Sunday, January 22, 2012

A little bit about capital punishment

The Catechism of the Catholic Church should ideally provide some reference in each of its teachings to Scripture and Tradition.

The section on the death penalty (2267) doesn't do this.

So, in lieu of Catechism footnotes, let me direct interested parties to the First Things article by Avery Cardinal Dulles, Catholicism and Capital Punishment

I've always had a quibble with capital punishment, since it has never seemed to jibe well with Catholicism's reverence for natural law. But in reading Dulles' article, I see that the justification for the death penalty is not that it is consonant with natural law, but rather that it is not, properly speaking, the act of men.

God alone is judge and God alone is Lord of life and death. But there is a bridge between God's lordship and human action, and that bridge is Biblical doctrine. Civil authorities (no matter their personal creed or model of government) are bequeathed God's authority for the sake of maintaining public order. This is not the "divine right of kings"--it is rather an acknowledgement that earthly power, whether acknowledged or not, comes from God.

Entering into Catholic faith is sometimes a process of letting go of deeply rooted assumptions. Modern sympathies, my own included, are to regard civil authorities with quasi-contempt: hardly divine, scarcely sometimes even human.

Yet deference to civil authority is so deeply ingrained in Catholic tradition that it cannot be disposed of without heterodoxy. I just never imagined before that it would reach such a height as to elevate the State above the proscription against killing. But the more I understand Catholic faith, the more I begin to see how all of creation (not only nature but society) is shot through with the divine.

My soft heart is happy that the Holy See views the death penalty as scarcely ever justified in developed nations. But my intellect does grasp that civil authorities are regarded as no more artificial or disposable than the human family, and that each of these entities has certain powers and duties that transcend the individual, making them more than the sum of their parts.


bill bannon said...

Romans 13:4 is the very reason the catechism writers were forced to affirm the death penalty....while they then did an end run around it by saying it's rarely necessary.
Tell that to Jeffrey Dahmer and to Fr. Geoghan who were murdered by lifer inmates in non death penalty states wherein a prison murder is a free murder if the killers are lifers anyway.
The catechism position will get people killed in prison just like Aquinas' position that heretics should be sundered from the earth also got people killed who should not have been.
You are watching the beginning of another mistake in the non infallible territory of the papal magisterium. It will last hundreds of years like Aquinas' mistake did. Nothing can be done. Herd thinking is simply too strong within Catholicism pertaining to the non definitive. The catechism #2267 is actually a prudential judgement forced into a catechism in order to look like doctrine....but it's a prudential judgement with no cites as to studies read on the death penalty and deterrence. Only if we eventually get a Pope who actually has a degree in sociology and demands cites in this area....might....might it be corrected.
Check wiki for intentional homocide by country:

El Salvador #1 worst murder rate.             79% Catholic      no death penalty 
Honduras #2. worst          ”          ”               97%.Catholic   no dp
Venezuela.# 4 worst            ”         ”             96%.          ”        no dp
Colombia. #7.worst               ”       ”              90%.      ”             no dp
Brazil. #19.worst.              ”.          ”              73%.             ”        no dp
Dominican Republic #20.worst “. ”               95%.         ”            no dp

Anonymous said...

Hi Bill,

I appreciate your thoughtful responses. I think the matter of prison murder deserves its own discussion, but I wouldn't necessarily correlate it with doctrinal matters. Doctrine is not defined around sociological data.

The magisterium sometimes makes observations regarding matters of fact. These aren't doctrine. It's not wrong for the magisterium to print such observations--usually, they are necessary to provide context for the real meat.

Nevertheless, you're right that on matters of fact, the Holy See is not protected from error.

Still, I believe your conclusions have little to do with your premises. The factors that determine a country's murder rate are so complex and numerous that it seems a child's game to blame it all on lacking death penalty. All of the countries you mention lie within a pan-South American narco state.

I *do* believe they could use a serious debate about including the death penalty. They wouldn't violate Catholic teaching if they did. But I also think that it's a slight red herring. Lack of the death penalty is the least of their problems. I would consider it a distraction more than anything.