Three so-called Catholic news organizations and one usually Catholic news organization put out last week an editorial statement against the Death Penalty (DP). As a service to our readers, I am releasing a report card that grades the arguments against the DP.
The following objectively determined grades* are assigned to arguments coming from persons who are well educated, in positions of responsibility, and have a duty to know what they are talking about. This would include priests, bishops, legislators, judges, mayors, high police officials, and governors.
A. Good arguments against DP for all times and places, as a matter of principle:
Absolutely empty set.
B. Good arguments definitively against all use of DP _today in the US_:
C. Good probable arguments against all DP today in the US:
D. Initially Plausible but ultimately ineffective probable arguments against DP _generally and for the foreseeable future_ in the US:
(1) In our present degenerate society we are unjust and we are unable to distinguish between good and bad violence.
(2) Can kill an innocent person.
(3) Drains too many resources.
(4) The job of executioner is too horrible for mortal men – too much moral danger.
E. Wrong arguments against DP generally today in the US:
(5) Does not allow for repentance.
(6) The Church now teaches that we must eradicate DP.
(7) Death penalty is “abhorrent and unnecessary”.
(8) There is no good way to put them to death that is not abhorrent, cruel, or otherwise objectionable.
(9) As a result, except in the most extreme circumstances, capital punishment cannot be justified.
In developed countries like our own, it should have no place in our public life.
(10) Christ told us not to kill the adulteress.
(11) Even a murderer retains his God-given dignity as a human being, so he must not be killed.
F. Bad arguments against DP:
(12) Execution perpetuates violence.
(13) It is an assault on life, contrary to the “pro-life” stance.
(14) Does not deter.
(15) We don’t need to kill people to protect society or punish the guilty.
(16) The Bible says “thou shalt not kill”.
(17) The state does not have the authority to put a criminal to death.
Out of 17 arguments, most of the common ones out there, not one gets a good or fair grade. The betting man is putting his money on arguments FOR DP.
* By me, of course.
A. Not only are there no good universal (valid always and everywhere) arguments against DP, it is a doctrine of Catholicism that there cannot even in principle be a good argument for this. Anyone who claims there is such an argument is in direct dispute with definitive Catholic teaching. Any bishop or priest who argues against DP in such a way as to make out that DP is wrong here today because it is wrong in all times and places, is not merely arguing incorrectly, he is setting himself in opposition to the Church herself. There are canon laws for Catholics who teach in opposition to the Church’s doctrine. Any attempt to state an argument that falls into this category automatically must fall in E or F.
Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. [Catechism]
And this by our good friend Ed Feser:
As we saw in a previous post, the legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is grounded in natural law and in the infallible moral teaching of scripture, and is the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church from her foundation down to the present day. It was reaffirmed even by Pope John Paul II, who was probably the most prominent churchmen ever to oppose the death penalty. Indeed, the late Pope even stopped short of claiming that capital punishment was never justifiable in practice, holding only that cases where it might be called for are “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
The significance of this refusal of the Church to embrace doctrinaire abolitionism cannot be overstated, for it puts the Church fundamentally at odds with liberalism at the level of principle, whatever commonalities there might be between some bishops and some liberal politicians at the level of policy. And it shows how poorly thought-out and misleading are the statements sometimes made on this subject by Catholic bishops, including the recent statements cited above.
B. I do not _know_ of any arguments that are GOOD definitive arguments for the US today, that e.g. that would be a sound reason for a governor to put his name to a bill that outlawed DP in his state. I do not claim that this means THERE CAN BE no such argument. However, I know several arguments that would tend toward the conclusion that it is virtually impossible to have conditions in any polity make such law the best legal arrangement to have (short of the eschaton). This is different from arguments that it should be used sparingly or almost never in the US today. Generally even legitimate things that should be used sparingly should remain on the law books if they should be used once in a while.
C. By “probable” arguments, I mean that they propose something claimed only probably - in the sense that they hinge on matters of degree thus their form and structure can only result in conclusions of the form “therefore, it is probable that we should not use DP today in the US.” These can be right, wrong, or right or wrong to a degree and therefore reasonable, good, and well-thinking men can disagree about their weightiness and usefulness. These arguments claim something quite distinct from the ones in groups A and B that claim a definitive, certain conclusion against DP today in the US.
D(1) comes the closest, and it almost merited a C. Almost, but not quite. Why? Because it is never advanced in quite this form. If a person argued this properly, he would say that when in the future we turned society around and we had a more moral, more just society, we would re-instate the DP. And NOBODY ever argues that. They don’t believe that what we really have is a society that is so far degenerate that we cannot even employ the DP anymore, what they really mean is that society has made advances that make the DP too awful to employ. But this is a quite different argument, and it quite surely flies in the face of justice as the end of punishment – which is sound Christian doctrine. When we find someone, anyone, seriously and consistently holding forth the thesis that once we have turned our evil and degenerate defiance of the natural law around we should then employ the DP, this grade can be re-visited. If they are willing to actually address the issue of whether part of the process of generating a societal return to natural law is the use of the DP.
E consists of arguments that are wrong about the DP, but it is understandable that a high school or sophomoric college student might make such errors. Or even a naïve college grad. They are not arguments that someone who went to school as long as a priest or bishop went to school should make, nor are they arguments that a person with the kind of experience with the world that we expect of a legislator, judge, or mayor should make. These men have no excuse falling for such claptrap. If they are smart enough to have the care of the common good, they have no business making these.
F is the worst, out and out abject failure. These are arguments made by men arguing in bad faith. Or arguing who have another stance that they don’t want to trot out in the light of day because it is embarrassing. Or they have lost the light and are trying to feel their way to truth purely by smell and guesswork (try using smell alone to avoid a cliff edge). Or whatever – there are a hundred reasons, all bad. Not one of these should be made by a Christian adult, much less the highly educated Christian.
I am sorry to say that there are men out there, otherwise doing good work in the Church, who put forward not just one, but several of these wretched E and F arguments. We must certainly pray for them, but we don’t have to follow them into the hole.
Here’s how the objective observer can tell when those arguing against the DP are really trying their hardest to get the matter right and teach the whole truth: they will take on the best and most important of the arguments for DP and knock them down. Here’s how one can tell when they are not really trying: for the last 50 years (and counting) they have not even attempted to take on the most central arguments for DP and have spent all their energy on superficial and peripheral matters. One must wonder if eventually they will attempt to get to the heart of the matter, but one equally must wonder whether it will happen before the heat death of the universe and hell freezes over.
DID I MISS ONE? Tell us, and suggest where it lands on the list.