Friday, September 23, 2011

Catholics and the Death Penalty--then and now

Well, Troy Davis was executed in Georgia Wednesday evening.  It was a very complex case with seven of nine witnesses recanting the testimony that convicted Mr. Davis of killing a white policeman and several of those witnesses publically stating that they had been bullied by police and prosecutors into testifying falsely.  Did we execute an innocent man?  God—and Mr. Davis—alone know.   Thirty-five people have been put to death so far this year in the United States.  Derrick O’Neal Mason is to be executed in Alabama Thursday evening at 6 pm; the judge who sentenced him sixteen years ago wrote earlier this month that if he, the judge, had tried the case as a more experienced jurist, he would have sentenced him to life without parole, not death.  Unfortunately that was then and this is now.  A third man, a white supremacist from Texas named Lawrence Russell Brewer was executed the same evening as Troy Davis. Brewer had been convicted of killing James Byrd Jr, a disabled African American in 1998. John William King is also sentenced to die for that murder.  King, Mason, and another man are convicted of dragging Mr. Byrd behind a pickup truck for three miles before dumping his body.  There were no demonstrations or appeals from world leaders for Mr. Mason.
      Among those appealing for Mr. Davis’ life was Pope Benedict XVI and this brings up the issue of the Catholic Church and the Death Penalty.  For centuries the Catholic Church had no problem with the Death Penalty.   Indeed, traditional Catholic theology justified it as long as it was used as a deterrent and not exercised as an act of vengeance.   Moreover the Church, while claiming to keep its hands clean from blood, turned countless people over to the “Civil Power” for execution for crimes ranging from parricide to heresy to witchcraft.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Papal States, there was a fine line, perhaps an imaginary line, between the “Church” and the “Civil Power.”  When I lived in Rome, a priest friend of mine, a historian, showed me the home of the last executioner for the Papal States before the Kingdom of Italy replaced the Pope as King of Rome in 1870. The man piously arranged for a mass to be said for each of his victims after he had carried out his official duties.
       One of the most horrendous instances of the Church’s use of the death penalty was in the execution of Beatrice Cenci, her step-mother, and her brother (see entry of May 2nd  2011).  Beatrice was the daughter of Francesco Cenci, a Roman aristocrat with a vile temper.  Cenci repeatedly abused his wife and his two sons and raped Beatrice.  Beatrice brought her father’s crimes to the attention of the papal police but noblemen were not normally prosecuted for such crimes as domestic abuse and rape.  Beatrice, her step-mother, and her siblings murdered Francesco at their country home.  When the murder was discovered—despite the best attempts of family and friends who knew the situation to protect Beatrice and her family—Beatrice, her step-mother, and sibilings were sentenced to death.   The Romans, common folk and wealthy alike, went crazy—protesting in the streets against the injustice but Clement VIII would not tolerate an act of violence against a nobleman no matter how serious his crimes.  The younger brother, still a child, had his sentence commuted to serving for life as a galley slave.  (He was released after one year.) The older brother was savagely beaten to death with large hammers and his body dismembered within site of the papal window.  Francesco’s wife, Lucrezia, was then beheaded at the same site.  Finally Beatrice was beheaded, also at the Ponte Sant’Angelo.  There is a legend that each year she returns on the night of her execution (September 11th) and walks the bridge with her head tucked beneath her arm. 
     In the late twentieth century the Catholic position on Capital Punishment began to change.  As nation after nation eliminated capital punishment and as a greater consciousness about human rights emerged in Western society, theologians began calling into question the morality of the state executing criminals.  Slowly papal pronouncements began to question the morality of capital punishment.  It was  only with the papacy of John Paul II, however, that the issue moved from a question to a definitive teaching.  John Paul made a number of statements over the years indicating that there were serious moral issues involved in capital punishment, but it was  only with his 1995 Encyclical Evangelium Vitae that the subject came under the ordinary magisterium and even there the door was not closed completely to capital punishment.  Not closed completely—but pretty much shut.  The Pope wrote:
This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offense." Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated. xxxIt is clear that for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not 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. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent.” xxxIn any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person."
     If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.  Public authority must limit itself to such means….  Hmm   there are circumstances in theory, but in practice?   The pope wrote “Today however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent.”  Moreover, in a variety of addresses Pope John Paul made it clear that the penal systems of Western Europe and North America were sufficiently developed as to render the death penalty unnecessary and therefore not morally justifiable. 
       That was not the final word on this matter.  Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote a letter to the American Bishops in 2004 clarifying certain issues in light of the political significance of Evangelium Vitae in an American presidential election.  Ratzinger distinguished—quite legitimately—between issues which involve an intrinsic evil (abortion, euthanasia) and a contextual evil—a decision or action whose moral character is dependent on the situation or context.  The death penalty is not an intrinsic evil.  Current Cathlolic teaching declares that there are circumstances under which it is permissible to be used.   The same applies to war.  Catholic moral teaching recognizes limited circumstances under which war is moral.  Of course Pope John Paul had clarified that he did not see circumstances under which the death penalty was morally acceptable in the penal systems of developed nations (and he explicitly referred to the United States), systems that could guarantee that a convict would not again be a threat to life.  The pope had also clarified that the Iraq War in which the United States was at the time engaged did not meet the criteria for “just war.”  Nevertheless, since both war and the death penalty are not intrinsic evils, under certain circumstances recourse may be given to them.   Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his letter: 
“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”
Yes, there is a legitimate diversity of opinion as to the morality of a particular war or whether a given situation meets the pope’s criteria for a legitimate use of the death penalty.  One cannot give a blanket approval to war or to the death penalty and say that an individual Catholic is free to agree or disagree with the Church on these matters.  Evangelium Vitae, as an encyclical letter, is part of the ordinary magisterium and Catholics are required to give intellectual and moral assent to the teachings of the ordinary magisterium. 
       What I find most disturbing about the executions this week—even more disturbing that the possible miscarriage of justice in regards to the execution of Mr.Davis—is that there was no outcry against the execution of Mr. Brewer.  “Well,” some people would say, “Mr, Davis was quite possibly, almost certainly, innocent.  Mr Brewer is a racist who murdered a man simply because he was black.”  But for a true pro-lifer the guilt or the innocence of person sentenced to death is not the issue.  Nor does the moral bankruptcy of racism mitigate the moral character of the execution.  The issue is that God alone is Lord of Life and no one, even all of us together in the corporate body we call “The State,”  has the right to usurp that prerogative of God to take (or give) life.  It is not that the person has a “right to life” or that by their guilt they have forfeited a “right to life.”  It is about God’s right.  God alone has the right to give and take life.  Capital Punishment is no more than judicial murder.

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