"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

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

Fisking Mr. Shea, Part III

In “The development of doctrine, Part Two,” Mr. Shea, when he’s finished venting a bit about the unfairness of executing the “Arkansas 8” group of convicted murderers, observes what he finds to be an unusual phenomenon: the more one identifies as a pro life believer, the more likely one is to believe in the morality of the death penalty:
In short, the less you are a “good Catholic” in America, the more likely you are to support the Church’s actual teaching on the death penalty: namely, that it should be abolished. The more “prolife” you are (in the sense of “voting for Republicans in the hope of overturning Roe v. Wade and outlawing abortion as much as possible”) the more likely it is you oppose and even work to undermine the teaching of the Magisterium on the death penalty and call it an error and even a heresy. 
He notes that “even” in Australia, where capital punishment has long been outlawed, there is support for it amongst the population. That this should strike someone as surprising is surprising, since in the US, when the Supreme Court had judicially exterminated the death penalty for several years, support for it remained high. Why, surveys in that most Catholic of European nations, the land of Pope John Paul II and Evangelium Vitae, place support for the death penalty at around 70%. Clearly, there are some cases and some circumstances involving some offenders in which many or most people favor the option of capital punishment. Are they all Talibanic monsters who have bloodlust and are on the lookout for someone to offer in sacrifice? It just doesn’t seem likely. What seems more probable is that prolife Christians, and many others, understand the lengthy pedigree in the Scriptures, Sacred Tradition, and the constant teaching of the Church of the notion that in some cases, societies morally may resort to the death penalty.  

Finally, however, Mr. Shea begins his argument that there has been a “development of doctrine” with respect to capital punishment. He starts with the following correct statement:
The problem is this in a nutshell: For centuries, the Church affirmed the power of Caesar to execute capital criminals. 
And follows it immediately with a bafflingly false statement:
But since Evangelium Vitae, the Church has called for the abolition of the death penalty.
He then without irony accuses “traditionalists” of claiming that Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, have contradicted the traditional teaching and can be ignored. No citation is given to the “traditionalist” claims that these Popes can be ignored on the issue of capital punishment. The irony lies in the fact that Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II, and Benedict, all affirmed the traditional teaching, as did the Catholic Catechism authored under JPII’s reign. No “traditionalist” complained of a heretical departure from doctrine, because none occurred!

In fact, Mr. Shea ignores that it is precisely orthodox Catholics who have utilized Benedict's noted "hermeneutic of continuity" to argue that there has been no doctrinal change, only one of prudential emphasis in the concrete application of the unchanged moral teaching. It is Mr. Shea who is urging us to believe that there has been a doctrinal earthquake such that we must explain it is a "development." But to get there, Mr. Shea has to ignore the very Pope Benedict he claims believes in the doctrine of death penalty abolition, since Benedict, while a Cardinal in charge of Catholic doctrine, clearly stated,  "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."

What I suspect Mr. Shea is seeking to do is to crush any dissent from his abolitionist view, and what better way than to attempt to elevate abolitionism to the status of a doctrine? It's much easier to argue from authority than to do the messy business of proving that abolition is both consonant with Christian ethics, the Bible, and Tradition (it's not) and that it would make for a better society (it wouldn't).

Nonetheless, off he goes, and while making the obvious point that John Paul's statements in the Catechism and EV were not merely personal opinion, cites these very words of the Catechism that refute the idea that a “development of doctrine” requires death penalty abolition, :
2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.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 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 non-existent.”
And well he should cite them, since they are merely the latest, definitive official, formal proclamations of the Church that capital punishment per se is perfectly moral and legitimate. Like any resort to force, however, and as the Church has always acknowledged, resort to such punishments should be made only in situations where they are truly necessary for the common good and public order. There is nothing truly new here.

By the very authority he cites, Mr. Shea then must at least implicitly admit that per se the death penalty is a moral option, and he does so by pivoting immediately to what he says is the true “development:”
Moreover, it is the teaching of the Church that the practical upshot of the “practical non-existence” of the need to execute is this: abolish the death penalty. That is the express demand of three popes and all the bishops of the world.
First, he cites no authority to demonstrate that John Paul II and Benedict XVI formally ("express") taught the “developed doctrine” of death penalty abolitionism, nor that “all the bishops of the world” have ever done so. Has there been a Vatican III called for this purpose? Did even Pope Francis author an encyclical, or a new Catechism wherein he lays out this new “doctrinal” mandate?

He cites no authority because there is none.

What he could cite are many statements from individual bishops and Bishops’ conferences calling for abolition. But neither these conferences nor the statements they issue are binding doctrine. If they were, belief in anthropogenic climate change, the minimum wage, and open borders would also have to be added to the Creed. Pope Francis has made comments about abolition, but has never thought to attempt to impose them as doctrine by way of a formal teaching, such as an encyclical or revision to the Catechism.

At the core, the problem Mr. Shea bumps up against in trying to shoehorn abolition into the Creed is the principle of non-contradiction. One cannot logically hold the position that the death penalty is per se moral (“the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty”) and simultaneously assert that “abolish the death penalty” is a moral absolute.

No, one must either “think with the Church,” and hold that executions are clearly morally permissible in certain circumstances, even if those circumstances might be “rare” (a word leaving much latitude for prudential judgment, as Benedict noted, since the “rarity” is premised upon the condition that offenders can be rendered harmless by unspecified “possibilities”); or one must be with the dissenters who reject that the death penalty can ever be moral and hence must, ipso facto, be abolished.

A true development of doctrine, Mr. Shea, cannot violate the principle of non-contradiction.

But we’ll see what he comes up with next time.

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