08 August 2005

Christianity and the Death Penalty

"[I]n 1992 the Catechism suggested current Catholic thought on the death penalty was not what strong proponents of capital punishment wish it to be. Then in 1996 further changes were made to the Catechism to bring it in line with Evangelium Vitae. It was at a press conference announcing these changes that Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, used the phrase “a development of doctrine” to describe how the death penalty was being perceived in Rome.

The “development” is less clear than it may seem. Through the Middle Ages, Christian philosophers and theologians developed a set of careful distinctions concerning courts and penalties, and one of their central aims was to limit the punishments that might be imposed by otherwise unconstrained rulers. But something odd happened during the Enlightenment. Voltaire came across the anti-death-penalty arguments of an Italian criminologist named Cesare Beccaria and promptly used them, with enormous success, as yet another weapon in his war against Christianity. The traditional Christian teachings, which had typically functioned to restrict the severity of criminal sentences, were suddenly declared to have been teachings in favor of torture and the death penalty.

So successful was the attack that many commentators today still accept Voltaire’s terms. Whether they defend or reject the death penalty, they all seem to believe the patristic and medieval writers accepted capital punishment not merely as necessary at the time but as required by justice at all times. The current position of the Catechism thus appears a radical change from earlier positions—as it may be, from the positions of some theological figures, but not as many as the historical commentaries on capital punishment would lead us to suppose."

Lv Commonwealth Conservative


Tom McKenna said...

No one can reputably deny that traditional Catholic teaching strongly supports the right of the state to execute wrongdoers. Among other sources amply documenting this fact, see the recent book by Dr. Christian Brugger, Capital Punishment: Roman Catholic Moral Tradition (he is anti-death penalty while acknowledging the strong pro-death penalty traditional teaching).

The new "position" of John Paul II (we don't know how much it will be embraced by Benedict XVI) is simply that prudentially, executions should occur rarely. Since we in the U.S. only execute .01% of defendants convicted of homicide, our current practice in this country is that we in fact only "rarely" execute those convicted of the most aggravated murders.

Those who try to suggest that the Church holds we can no longer use capital punishment are either lying or uninformed.

Ken Lammers said...

Thanks, I'll look the book up.

Anyway, what intrigued me about the quote wasn't whether or not the Church supported the right of a sovereign to kill his people. What I'm more curious about is whether that support came with restrictions. Did the Church impose rules which limited what a man could be killed for - i.e. only felonies but not misdemeanors? Was it living in its time and pushing as best it could for a more just world rather than completely removing itself from relevance?

Did Voltaire actually do this? Can anyone out there disprove the assertion that Voltaire turned the Church's acceptance of a reality into a condemnation of the Church as a supporter of killing people? I am truly asking this. Lot's of folks out there have surely read more Voltaire than I; last time I read him was when required to in college.

There's no doubt the Church allowed the death penalty and still does (2266). However, it is limited to those people who will remain a threat to others (2267). In more advanced countries of the modern era, with no parole and supermaxes we can make that threat miniscule. Perhaps, if we truly wanted to justify the death penalty it would have to be for those who live as symbols or leaders for causes. Their continued life puts others outside of their actual reach in danger. As such they continue to pose a sizable danger even when locked away. The justification works better in such a circumstance.