"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, 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.


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