys the universal work of God by the destruction of man, since God declares that He created all things for man’s sake. Nay, as it is forbidden in Genesis to take human life, because God created man to his own image and likeness, he who makes away with God’s image offers great injury to God, and almost seems to lay violent hands on God Himself.

It seems then, very much in accord with both Scripture and right reason to execute some offenders (and I suspect the Fathers of Trent were familiar with Moses and David).

So who is wrong, Mr. Shea or the Fathers of Trent and their predecessors and descendants in the Faith?


Monday, May 15, 2017

Can a Catholic be a Death Penalty Case Juror?

So Mr. Shea is really hitting the capital punishment issue lately, and recently fielded a question from a reader asking “Would it be a sin if I sat on a jury and voted for the death penalty?”

To which Mr. Shea supplies the question-begging assertion that “killing people who do not need to be killed is grave matter.” He goes on to state what he views to be the division between “death penalty advocates” and the “approach of the church:”
the question the death penalty advocate is constantly asking is “When do we get to kill somebody?” (That, by the way, is the entire subtext of your letter.)
The approach the Church always takes is “How can we possibly avoid taking human life if at all possible?”  The whole thrust and approach is different and is ordered toward mercy and redemption.  The goal is not to cross all the ts and dot all the i’s and get through all the proper hoops so that (at last!) we can kill somebody and feel terrific about it.  The goal is to find a way toward seeing, if at all possible, that human life–yes, even guilty human life–might be spared and redeemed. 
But it seems to me that this view is asserting a "hermeneutic of rupture” when in fact there is a clear continuity between the official position of the Church (which even Mr. Shea references in his answer: the death penalty is admissible to protect society in certain cases) and the current use of the death penalty in the US—the only exercise of it sought by “death penalty advocates.”
And so the correct answer to the questioner is “yes, you may sit on a jury and you may vote for the death penalty.” Because you will be instructed by the Court like this (using my own Virginia as an example):
The penalty of death shall not be imposed unless the Commonwealth shall prove beyond a reasonable doubt that there is a probability based upon evidence of the prior history of the defendant or of the circumstances surrounding the commission of the offense of which he is accused that he would commit criminal acts of violence that would constitute a continuing serious threat to society, or that his conduct in committing the offense was outrageously or wantonly vile, horrible or inhuman, in that it involved torture, depravity of mind or aggravated battery to the victim.

Code of Virginia, § 19.2-264.4 (C).
In other words, the law permits death only where the offender is a continued threat (e.g., to prison personnel or fellow inmates) or that his crime reflects particularly aggravated circumstances that indicate the offender has no regard for life, which is another way of saying the safety of society cannot be reasonably assured with respect to such a person.

Mr. Shea labors mightily to show a breach between some in the Church who advocate abolition because they wrongly (and probably heretically) view the death penalty as immoral per se, and those who adhere to what he concedes is the actual formal teaching, that the death penalty is not inherently immoral, and can be resorted to in certain situations, such as those allowed by Virginia law. All in spite of knowing that the formal teaching of the Church creates no such breach.

It must be mentally and emotionally taxing to know what the Church really teaches, yet want desperately for it to be otherwise. Perhaps this explains some of the off-the-rails abusive rhetoric employed by Mr. Shea.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Mr. Shea: Right All the Time?

Mr. Shea, taking a pause from his anti-death penalty series, opined about the latest remark by the Pope  delivered during a homily, wherein Francis, speaking of slavery, termed it a "mortal sin," and claimed that, like slavery,  capital punishment "for a time...was normal. Today, we say that the death penalty is inadmissible."

To which Mr. Shea modestly reacts, "I hate being right all the time." 

He then repeats his previously unsupported claim that "three popes, all the bishops of the world, and the rest of the civilized world" support abolition (untrue) and that supporters of the Catechism and all Catholic and Christian history are a mix of "Communist China, North Korea, a smattering of backward Islamic Bronze Age despotisms and the reliably wrong about everything postmodern America Right and its court prophets of conservative postmodern Christians both Evangelical and Catholic."

Now it's just false that three popes support abolition. John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae and in the Catechism promulgated during his pontificate expressly reaffirmed "the traditional teaching of the church" which "does not exclude recourse to the death penalty-" admittedly, under much more stringent practical restrictions than the traditional teaching, which did not really enter into the contingent practical conditions which would render recourse to the death penalty unnecessary. 

Pope Benedict, of course, famously acknowledged, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty.” Got it? Applying the death penalty, which necessarily implies the traditional belief that capital punishment is perfectly moral under the correct circumstances.

So no, Mr. Shea, there are not three popes who embrace abolition or believe the death penalty is inherently immoral. What we're left with are some public but not magisterial statements from the current Pope expressing his view on the issue. Does it need explanation that not every public utterance of a Pope is doctrine?

As to “all the bishops” denying the morality of the death penalty, I’ll cite just one counter-example, which disproves the assertion: Cardinal Raymond Burke, in  a wonderful document about civic responsibility, said this:
Although war and capital punishment can rarely be justified, they are not intrinsically evil; neither practice includes the direct intention of killing innocent human beings. In some circumstances, self-defense and defense of the nation are not only rights, but responsibilities. Neither individuals nor governments can be denied the right of lawful defense in appropriate circumstances (CCC, Nos. 2265 and 2309).

As usual, Cardinal Burke perfectly and precisely lays out Catholic teaching. Why can’t Mr. Shea and his fellow dissenters accept this teaching?

The rest of Mr. Shea’s comments, alas, are like his former statements on this issue, positing a false choice between fighting abortion or supporting the death penalty, and claiming that Catholics merely want to slaughter people indiscriminately:
Forgetting, yet again, the “to natural death” part of the sanctity of human life, they will again siphon off all their time and energy from the battle against abortion to argue that we need to kill people who do not need to be killed and to strive to make sure that the largest gulag on planet earth makes sure to maintain a system of slaughter predicated on the insistence that it is better the innocent should die than that the guilty receive mercy–even though the guilty will be kept behind bars for life.
Of course, it should not need stating that since the US executes only about a "rare" number of .05% of killers in very limited circumstances, after fair trials and years of review by multiple different state and federal courts, it cannot credibly be claimed that mere bloodlust leads death penalty proponents to toss overboard any reasonable discernment of which cases call for the ultimate punishment. It’s a mere ad hominem smear and a mortal sin, if I can borrow that old fashioned term from Pope Francis, of calumny.

Tuesday, May 09, 2017

Fisking Mr. Shea, Part IV

In his latest installment arguing that the comments of Pope Francis and of some bishops and bishops’ conferences urging abolition of the death penalty because it is immoral is a “development” of doctrine, Mr. Shea turns again to the Old Testament.

He returns to his argument that 21st century rejection of the death penalty as a moral option is akin to the early apostles and Christians figuring out whether their Jewish forbears were in error
to circumcise their children and keep kosher. But, of course, they were not. Rather, what the apostles then (and the bishops today) recognise is that more light from God – and more understanding of light already received – changes things and deepens understanding. The apostles did not declare their ancestors in error at the Council of Jerusalem. Rather, they underwent a paradigm shift. 

So, as in his first article, Mr. Shea is equating 6,000 years of Judeo-Christian approbation of the moral quality of capital punishment with the temporally-bound dictates of the Mosaic ritual law. The equivalence is utterly lacking, of course. The Jewish ritual law bound the Jews under the Old Covenant. With Christ, and the New Covenant, it was very quickly clear to the early Christians that observance of “the Law” was not binding for Christians: baptism and the sacraments were the path of holiness under the New Covenant.

The question of the death penalty, however, is entirely different in nature. If, as the abolitionists claim, the death penalty is intrinsically immoral, it could never have been the subject of even permissive allowance, since to suggest so is to claim that God could sanction unjust killing. More fundamentally, recourse to the death penalty by Israel did not occur because it was a part of the ritual law, like circumcision and the dietary code. It was exercised by Israel (and I daresay all other ancient societies) because it is implicitly condoned in the Fifth Commandment and comports with the natural virtue of Justice.

If Mr. Shea is right, that the death penalty was merely permitted, like divorce, in the Old Covenant because of the “hardness of their hearts,” then one would expect that, like divorce, there would have been, very early in the Church, a strong movement against capital punishment, just as there was against divorce. Since it was a common practice that took many lives, one would think that Christ Himself might have condemned the practice, like He did in reference to divorce. But He was silent. Silent even when Dismas the “Good Thief” was hanging on the cross next to him and rebuked the other thief by stating “Do you not even fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong." (Luke 23:40-41).

Now the Lord had an excellent opportunity at that point to teach all present and all posterity that Dismas was incorrect, that the death penalty is inherently evil and should be abolished. But He did not, because, frankly, that’s not His teaching and never was.

The false suggestion that there is a “mean God of the Old Testament” who was fine with bloodthirsty practices like the death penalty and a “merciful forgiving God” of the New Testament who would never approve of the death penalty is belied by Scripture itself, such as this passage from Romans:

Therefore he that resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God, and they that resist purchase to themselves eternal damnation. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. . . For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is the minister of God: and avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.

 (Rom. 13:2-4)

Nor is this surprising since both Old and New Testaments refer to the death penalty not merely as an accommodation to blood lust, or a culturally conditioned practice due to a “bronze age” judicial system, but as an exercise of the virtue of Justice and a vindication of the importance and value of innocent life.

Mr. Shea then tells us,
 Time was when the Church affirmed that the death penalty is ‘retributive justice’ for murder. It is the punishment that fits the crime: ‘life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe’ (Ex. 21:23-25). Thomas Aquinas affirms this. So do a host of Magisterial authorities before Evangelium Vitae. 

Indeed the Magisterium does teach that the death penalty is in accord with the virtue of justice, as summarized here. Which is why any “development” argument for abolition has to account not only for the clear support for capital punishment in Sacred Scripture, but for the continuous support for it from the Church Fathers, through the schoolmen, through Trent, and through the unanimity of Catholic thought up to and including the pontificate of Pius XII, all of whom taught unambiguously that the death penalty is in accord with both the natural virtue of Justice and the Divine Law found in the Fifth Commandment.

While admitting this Magisterial teaching, Mr. Shea goes on to point out that,
A brief survey of the development of the Church’s thought is in order here, because the notion that justice demands the death penalty and goes unsatisfied without it is simply not supported by Scripture or tradition.

Now to the extent Mr. Shea is claiming that justice and the traditional teaching do not require the death penalty in all cases, he simply states the obvious. Recourse to the death penalty, just like which sentence to hand down for theft, is a contingent matter depending on many mitigating and aggravating factors, mercy being one such factor.

But to the extent Mr. Shea is claiming that we are free to ignore the virtue of justice and the traditional Scriptural view of capital punishment, and conclude that the death penalty is immoral (the abolitionist position), he can find no support in Scripture or the traditional sources of Catholic theology: the Fathers, the schoolmen, the Catechisms and Councils, the Papal teachings.

What then is his answer?
The primal will of God is not “Murderers must always die” or “Restore abstract karmic balance when blood cries out from the ground” but “Look for opportunities to show mercy.” Seen this way, the commandment to Noah to shed the blood of murderers is a indeed concession to human weakness, a last ditch effort to restrain human evil run amuck. It is not the goal to which we are to aspire, but the rough frontier justice of a raw Bronze Age culture.

So, having conceded that Sacred Scripture and Catholic tradition have always allowed for the death penalty, he claims that use of it is a concession to weakness, not a positive mandate.

But even if true (it’s not), it’s beside the point. To say, as the Catholic does, that the death penalty is a just and moral option for states to use in certain circumstances, is not the same thing as saying “justice and the Bible demand that every murder be punished by death.” Again, there has always been a recognition that circumstances, including mercy, might induce the state to impose a lesser sentence than death. There has been no “development” to this perennial view. Pope Francis did not invent or discover mercy. It’s always been one part of the equation is assessing whether in a particular case, capital punishment should be imposed.

In short, Mr. Shea presents a false choice: either it’s “God wants all murderers to die” or “mercy must be shown.” It’s false because he falsifies the traditional teaching, which has nothing to do with maintaining security in bronze-age societies (Pius XII, after all, reigned until 1958), but everything to do with the death penalty being, as the Council of Trent put it, “an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.”

But even if you set the equation in those phony terms, he has not shown how we get from “the death penalty is certainly moral in some contingent circumstances” (tradition) to “the death penalty is never moral, no matter the circumstances, because Mercy” (abolitionists).

Citing the abolition of divorce and the ritual Mosaic Law at the start of the Christian era is not a compelling argument, in my view, that 2,000 years of Church Fathers, theologians, and Councils somehow got it wrong when they teach that the death penalty is in accord with Justice and a vindication of God’s hatred of the crime of murder, whose perpetrators, as Trent put it, “almost seem to lay violent hands on God Himself.”

But we’re patiently waiting, and we’ll see what Mr. Shea comes up with next.