"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

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.

1 comment:

Nate Winchester said...

It would also seem that there was, in fact, a way to render an offender harmless for centuries now: bury them alive or cut off their arms and legs.

Yet I don't see much noting those punishment as preferable to the death penalty. One would think such an obvious point would give Shea pause maybe "harmless" isn't the key ingredient here.