Thursday, September 29, 2011

what the Catechism says

 Since people keep telling me the Catholic Church isn't officially against the death penalty, here's the Catechism:
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 to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."68
Update: I am fully convinced by all the people telling me that the prohibition against the death penalty is not of the same binding nature as the prohibition against abortion or gay marriage. Trust me: I now understand that a Catholic is not bound by his or her Catholicism to oppose state sanctioned killing.

8 comments:

  1. I'm a Presbyterian, so I don't really have authority here. But my understanding of Catholic doctrine is that it slowly solidifies, and, while the teaching on the death penalty is official and Douthat & Gobry are not being as clear on that as they should be, it's a "room to disagree" issue in a way that abortion or the Immaculate Conception of Mary are not. That is, it's an official position, but it's not dogma. Correct teaching, but not divine revelation. (A decent rule of thumb is to check for a papal encyclical or a church council document on the matter.)

    And I say this as someone who agrees fully with the position you've quoted, which I'd sum up as: if a society is rich enough to incarcerate instead of execute, it's obligatory for that society to incarcerate instead of execute.

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  2. people keep telling me the Catholic Church isn't officially against the death penalty

    Which people? I haven't seen anyone say that.

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  3. As William says above, the death penalty is one of those issues that Catholics have some room to disagree. Disagreement is often possible even when a pope or the bishops have officially stated teaching (as opposed to issuing their opinions) because there are limits to their teaching authority (assuming they have any such authority). When interpreting a statement, letter or other text from a pope, bishop, or the bishops, we need to keep in mind three different acts the pope, bishop, or bishops may be performing: 1) the teaching on matters of faith and morals, 2) the interpretation of the situation on the ground to which this teaching may be applied, and 3) the application of the teaching on faith and morals to the concrete situation. The pope and bishops claim to have the authority to speak on the principles of faith and morals (in very limited cases even infallibly), but they do not possess some special authority or ability to accurately assess the concrete realities to which those principles would be applied. As a result, they really don’t have a strong authoritative ground to stand on when speaking of the application of those principles. As the issue of the death penalty covers all three of these areas (principle, interpretation, and application), Catholics have some room to disagree with the pope and bishops. For the Church to condemn the death penalty outright, it would have to do so at the level of principle, and not with respect to the situation on the ground. This could happen at some point, and I hope it does, but until then, a Catholic may under certain circumstances support the death penalty.

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  4. The comment threads on this issue are great and perfectly illustrate my personal experience in the church. When it comes to stuff like legal regulation of abortion or contraception, There Is One Position. When it comes to war or killing prisoners or justice, hey, reasonable minds disagree, man. OK, wevs.

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  5. I concur, redscott. From what I can tell, on Mondays the pope is infallible on everything, Tuesdays he is infallible only on abortion, Wednesdays he is totally irrelevant, and Thursdays he may be infallible if he talks about homosexuality (his pronouncements on the function of human genitalia solidify into dogma 5 seconds after they leave his mouth).


    That was a parody, of course, but it sums up my experience with Catholic theology.

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  6. Coming late to this, but this piece should be helpful: http://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/08/catholicism-amp-capital-punishment-21

    Quote:

    The doctrine remains what it has been: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes. But the classical tradition held that the State should not exercise this right when the evil effects outweigh the good effects. Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied. The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position.

    In a brief compass I have touched on numerous and complex problems. To indicate what I have tried to establish, I should like to propose, as a final summary, ten theses that encapsulate the Church's doctrine, as I understand it.

    1) The purpose of punishment in secular courts is fourfold: the rehabilitation of the criminal, the protection of society from the criminal, the deterrence of other potential criminals, and retributive justice.

    2) Just retribution, which seeks to establish the right order of things, should not be confused with vindictiveness, which is reprehensible.

    3) Punishment may and should be administered with respect and love for the person punished.

    4) The person who does evil may deserve death. According to the biblical accounts, God sometimes administers the penalty himself and sometimes directs others to do so.

    5) Individuals and private groups may not take it upon themselves to inflict death as a penalty.

    6) The State has the right, in principle, to inflict capital punishment in cases where there is no doubt about the gravity of the offense and the guilt of the accused.

    7) The death penalty should not be imposed if the purposes of punishment can be equally well or better achieved by bloodless means, such as imprisonment.

    8) The sentence of death may be improper if it has serious negative effects on society, such as miscarriages of justice, the increase of vindictiveness, or disrespect for the value of innocent human life.

    9) Persons who specially represent the Church, such as clergy and religious, in view of their specific vocation, should abstain from pronouncing or executing the sentence of death.

    10) Catholics, in seeking to form their judgment as to whether the death penalty is to be supported as a general policy, or in a given situation, should be attentive to the guidance of the pope and the bishops. Current Catholic teaching should be understood, as I have sought to understand it, in continuity with Scripture and tradition.

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  7. I'm sorry, but that First Things piece was not helpful. What are "very serious crimes"? What does "countries like our own" mean?

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  8. the prohibition against the death penalty is not of the same binding nature as the prohibition against abortion or gay marriage.

    The prohibition on abortion is part of the Church's ordinary magisterium. The teaching is ancient and pervasive. There is no 'prohibition' on the death penalty, merely a teaching that it should not be applied in certain contingencies. There is no 'prohibition' on 'gay marriage'. Rather, it is the Church's position that the sacrament of marriage, to be valid, requires the appropriate constituent parts: an adult male and an adult female, uncoerced an not consanguinous. There is a prohibition on sodomy, one both antique and pervasive. Social relations constructed around sodomy cannot receive the Church's blessing.

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