"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

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.

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