Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Death Penalty Opponents

Are these your allies?

Mark Shea posted a couple days ago, once again reasoning that if you still hold to the Church's traditional approach to capital punishment, then your allies are the likes of barbaric Muslim societies and Communist tyrannies.  He even included a cute graph like the one above (I deliberately used a different graph that outlined the world's countries a little better).

If you look at the above chart, there is quite a variety of countries without and with the death penalty.  Look carefully.  Yes, most Muslim countries have it, so does China.  But so does Brazil.  So does Japan.  So does India.  Argentina.  Mongolia.  I'm not sure there's any trend I can spot there.

Those that have abolished the death penalty?  Secular Turkey in the Muslim world.  Nepal.  Mostly countries aligned with post-Christian Europe.  S. America has the death penalty, as well as liberal abortion laws and progress views on gay marriage.  Russia has the death penalty, loose abortion laws, and right now no move to recognize gay marriage.  Europe, which seems to be the go to reference point for those who wish to abolish the death penalty altogether, is a living, breathing example of post-Christian values: gay marriages, abortion for the longest time, several moving toward legalizing assisted suicide and euthanasia.

I thought of this as yet one more country that banned the death penalty embraces gay marriage.  And let's not forget, the United States that brought us federally supported abortion rights was, at the time, also attempting its first round of banning the death penalty.  My point is, it's an incredibly weak, almost ludicrous argument.  Most of my life I opposed the death penalty outright, though I knew that brought a few problems.  I was happy to embrace the Church's (then) teaching that it should be rare in deference to mercy if at all possible, but not if it compromises the ability to protect widows and orphans.

But now, many leaders in the Church, leaning heavily on the State's new-found ability to prevent crime, are seeking to abolish the death penalty altogether.  And in lieu of a better reason, apparently some have sought to find reasons of their own to do so, including guilt by association.  Looking at the map above, it's easy to see why 'if you support the death penalty, then you're in the camp of barbarism' is really no better than 'because now the State can prevent crime.'  We'll have to do better than either of those to justify jettisoning a 2000 year old consistent teaching.


  1. Yeah, Mark's reasoning makes no sense to me either. There's no common thread among nations that have the death penalty (the default position among all nations including Christian ones through all of history until quite recently).

    There is a common thread among nations that have abolished it, however, and that thread is that in pretty much every case, the motivation for dropping it was not an increase in Christian mercy, but rather a loss of belief in moral culpability.

  2. That was the common thread I was looking for, no belief in moral culpability. Though personally I think the reason for such a weak argument is that, in all fairness, the Church placing such an emphasis on the State's ability to prevent crime is itself a weak argument. It's almost as if Church leaders simply want to get rid of the death penalty - which I can understand - but when faced with 2000 years of a pretty consistent approach, are grasping for straws. And that leaves folks scrambling to validate it beyond simply 'because the Church says so.' A hunch on my part.

  3. Here's Ed Feser's takes on the matter for those interested (and he comes off as a much more impressive intellectual than Shea).

    It is very weird to me. Had the Church always been against the death penalty, I would understand. I mean back then it was far easier for the system to be corrupt, for the innocent to be mistaken and the faith itself was founded on an innocent Man being executed by the state. Then had they relaxed some of their opposition to it now in the present time as improvements have been made in the criminal justice process and more checks have been implemented against corruption in state apparati would at least make some sense.

    As it is now? Very odd. And don't even get into trying to discuss nuances about the issue. Like can death sometimes be more merciful than long-term imprisonment? (I would certainly prefer it to wasting years away.) Is there really a difference between execution and life imprisonment? The end result is the same (person dies behind prison walls), only the method differs (time vs rope/electricity/gas/bullet/etc). Really, how much is owed to the prisoner? Should medical treatment be provided? Even if we don't want to to kill them ourselves, why should we fight nature to keep from killing them? Should suicide really be fought against? If we're never letting them out, what's the difference between them dying now or later?

    One is reminded of Lewis' warning: "Mercy without justice quickly becomes unmerciful." In all this discussion, nobody seems to start with the most important question: what is just.

  4. As I've said, I actually liked the Church's (then) approach: mercy whenever possible but not in cases where the innocent could suffer. But now, it appears the Church is just tossing it because it wants to toss it, not because of some careful, nuanced appraisal. It's 'because the State can now prevent crime' is about as tortured a reason as you can imagine. Mark's contribution: that now you're like Muslim terrorists if you don't oppose the death penalty, isn't any better. It all suggests they know there isn't really a good reason to over through 2000 years of consistent teaching. The articles you linked to were, so far, much better reading on the subject.

  5. The problem with Mark's reasoning is that a lot of people could poke him back with that.

    "OH look who's ALSO against gay marriage. You're like Muslim terrorists."

    (just to pick one at random)

    Jesus warned: "Judge as you would be judged by." Because you certainly will just by the mortals around you. (who knows how God might)

  6. Actually, gay marriage supporters do just that, and have for years. Over at Huffpost, that was a regular retort to anyone who dared say gays shouldn't marry. Oh yeah! Guess who else is against gay marriage. Not to mention that it lumps the historic Catholic approach into the same boat as tyrannies and terrorists, and not to mention there are certainly issues with modern cultures that have abandoned it. And the funny thing? I'm not the only one who points this out. Readers who agree with Mark on the issue have pointed out that it's a weak, if not outright bad, argument. Why he keeps posting it, I'll never know.


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