Thursday, October 20, 2005

Confronting the Death Penalty

Archbishop Chaput takes on the controversy in his latest column. Catholic News Agency has the story here.

He addresses the important distinction--often overlooked by "seamless garment" Catholic activists--between the death penalty and intrinsic evils such as abortion. However, he offers no quarter with the way the death penalty has been used in industrialized nations; he calls it an "excess" that must "end soon":
"The death penalty", he wrote, "is not intrinsically evil [like abortion and euthanasia are]. Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances. The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity."

"Catholic teaching on euthanasia, the death penalty, war, genocide and abortion", the archbishop said, "are rooted in the same concern for the sanctity of the human person. But these different issues do not all have the same gravity or moral content. They are not equivalent."

He used war as an applicable example, noting that there are cases in which acts of war are morally legitimate--similar to the death penalty.

However, he pointed out, what the Church’s teaching on the death penalty involves is, "a call to set aside unnecessary violence, including violence by the state, in the name of human dignity and building a culture of life."

"In the wake of the bloodiest century in history," Archbishop Chaput said, "the Church invites us to recover our own humanity by choosing God’s higher road of restraint and mercy instead of state-sanctioned killing that implicates all of us as citizens."

He cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that if "non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor [i.e., the convicted murderer], authority [should] limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person" (2267).

Likewise, he quoted John Paul II, who points out in his Gospel of Life, that "the nature and extent of the punishment [for capital crimes] must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity; in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society."

The late Pope noted that "today however, as a result of steady improvements to the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

The Archbishop stressed that "In modern industrialized states, killing convicted murderers adds nothing to anyone’s safety. It is an excess."
He's right. The death penalty usually arouses the heated defense of Foolables for the right. When I hear some of their arguments, I can't help but notice the casual way in which they dismiss the prudential judgements of the Pope and Bishops in favor of some conservative talking points. I wonder how different their behavior is from Foolables of the left. I can only conclude the following: not very.

For instance, I've heard many argue that a hardened criminal's capacity to escape renders that person a serious threat to society. Sorry, but that rhetoric pulls at straws to justify a "kill 'em all" mentality that is completely at odds with the mind of the Church. For where would society draw the lin e between convicts that threaten or do not threaten society? No, everyone becomes liable for the DP in this scenario; hence, society exercises no restraint.

And we need this restraint. Excessive use of the death penalty coarsens us to life. We refuse to see the humanity in the criminal that we "put down"; DP exacerbates this de-humanization in which many of us participate. If we are to truly live the Gospel of Life, then we must resort to the DP in only the most extreme cases of society-threatening behavior. Anything less cheapens us all.