One aspect of the current debate in Saint Blogs over the death penalty that I find fascinating is the sheer indifference that many anti-death penalty Catholics have to the fact that the Church until 1995 never challenged the right of the State to execute convicted criminals. Calls for mercy from clerics were never uncommon, but the justice of the death penalty per se, apart from prudential concerns, never entered into the picture. Steven Long at Thomistica looks at this:
Four Catholic journals–the National Catholic Register, America, The National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor–have decided to press for the total abolition of the death penalty in the United States in a shared editorial, making only faintly veiled suggestions that it is essentially evil, “abhorrent”. Their joint editorial may be found, among other places, here. The editorial manifests a wondrously positivistic indifference to, and disregard for, distinctions in doctrine. That all the Doctors and Fathers of the Church–with the exception of Tertullian who died outside the faith– have taught the essential validity of capital punishment; and that it is the teaching of the Council of Trent that where all the Fathers and Doctors hold one interpretation of Scripture as the proper one, Catholics are to accept it, are two propositions that signify very little in the oppressive culture of mutationist accounts of doctrinal development.
Wholly unobserved is the high theological note characterizing the profession required of the Waldensians in 1210 in order to re-establish ecclesial communion. The Waldensians were required to acknowledge among other things the essential justice of the death penalty for grave crime. Cf. Denzinger, #425—“Concerning secular power we declare that without mortal sin it is possible to exercise a judgment of blood as long as one proceeds to bring punishment not in hatred but in judgment, not incautiously but advisedly.” Clearly to require this oath for the re-establishment of ecclesial communion at one moment, and then to imply the absolute necessity of the opposite—where what is at stake is not prudential application and limit but the principled possibility of just penalty of death—would constitute not a development of doctrine, but rather a mutation. Note, again, that the oath required of the Waldensians directly refers to the death penalty in principle and that it indicates that as such it cannot be a malum in se. Nor is it listed as such in Evangelium Vitae, which provides a list of such intrinsic evils from which the death penalty is omitted.
Are the editors of the journals involved–or the bishops who so commonly describe the death penalty as contrary to human dignity as though it were a malum in se–familiar with the work of the late Eminence Cardinal Avery Dulles on this question? Or the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church? Hundreds of years of Catholic teaching in conformity with the teaching of the Fathers and Doctors has acknowledged that implementing the penalty is a prudential matter and that the penalty is essentially valid. Pope Piux XII taught that the penalty is valid across cultures. The wisdom of applying this penalty is essentially a prudential matter. But as prudential there is no such thing as “de facto abolition” since circumstances change, and–again, contrary to the journals and the new enthusiasm–deterrence is a necessary and essential part of criminal justice. The reason for this last is that we are not free to impose penalties in this life without considering the common good, and an essential part of this consideration is (contrary to Kant who thought that the justice of the death penalty made its application to be absolutely necessary) the issue of deterrence.
Go here to read the rest. Long ends by noting the harm the editorial and the Bishops do, by inviting the Supreme Court to go further down the lawless path that it blazed in Roe v. Wade:
Need one observe that the journals’ appeal for the US Supreme Court further to ignore the US Constitution will have further implications for the deterioration of our legal system? The founders, who provide for the death penalty in the US Constitution, cannot coherently be thought to have promulgated in that document anything that could warrant the judgment that it is of its nature “abhorrent” or inconsistent with legal justice. Thus the journals’ insistence that the court once more ignore the Constitution seems to imply a memory lapse that normative reference to that document in its integrity is necessary to several ongoing legal cases of Catholic institutions attempting to preserve their just right to operate as such without being coerced to cooperate in triggering financing for essentially vicious action. The four journals that published this editorial would have done better to join in a statement defending these endangered institutions. Certainly urging the US Supreme Court toward further deconstruction of the US Constitution serves neither the just interests of the common good nor the evangelical mission and liberty of the Roman Catholic Church.
The journals publishing the shared editorial achieve an apotheosis of that special mix of enthusiasm, ignorance of doctrine, distinerest in distinction, and willingness to speak with “abhorrent” rhetoric to prove their wholeheartedness, which are part of the legacy of the sixties. When in doubt, always amp up the rhetoric and suggest that those who differ with you are guilty of being bloodthirsty. That is the true path of dialogue. “All we are saying, is give doctrinal antinomianism a chance.” But: it has had its destructive chance, and we are still reeling from the damage. The misbegotten application of categories of speech appropriate in regard to the murder of innocents to the vastly different application of just penalty for grave evil, is symptomatic of a society that can garner more support to spare the guilty than to save the innocent. The crowd still wants Barrabas.