It’s hard to begin any piece on the death penalty that doesn’t call those that support it, troglodytic simpletons. In the jubilee year of mercy, however, it feels as though I should aim for a more tempered argument. Whether or not I succeed is yet to be discovered.
Pope Francis took to the pulpit to ask Catholic leaders to suspend the practice for a year to mark the Holy Year of Mercy. While this is not unchartered waters from the Vatican, some have suggested that these recent comments and his prior comments of the same, are “The new hard line against executions taken by this Argentine pope”. It is vacuous comments like this that make it hard to take the tempered tone I promised to try to take. In 1999, Pope John Paul II repeatedly called for the end of the death penalty, “”A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary”.
Even the more conservative Pope Benedict, in 2011, “Addressing a group of pilgrims gathered in Rome for an international conference on the controversial topic, the Pope said he hopes that their deliberations “will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty.”
Despite firm positions from the seat of St. Peter, the Pew Research Center, 51% of American Catholics support the death penalty. This number swells to a robust 59% for white Catholics. Presumably, Catholics that support the death penalty do so through a wormhole provided by the Catechism. The Catholic Catechism, which was grown from the Synod convened to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council and was approved by Pope John Paul II in 1992 , answered many questions, including capital punishment. It read,
“Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being”.
However, it also says,
“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”.
The problem with cracking the window open, some will force it open. “Very rare” becomes very subjective. Florida, as an example, has killed 92 of its people since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Only Oklahoma, Virginia, and Texas boast higher numbers. Would you considered killing, by average, two people a year, rare and practically nonexistent? Former Governor of Florida and failed presidential hopeful, Jeb Bush, a Catholic, killed 21 souls in his time in office – a number leapfrogged in nearly half the time in office by his successor, says he is conflicted by the death penalty;
“I’m informed by my faith in many things, and this is one of them,” he added. “So I have to admit that I’m conflicted about this. But here’s the deal — this happens in rare cases where the death penalty’s given out and you meet family members that have lost a loved one and it’s still in their heart. It’s etched in their soul. And this is the way that they get closure? I get more comfortable with it, to be honest with you.”
What’s interesting with this quote, is two-fold – he evokes ‘rare’ and closes by admitting that he has grown comfortable with killing people. This is a tailor made example of the slippery slope fallacy. Killing 21 of his native sons, to Bush, is rare. It also became a duty of ease. Whether or not you believe killing people is intrinsically wrong, a moral absolute (I do) or not, we can at least get on the bus that says it should be a solemn duty, if nothing else.
If you don’t object to the death penalty on morality (you should), it seems reasonable that you object on its lack of success. It has been proven, over and over, to not be a deterrent. Since 1991, states without the death penalty have enjoyed far lower murder rates than their more vindictive brethren, from as low as a 7% disparity to a high of 22%. If these are facts that don’t entice you, maybe the bedfellows we keep in the global community of countries that utilize the draconian punishment of death to its people, will. The list includes notable friends of peace, such as Iran, China, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea. If that is not enough, I posit the following question, How is that those that champion small government can also champion giving the state the greatest power? How is this reconciled?
It would seem disingenuous to exclude a brief talk about the just war theory, originally present by Augustine and refined by Aquinas, because, after all, it allows manipulators of morality to act under the banner of faith despite clear tenets and goals necessary to be deemed ‘just’. As Aquinas asserted:
First, just war must be waged by a properly instituted authority such as the state. (Proper Authority is first: represents the common good: which is peace for the sake of man’s true end—God.)
Second, war must occur for a good and just purpose rather than for self-gain (for example, “in the nation’s interest” is not just) or as an exercise of power. (Just Cause: for the sake of restoring some good that has been denied. i.e., lost territory, lost goods, punishment for an evil perpetrated by a government, army, or even the civilian populace.)
Third, peace must be a central motive even in the midst of violence. (Right Intention: an authority must fight for the just reasons it has expressly claimed for declaring war in the first place. Soldiers must also fight for this intention.)
Unfortunately, as with the catechism that cracks the window of the death penalty open, the just war theory has allowed many war to be waged in its name. People have become comfortable with evoking the just war and quickly dismiss the slippery slope they have long since fallen off of.
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