Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Death Penalty? Not on my Watch!

By Paul Dion, STL

"Saddam Hussein - Vatican Asserts that Capital Punishment is not proper." This article was headlined in ParishWorld this past week.

I can't stand it when I am told in absolute terms that the Catholic Church is against the death penalty. When are people going to start reading # 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
The Church still recognizes that there are times when capital punishment could be called for to protect the welfare of the community. Read it, and don't forget it.

# 2267 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church

"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 with 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 definitively 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 non-existent.""

Reading this carefully and thoughtfully, it becomes clear tht the Catholic church strongly prefers non-lethal methods of punishment. The words of the first paragraph are strong guides to the mind of the Church.

1. The competent authority has to be sure of the identity of the person before it.
2. The same authority has to have proof that it has the right person, the person responsible for the act.
3. The traditional teaching of the Church "does not exclude" "recourse" to the death penalty.
4. "...if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."

The wording of this statement is important. One of the ideas that is key here is to remember that "not being against" something is not necessarily "being for" something. This is the position of the Church, "it does not exclude recourse to the death penalty", but it would like to see it abolished around the world.

Note that the word "recourse" means that you "resort" to the death penalty if there is no other way around it.

The meanings that I propose here are further sustained by the other two paragraphs of the statement.

The church says that non-lethal punishment is "more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person."

The condition of the common good is that the community has the means to redeem the perpetrator. The dignity of the human person is that there is always an outlet for the spirit of the person to assert itself for the good and the comfort of others, even in jail. The Church urges the world to keep those principles in mind.

In this day and age when the possibility of locking the door and throwing the key away is very real, it is nearly always possible to resort to a non-lethal solution to punish the criminal, thereby leaving the door to redemption open.

So when I say that the Church is not AGAINST capital punishment, I say that she recognizes that there is still a possibility that it might be the one solution that would work. When I say that the Church is not AGAINST capital punishment, in the same breath I can honestly say that the Church is not FOR capital punishment.


Until about 6 or 7 years ago I was a pure, right-wing, hell-bent-for-leather capital punishment guy. Being of French descent, I was a big fan of the Guillotine.

Then, something happened. I became aware of a volunteer group in the U. S. that dedicates itself to investigating the cases of people on death row to see if they really "did it." I found out that in five years they had been instrumental in getting six "criminals" exonerated.

That was an eye-opener. Later, of course, along came DNA and more and more "criminals" were exonerated. It was like the epiphany that some of us had after the meatless Friday was shelved.
We asked ourselves, "What is Beelzebub going to do with all those people who ate meat on Friday?" So I went to the books. ( I didn't have Google then.)

I found out that the French had abolished the death penalty in 1981. Now I was hooked. Now I knew why the Foreign Legion was so important to France. Keep 'em alive but send them to defend the frontier in Africa.

What a brilliant strategy. Why don't we do that here? Why didn't we send these guys to carry out our dirty work? We wouldn't have to train them to kill, would we? And they would still be alive.

My path also took me to the Theology books. Ah, moral Theology. What a maze of conundrums! But seriously, there was no turning back for me. I was dead set against the death penalty. Everyone knows that there is no more rabid missionary than a convert.

Then I made the mistake of reading Genesis again. It wasn't because of my death penalty conversion. I just wanted God to talk to me from 3,000 years back. So four pages into the book I hear God telling Cain, "you shall be a fugitive and a wanderer over the earth."

I close the book and for a good hour I let the light shine. That's why we don't need capital punishment. All we need is the wisdom and the power to give these people something else to do. God, why do you do this to me?

So, I am now on God's side.

THE CHURCH POSITION (According to Paul Dion)

The Catholic Church's moral conscience is militating against the death penalty for the following reasons.

Church driven righteousness:
I'm a God fearing follower of Christ and a member of the holiest Church on earth. You have committed a heinous sin, in fact one that "cries out to God" (Gen. 4:10). You have to die in exchange for the life that you took. It is written, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth", (Exodus 21:23-27).
When it comes to murder, we Catholics love the Old Testament and we forget that Jesus taught a relationship with God based on love and forgiveness. The Church's moral conscience has been and continues to be formed by the life, passion and death of Jesus.

Slippery slope of revenge:
Listen to the victims as they pass in front of the television cameras. "He deserves to die." "Yes, we are going to request the death penalty for this heinous crime." "He died tonight. I don't have my child back, but he got what he deserved." How Christian of you! Didn't I see you carrying a "pro-Life" placard in last month's demonstration against John Kerry?"

I am convinced, and my conviction becomes deeper and deeper that this is nothing but "revenge homicide by state" akin to "suicide by cop." If you ask me, and you won't have to, I'll tell you that a heart full of revenge is guilty of the corporate sin of "unnecessary homicide by state". I'd hate to have to try to check into the Pearly Gates with that on my ticket.

Denial of the spiritual right of redemption through atonement:
"Well, we got rid of that guy. Didn't we?" Yeah, but he's had 15 years to think about it. Did you ever think that he might be St. Peter's Red Cap at the Pearly Gates? Did you ever think that he might be your next door neighbor in Purgatory? Or maybe you won't get a chance to meet him because you're carrying around an unrepentant heart about his actions. Maybe St. Peter is asking you why you were soooo keen about robbing this soul of the right to redeem himself with state usurpation of his right to live?

Consistency of the preservation of life:
See above. If you carry an anti-abortion placard, you should be carrying an anti-capital punishment placard -- at least in your conscience.

Fight against the cheapening of human life:
The concept of being able to substitute one life for another is repugnant. Every LIFE IS PRICELESS. Every life is eternal. Every life is part human and part divine. Life should not be quantified in flesh and blood. It should be valued because it comes from the Divine Creator, and is therefore irreplaceable.

Hey, the Church is about MERCY:
Have you read the Gospel lately? There is always a strong rudder in the Church steering toward mercy. Jesus keeps forgiving people. He keeps resuscitating people. He rescues adulterers from the death penalty. He dies on the cross, but doesn't take revenge on anyone directly or indirectly involved. All he asks of Peter is to confess his love for Him. Tell me, now, don't you think that Jesus knew all about Cain?
There is a movement in the Catholic Church that seeks the abolishment of the death penalty and an official statement from the Church that she is indeed against capital punishment, 100%.


This whole story and the surrounding comments starts and ends with Saddam Hussein. "Vatican Asserts that Capital Punishment is not proper." OK, I agree.

Hey, wait. What about his millions in the bank? What about his wide-ranging human contacts in the world? Who will he be able to see? With whom will he be allowed to talk? In what country will he be incarcerated? Will he have TV? What about a radio? A cell phone maybe? A computer? Would someone smuggle a Blackberry into him? Isn't it possible that somehow he could finagle a way to make contact with his "guys"? What about one of his wives? If he's not in Iraq, will they be able to get passports?

Goodness, gracious me, this is going to be tough. Where are we going to put this guy? Maybe Benedict XVI has a contact somewhere near the top of Kilamanjaro where we could lock him up in his T-shirt and skivvies.

These are tough questions.

Remember, the core of the teaching about the preservation of life is that the community will not be in jeopardy. In this case, the community is rather broad, wouldn't you say? So what would you do, short of hanging him by the neck?

Maybe we could ship him to the North Pole and hang him by the feet, for 25 minutes, once per month, while his jailers eat his portion of whale and seal blubber with a special treat of imported high quality Kentucky Rye Whiskey (fights the cholesterol, you know). The rest of the time he would be locked up in a palatial igloo that served as the regional assay office. His cell would look out over the assayer's work area so that Saddam would have to see all that panned gold get weighed and valued as he awaited his entry into Allah's ante room. (Any virgins here?)

See, non-lethal sentences can be pretty tough too.

If I have given you some idea of what the Church's teachings on this matter are, and you agree, remember that the price I require for these teachings is that you dare not cry at my funeral.
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