"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 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.

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