Thursday, October 2, 2008

Capital Punishment: Killing Those Who Deserve to Die

I think that some people deserve to die, but stay alive.

I also think that some people deserve to live, but die.

I can't bring the dead to life, so I'm not enthusiastic about capital punishment.

I read in yesterday's news that the American Supreme Court "refused to reconsider its June ruling banning capital punishment for child rapists, rejecting Louisiana officials' argument that a 'significant error' led to its conclusion that there is a 'national consensus' against executing non-murderers." (CNN)

I'm glad to see that. Which may seem odd, since I'm a devout Catholic, and:
  • The Catholic Church is part of conservative Christianity
  • It's 'well known' that conservatives
    • Love the death penalty
    • Care nothing for social justice
    • Are cold, heartless, unfeeling people who delight in snatching bread from bleeding lips of the poor
Okay: That's a slight exaggeration of how conservatives are often viewed in America, but I think it's close.

So, if I'm a Catholic, and the Catholic Church is conservative, why am I glad to see that child rapists won't get executed?

Catholic Teaching on Capital Punishment: 'It Depends'

The Church isn't against capital punishment: but it's not for it, either. It depends on the circumstances.

The Catechism lays out what the Church teaches about how far people and societies can go to defend themselves, in 2263-2267. The section includes something St. Thomas Aquinas wrote about what is, and what isn't, acceptable:
"If a man in self-defense uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repels force with moderation, his defense will be lawful. . . . Nor is it necessary for salvation that a man omit the act of moderate self-defense to avoid killing the other man, since one is bound to take more care of one's own life than of another's.66"
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2264)
Societies are allowed to protect themselves, too.
"Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm...."
(Catechism, 2265)
The Church doesn't declare open season on the bad guys, though.
"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 more in conformity with the dignity of the human person...."
(Catechism, 2267) [emphasis mine]
The way I explained this to my kids was that the Catholic Church makes rules and guidelines that fit cultures around the world, and throughout the history that's been, and will be. There's got to be a lot of consideration for local circumstances.

Capital Punishment: an Exercise in Thought

Let's take a hypothetical culture: almost a thousand people living on a remote rocky island, back in the 10th century. They're able to keep themselves fed by fishing and cooking seaweed, but it takes just about everyone to get that job done.

Now, let's say they have to decide what to do with one of their number who keeps killing people. They've tried talking to him. They even tried tying him up and feeding him. That put a real strain on the culture's resources, though, since it deprived them of a food gatherer. Besides, he's pretty strong, and broke loose several times.

In a situation like that, I'd say that executing the killer would probably make sense.

In 21st century America, on the other hand, we're not in that hypothetical culture's position. Not even close. I've discussed capital punishment with someone who wants to kill the bad guys because it's cheaper than making sure they stay in prison, but offhand I think we can afford it.

'By the Power Vested in Me by the Supreme Court, Rise?!'

Besides, I know that judges and juries can make mistakes. As of yesterday, the score for people exonerated from rape charges by new DNA technology is about 221 across America, 35 in Texas alone. (Innocence Project)

If someone had been put in prison, and later found innocent, that person can be released. Since not even the Supreme Court of the United States of America can raise people from the dead, if that person had been executed, the best that authorities could do would be to say, "sorry about that."

Mollycoddling Criminals, Feelings, and Doing What's Right

I realize that people whose friend, child, spouse, or relative was killed by some disaster zone of a human being want retribution. It's a very human desire. And achieving a 'just redressing the disorder introduced by an offense' is supported by the Catholic Church (2266).

Given how much I trust the American judicial system to recognize truth, and how hard it is to un-execute someone, I don't think that capital punishment is defensible in America.

But, that's my opinion. I'm pretty sure that someone could, in good faith, study Catholic teaching on the subject and decide that capital punishment is acceptable in some cases in America.

In the news:


dudleysharp said...

You may find these of interest:

"The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

Death Penalty Support: Modern Catholic Scholars

Pope John Paul II: Prudential Judgement and the death penalty

Brian H. Gill said...


Thanks for those URLs.

My usual disclaimer: I have no control over content on other sites, and can't be responsible for what anyone finds there.

What I've read, elsewhere, appears to indicate that a Catholic may, in good conscience, promote the killing of another person: provided that the killing is done within rather careful parameters - and that there aren't viable alternatives.

I'm not 'against the death penalty' in all cases - but I have very serious doubts whether the country I was born in, America, is sufficiently impoverished and disparate to warrant the killing of people who our courts think are dangerous and guilty of serious crimes.

Again, thanks for the URLs.

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Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.