Thursday, February 14, 2013

A Catholic struggle with the Death Penalty

This is an issue that has gnawed at me for some time.  When things settle down in my life, I must  put my thoughts out on the subject.  Long and short off the top of my head: as a liberal agnostic I rejected the death penalty because, well, that's what liberals and many secular non-religious types did.  The reasons were many: authority sucks, who's to say what's true, there are no criminals, only victims of oppressive and unjust societies, executions are so 'medieval religious inquisitor', all you need is love, and on and on.

When I became a Christian, I was confronted by many who actually supported the death penalty.  After my ordination, I met many more who could argue passionately, eloquently  and with a nod toward the sanctity of life and the justice of God and a host of other issues for its use.  I also met others who vehemently opposed the death penalty.  But I noticed some things: those who supported it were likely to allow for armed combat and other means for protecting the nation, while those opposed typically opposed all warfare and violence.  I also noticed that those who supported the death penalty tended to adhere to more traditional and literal understandings of the Christian faith: God actually did send His Son to die on the cross, hell exists, there are absolute truths, sanctity of life and all that.

I also noticed that the overwhelming majority of those who outright rejected the death penalty tended to skirt at least some of those beliefs.  Not all, but most typically rejected some if not every one of those ideas: no Hell, God certainly didn't really send his Son to die on the Cross (for what?  There's no Hell), what sanctity of life, etc.   I remember a professor I had, Professor Walt, who railed against the death penalty with the same passion he railed against the archaic notion of life's sanctity.  Plus, most tended to embrace the more liberal notion that the right of the individual to define his or her own reality reigned supreme,  as opposed to old notions of greater truths that needed fealty and obedience.

In the face of this, and the fact that I tended toward a more traditional take on Christianity,  I felt at odds with my opposition to the death penalty.  The best I could cling to was that no justice system is infallible, and with the chance for the innocent to be executed, rejection of capital punishment was the only safe course to follow.  Naturally, friends and colleagues who disagreed were quick to ask what about the innocent who might die because a killer who might otherwise have been executed is allowed to live?  That has happened, too.

As a liberal, that was the chance you took.  Rights trump life after all.  Hence the overwhelming tendency of modern nations that reject the death penalty to allow for abortion rights.  Rights trump life.  But as a sanctity of life guy, that was a dilemma.  Plus, especially in terms of liberalism Western Civ. style, there has always been a latent tendency to sympathize more with Bonnie and Clyde than Ozzie and Harriet.  Not that any liberal would dismiss the concern for the innocent, but it's a chance worth taking.  Again, abortion rights advocated by death penalty opponents.  In it's weird way, it's very consistent.  But as a non-liberal Christian, I was never entirely happy, and there were times where it seemed the blood of the innocent screamed for justice, and the lives of the innocent demanded the ultimate protection.

Then I came into the Catholic Church.  On my way in, I was assailed by some colleagues, especially of the more fundamentalist camp.  I remember one hitting me on this subject.  Turns out the Church doesn't stand on ancient teachings, but changes its teachings to fit the latest and hippest.  He gave me the death penalty as an example.  See!  For thousands of years the Church had taught one thing, and now it was tossing it out the window.

Given everything I was about to give up, and the upheaval and trials we were about to endure, you better believe I didn't want to do it for a tradition as willing to keep with the times as any other progressive mainline tradition I could join and still remain an ordained clergy.  So I took this objection to those in the know - Catholics I had met, clergy I knew, the Catholic Blogosphere, and lo and behold, all was light.  The Church - I was informed - had never just 'banned' the death penalty.  It wouldn't.  The teachings regarding the death penalty were rooted in too many doctrines upheld for thousands of years.  What it does say is that we should opt for mercy whenever possible BUT still be prepared under the most extreme of circumstances to execute for the protection of the widow and the orphan.

That worked!  One, it all but trounced the whole 'Catholicism changes to keep with the times like any other traditions, just slower' argument.  Two, it upheld the emphasis on mercy and grace.  Three, it allowed a both/and rather than either/or approach, and by allowing for its use in the most extreme circumstances, admitted that the innocent and the law abiding were not expendable for the sake of Sauron.  There are times when evil must be eradicated because the innocent cannot be put in jeopardy.

Great.  Now I could sleep.  I was also informed that if you didn't agree with this, and were completely against the death penalty, the Church allowed for agreeing to disagree on the subject.  It was the best of both worlds!  I wasn't condemned for being at odds with the Church as I worked things out in my heart and mind, and it's approach of 'mercy in all ways until it compromises the innocent' was almost drawing me to change my own positions.

And then...BAM!  It comes out that Pope Benedict, in addition to 'a growing number of Bishops' called for the absolute abolition of the death penalty.  Period.  End of debate.  FWIW, I was already bothered by the Catechism's take on the subject.  On my way in, I read that and was a bit puzzled.  For none of the classical arguments for the death penalty seemed to be touched upon.  Just the idea that we must default to mercy, ignoring other areas in the Catechism about the need for justice and demand to protect citizens including, but not limited to Just War.  And the most bothersome part, the idea that our wonderful and infallible incarceration systems were just fine when it came to preventing crimes.

That last part still gets me.  Where is the data for that?  Where are the facts? I mean, they don't prevent crime.  Everyone knows that.  If you say we need to end traffic laws because you've concluded  they do more harm than good, then show me the data.  If you say we need to end traffic laws because of the little elves who live in the traffic lights, now you've really lost me.  And the super-irony is that there are few groups more critical of the multiple deficiencies of our judicial and penal systems than the  American Catholic Bishops!  How this otherwise corrupt and unjust and inept institution can suddenly smack it out of the ballpark when it comes to protecting the innocent seemed to push credulity to its limits.

In addition, of course, I was met with those who had once so proudly declared the Church's balanced and clear teaching.  Suddenly, you were ignoring the clear teaching of the Church if you were, you know, holding on to what had been the clear teaching of the Church 

So here I stand, still working things out.  My post-Catholic conversion approach of mercy in all cases unless the innocent must be protected is still there, and far too many advocates of the Change are giving me no reason to change again.  When the argument is 'obey or you're stupid and hate the Church', that's not an argument.  That's almost, if I may be so bold, an admission that this really is a sudden and radical alteration of traditional teaching without any clear foundations for doing so.  That's yelling and hollering in the hope that nobody stops to say 'wait a minute, we're the proof that our prisons can protect the innocent.'  It's also making cases that are not accurate.  Too many who advocate the sudden abolition point to almost anti-Catholic stereotypes about the Church of yore, suggesting that Catholics who don't want to accept the change want a Church that slaughters heretics, butchers Jews, tortures infidels   Nothing like appealing to Bill Maher's appraisal of Catholic history to make a point.

Nope.  I'm still out on this one.  Breaking down the reasons will come about in the future.  For now, consider this link.  Another popular impression is that the Church used to allow for things like the death penalty in the barbaric middle ages, but we're so past that now. If you read this, you realize that the call to completely abolish the death penalty is rather new, and rather radical.  And it's been within the living memory of Catholics today that Popes not only allowed for its use, but may actually have advocated its use.  It also reminds us that there are many, many issues beyond the divine perfection of our judicial system's abilities in protecting the innocent. Food for thought.  For now, I remain where I became as a Catholic: always try to avoid Capital Punishment unless the innocent are clearly at risk by using any other means.  I'll need to see better than what's been served to believe it should be altered any more.

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