Lately there has been much discussion regarding the death penalty due to the “Capital punishment must end” editorial of America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor.
My first reaction to this was no big deal. Generally I align myself with Pope Saint John Paul II’s reasoning in the Evangelium Vitae and what is spelled out in the Catechism. Through most of my life I have not had a strong opinion either way. Mostly I have been against the death penalty and at times favoring it in some cases. It was not until I became Catholic that I formed a stronger opinion about this.
One of the things I strive to do as a Catholic is not to go farther than what the Church actually teaches. I credit Jimmy Akin for my desiring this attitude since time and time again I noticed this in the way he answered questions. As a result I have had to moderate my own favoring of the end of the death penalty to the fact that the Church has constantly taught the “moral liceity of the death penalty justly administered.”
Mark Shea from time to time has accused so-called “conservative Catholics” of using prudential questions as a way of ignoring doctrine. An aspect of this is true, but ignoring doctrine in this way is not limited to any one group. Especially since much of the support for eliminating the death penalty is almost totally prudential without much anchoring to the consistent teaching of the Church. When I finally read the editorial I found this to be mostly the case. As someone generally inclined in this direction I did not think the case made in the editorially very well thought out. Kind of all over the place with no caveats regarding Church teaching on this. I found it a bit dishonest.
I found myself nodding my head mostly in agreement as I read Dr. Ed Peter’s blog post today Okay, what about Catholics and the death penalty?.
… As a Catholic squarely in line with the Catholic tradition that, as Long accurately if turgidly sets out, supports the just administration of the death penalty for capital crimes, I have grown used to having my motives for such support reduced to: my thirst for vengeance, my disdain for mercy, my obliviousness to Christ’s salvific will, my despair about conversion, and my contempt for compassion. I apparently do not understand that the death penalty does not bring murder victims back to life (gee, whodathunkit?) but that’s not to worry, because my support for the death penalty can be excused (and then dismissed) on purely demographic grounds (I am, after all, white, male, middle-aged, and usually vote conservative, so who cares what a heartless jerk like me thinks about anything?)
… So argue, if one will, the prudence of the death penalty—there are some very good prudential arguments against it, as Häring noted fifty years ago—but do not read the Catechism as making any principled points against the death penalty beyond those that have long been part of the Church teaching on the death penalty, that is, for the last 20 centuries during which no Catholic thinker, let alone any Magisterial pronouncement, asserted the inherent immorality of the death penalty. To the contrary, as Long points out, acknowledgment of the moral liceity of the death penalty justly administered, is the Catholic tradition.
There has been way too much noise and straw men on both sides of the debate. I’ve seen some rather ridiculous arguments pro and con.
What was helpful for me in coming to understand this more was the late Cardinal Dulles’ article in First Things Catholicism & Capital Punishment. This is an excellent overview of this issue.
In light of all this it seems safe to conclude that the death penalty is not in itself a violation of the right to life. The real issue for Catholics is to determine the circumstances under which that penalty ought to be applied. It is appropriate, I contend, when it is necessary to achieve the purposes of punishment and when it does not have disproportionate evil effects. I say “necessary” because I am of the opinion that killing should be avoided if the purposes of punishment can be obtained by bloodless means.
He goes over the fourfold purpose of punishment in secular courts as it applies to the death penalty and how it stacks up prudentially to the use of the death penalty. Really just read the article as I find it accurately states Catholic teaching along with the prudential concerns with the state administering the death penalty.
Mainly my point is that the debate should be about as he states “The real issue for Catholics is to determine the circumstances under which that penalty ought to be applied.” The problem with prudential questions is that of course they are prudential or as Dr. Ed Peters’ wrote “debatable”. What a shock that one persons prudential opinion goes against another’s. So as is often the case we have people arguing over each other and being rather dismissive towards their view even if it is within the range of what Catholics can believe on this issue.