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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Necessary Distinctions - Prudential Judgement & Catholic Social Doctrine

Evangelical Catholicism offers some thoughts today on " Three main weaknesses of today's Catholics", in which Katerina disputes First Things' Robert Miller).

In the comments, Michael Joseph takes a jab at the "neoconservative Catholics":

What's interesting about Miller's article is the utter indefensibility of his claims that bishops do, in fact, have a ceratin "arena" in which their authority properly operates. The separation he artificial creates between the area of "faith and morals" and "political judgments" is not only historically implausible, it is a non-ecclesial importation which creates an a priori framework with which Miller evaluates and gauges episcopal statemets. His separation is a growing trend among some self-styled "neo-conservative" Catholics who, most times unwittingly, filter ecclesial statements into contrived categories such as "absolutes", "doctrinal inference" and "prudential judgment". And yet, where in the history of our Church does such a filter derive other than in our modern times?

I would never advocate an all-out surrender of thinking or a blind obedience to the bishops or the pope. Such is not real faith. However, the subject and object of all magisterial statements is God, and by extension through the Body of Christ, man himself. Thus, political and social teachings of the magisterium are rooted in the very same doctrinal tradition as faith and morals. The similiarities between many "progressive" Catholics and many "neo-conservative" Catholics are become clear: the tendency to dash the synthesis of doctrine, morals and social teaching to pieces on the rocks of their a priori, uncritical, compartmentalizing limitmus tests.

Again, I would have to point out Benedict's observation that "Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia,", that some areas are open to legitimate differences of opinion -- namely in the application of Catholic social doctrine to particular circumstances. Presumably this room for legitimate disagreement between Catholics extends to economics, welfare reform and resolution to the problem of illegal immigration as well.

In discussions of such topics, charity and civility should prevail. Benedict XV, a notable influence on our present Pope, offered some wise advice in Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum (Nov. 1, 1914):

23. As regards matters in which without harm to faith or discipline - in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See - there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion. But in such discussions no expressions should be used which might constitute serious breaches of charity; let each one freely defend his own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation, so that no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith or to discipline.

24. It is, moreover, Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as "profane novelties of words," out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: "This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved" (Athanas. Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim "Christian is my name and Catholic my surname," only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself.

It's fairly common practice for us to throw around labels when debating fellow Catholics -- "progressive", "neocon", "neo-Catholic", et al. But I do think that Benedict XVI's advice strikes a chord of truth and is something we should take to heart. ("Neocon", for the record, is one label that has been abused to such a great degree that it is often used in complete ignorance of its intellectual roots. I can't think of many self-styled neoconservatives -- I suspect that the trio of Catholics to whom the "neocons" label is commonly applied by their critics, Fr. Neuhaus, George Weigel, and Michael Novak, would probably eschew it if they could).

I agree with Michael that "lack of knowledge of Catholic Social Teaching can result in perceiving the Church's statements on political, economic, and social matters as mere sentimentalism with no adequate application to the world we live in today." To dismiss the teachings of the popes and our bishops in such a manner is certainly a temptation and weakness. But I think it describes but one erroneous and dangerous trait that is present in Catholics today. The other, as Prof. Miller rightly observes, is that:

. . . many Catholics, even highly educated ones, are so poorly catechized that they don’t distinguish between statements they are required to believe with theological faith, statements to which they ought give a religious submission of will and intellect, and other statements that they need only respect and consider in forming their own judgments.

This is not to say that bishops should never speak on questions beyond faith and morals, including on particular questions, such as the execution of Hussein. When they do so, however, it would be better if they were clear on the nature of the statements they are making and the kind of deference faithful Catholics should give them. As things are, such statements tend to engender more confusion than clarity.

Worse, the current situation is ripe for abuse: Bishops, like everyone else, prefer it when people agree with them, and so some bishops are tempted to enunciate positions and invest them with the authority of their office, even when those positions go beyond matters of faith and morals and depend on particular, even idiosyncratic, views about empirical circumstances. There is a danger, in other words, of bishops leveraging their legitimate authority in faith and morals into the political arena by implicitly passing off empirical judgments as if they were teachings on faith and morals commanding the assent of faithful Catholics.

I wonder if such an unjustified extension of ecclesial authority that Prof. Miller has in mind is the 2003 statement by Bishop Botean of the Romanian Catholic Diocese of St. George in Canton, Ohio, charging that "any direct participation and support of this war against the people of Iraq is objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin," -- and going on to equate "direct participation in this war is the moral equivalent of direct participation in an abortion." These are lengths that not even the Pope, nor Cardinal Ratzinger, nor the USCCB, would go to in their opposition to the war.

The distinction between faith and morals" and "political judgments" is more than "artificial" and "contrived", as Michael asserts. In fairness to Prof. Miller, contra Michael's characterization I don't think he is insisting that "the magisterium should stick to faith and morals instead of making statements about 'empirical judgments'" -- but only that Bishops, when rendering prudential judgements on political (or economic) matters, should do so with clarity about their nature, lest they perpetuate the present confusion. Even Dietrich Von Hildebrand in The Vineyard of the Lord cautioned against the inclination "to adhere with complete loyalty to whatever our bishop says" and a "false idea of loyalty to the hierarchy" which failed to make such necessary distinctions.


  • Vatican Official Notes Catholics' 3 Weaknesses - secretary of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi. Zenit News Service January 29, 2007.

  • 3 Weaknesses of Modern Catholics Deal Hudson responds:
    The American Catholic Church has certainly experienced this since Vatican II. Just yesterday we lost an icon of Cafeteria Catholicism, Father Robert Drinan, my former Congressman from Massachusetts, who many see as one of the founding father's of a failed philosophy that promotes a false dichotomy between faith and politics. When given an opportunity during the 2004 presidential election to present a unified voice on the sanctity of human life and the centrality of the Church's teaching on this issue, the USCCB punted and allowed each bishop to develop their own approach in dealing with wayward politicians.

  • Another example of why distinctions matter would be the thankfully now-defunct Presidential Questionnaire from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). As Austin Ruse noted (Holy Democrats National Review Sept. 14, 2004):
    The questionnaire is presented every four years by the USCCB to the major party candidates. It is supposed to help Catholic voters determine which candidate best reflects the teachings of the Church. What has happened is that, through it, some candidates have been able to show that even though they support abortion they still merit the votes of faithful Catholics because they happen to be good — that is to say liberal — on gun control, the environment, immigration, and the minimum wage.
    One of the weaknesses of the questionairre was equating hard and fast (Karl Keating would say "non-negotiable") teachings of the Church on abortion and euthanasia with other issues permitting a variance of opinion between Catholics -- the end result being that when
    Democratic Senator Richard Durbin prepared a legislative scorecard drawn up using these same legislative priorities of the USCCB lobbyists. The list included all and sundry Democratic proposals and Durbin discovered — voila! — that John Kerry was the best Catholic in the Senate.
    As Michael Joseph will no doubt agree, promotion of Catholic social doctrine in a "systematic and comprehensive" manner should not be confused with an erroneous conflation of doctrinal and prudential judgements as occurred in 2004. (I expect we'll see more political deceptions of this kind in the advent of the 2008 Presidential campaigns).

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Execution of Saddam Hussein and Church Teaching on the Death Penalty

NOTE: This is a supplement to a prior post, Capital Punishment, Cardinal Martino and the Catholic Church Dec. 29, 2007

John Allen Jr: "ontic" and "practical" absolutes?

This week's National Catholic Reporter: "Church opposition to execution 'practically' absolute" - an assessment of Catholic debate over the death penalty by John Allen Jr., both theoretical and in the context of the execution of Saddam Hussein:

one could argue that the reaction from the Vatican and from senior Catholic officials around the world to the Dec. 30 execution of Saddam Hussein, and its broader opposition to the war in Iraq in the first place, collectively mark a milestone in the evolution of yet another category in Catholic teaching: Positions which are not absolute in principle, but which are increasingly absolute in practice. Opposition to war, unless undertaken in clear self-defense or with the warrant of the international community, and the use of capital punishment are the leading cases in point.

In effect, recent Vatican interventions on matters such as the Hussein execution suggest the Catholic church now has two categories of moral teachings: what we might call "ontic" or "inherent" absolutes, such as abortion, euthanasia, and the destruction of embryos in stem cell research, which are considered always and everywhere immoral because of the nature of the act, and "practical" absolutes, i.e., acts which might be justified in theory, but which under present conditions cannot be accepted.

In discussion the arguments against the execution of Saddam Hussein, Allen mentions the "seamless garment" position offered by some members of the Vatican curia:
. . . there's the principled argument that the right to life must always be upheld. This point was made in a Dec. 30 interview in Ansa, the Italian news agency, with Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

"Man cannot simply dispose of life, and therefore it should be defended from the moment of conception to natural death," Martino said. "This position thus excludes abortion, experimentation on embryos, euthanasia and the death penalty, which are a negation of the transcendent dignity of the human person created in the image of God."

Note that Martino listed capital punishment on a par with key life issues long understood to admit of no exceptions.

Two Discussions

There are two discussions going on -- the first centering on justifiability of the execution of Saddam Hussein per se; the second spurred by Cardinal Martino's framing of the issue, the merging of prudential judgement and Church teaching and the confusion that characterizes many discussions of this issue.

I think there were some good arguments for and against the execution of Saddam Hussein. I also think that while the execution of a bloody tyrant is just in principle (a case for Saddam's execution being made by Prof. Stephen Bainbridge), the practical manner in which it was carried out left something to be desired. If the New York Times' reporting of the actual situation is accurate (Before Hanging, a Push for Revenge and a Push Back From the U.S.), the Vatican's concerns about the execution seem to be vindicated. And it seems a good number of American officials on the ground had similar concerns as well.

As Richard. B. Woodward mused (Subtext Message: The cellphone video of Saddam's execution OpinionJournal January 4, 2007):

in everything from the partisan chants of Shiite bystanders to the grainy, low-lighted jumpiness of the footage and the horror-movie ski masks of the executioners, the video images of the execution contradict the fragile message that a secure and democratic government is in charge, rendering justice to someone who deserves to die.
IraqPundit put it more bluntly: Coming to a Bad End" - January 2, 2007:
I would never have thought it possible that by executing a ruthless mass murderer, Iraq would find a way to disgrace itself. Saddam deserved to hang, yet thanks to the breathtaking stupidity of Nouri Al Maliki's government, not only have Iraqis been further divided by the hanging, they have been diminished by it.

The second discussion -- the larger issue of the death penalty itself and the present confusion in debate over the Church's teaching -- is of greater interest to me, personally. I took issue in my last post with the manner in which Cardinal Martino framed his opposition to the execution -- describing it simply as "a crime" and now, according to John Allen, JR., embracing a "seamless garment of life" ethic ("Man cannot simply dispose of life, and therefore it should be defended from the moment of conception to natural death") ignores the complexities of the Church's position and leads the unwary reader to believe the Church's stance is abolitionist in principle.

Cardinal Dulles, IMHO, possesses more intellectual credibility in his effort to interpret the practical judgement of John Paul II in light of a "hermeneutics of continuity," seeking to reconcile it with Catholic tradition, and likewise asserting that "if the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millenia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture."

First Things' Robert Miller - Need for Clarification

In a post to First Things' blog -- Reading the Bishops Rightly -- Robert T. Miller affirms the importance of distinguishing various levels of Church teaching:

This is not to say that bishops should never speak on questions beyond faith and morals, including on particular questions, such as the execution of Hussein. When they do so, however, it would be better if they were clear on the nature of the statements they are making and the kind of deference faithful Catholics should give them. As things are, such statements tend to engender more confusion than clarity.

Worse, the current situation is ripe for abuse: Bishops, like everyone else, prefer it when people agree with them, and so some bishops are tempted to enunciate positions and invest them with the authority of their office, even when those positions go beyond matters of faith and morals and depend on particular, even idiosyncratic, views about empirical circumstances. There is a danger, in other words, of bishops leveraging their legitimate authority in faith and morals into the political arena by implicitly passing off empirical judgments as if they were teachings on faith and morals commanding the assent of faithful Catholics. We should resist this. One can oppose the naked public square without thinking that it ought to be dressed up in just any old garb whatsoever, no matter how tatterdemalion.

* * *

There is an ongoing exchange between several Catholic bloggers -- Dr. Michael Liccione (Sacramentum Vitae), Tom Kreitzberg (Disputations) and Paul (sorry, last name?) on this topic, which may be of interest:

  • "Yes, and . . ." - Dr. Michael Liccione (Sacramentum Vitae January 25, 2007) concurs with Prof. Miller that "that Catholics may legitimately dissent from moral judgments made by Church leaders, including the pope, if and when those judgments themselves depend on "empirical" judgments that may reasonably be disputed." The "reasonably disputed" is the qualifying factor.
  • "The scope of "prudential" dissent for Catholics" Sacramentum Vitae January 5, 2007), with attention to Cardinal Ratzinger's Doctrinal Commentary on the Professio Fidei and teachings which while "non-definitive", still require "religious submission of will and intellect" from Catholics. (Response: On the prudential 153: Catholic Deep Fishing January 6, 2006).
  • "Can you repeat the question?" Disputations January 5, 2007. Tom Kreitzberg agrees w. Mike, though cautions: "when you're not taking a test in a for-credit course on Catholicism, I hope you say, 'Frankly, I care a lot more about whether I'm wrong than about whether I'm a bad Catholic.'" (When the disputed question is which question is to be disputed - Response by Michael Liccione.

Similarities in the "Just War Debate"

As John Allen Jr. and Michael Liccione have both observed, the discussion of the death penalty closely mirrors that which is occuring over just war. There is no dispute over the fact that John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger opposed the war in Iraq, or that Benedict has taken a staunch position against war in his pontificate ('s Angelo Matera's series in the National Catholic Register: Benedict, The Peace Pope September 3-9, 2006; Catholic Hawks Circle Benedict September 24-30, 2006). However, as in the death penalty debate, there seems to be a similar erroneous conflation of prudential judgement and Church teaching.

I discussed the present confusion in the just debate in last year's Toward a Proper Understanding of the Catholic Just War Tradition Against The Grain May 18, 2006. By way of a more recent example, the New Oxford Review recently criticized the Catholic Church with exhibiting:

. . . a fundamental discontinuity between the Church's [own] opposition to the war in Iraq and her position with regard to individual support for it, or participation in it. More specifically, despite her well-known opposition to the war, the Church has failed to impose moral sanctions against those who directly or indirectly support it. The incongruity between her words and her actions substantially undercuts the Church's moral position on Iraq, and reduces the NOR's editorial position from championing Catholic truth to advocating an editorial opinion.
("Should Catholics Defend America?", by Paul R. Muessig. New Oxford Review July /August 2006).

After a jab at "neoconservative cabalists . . . foisting their Zionist vision of an uncritically pro-Israel American Empire on a complacent and largely ignorant American public", Muessig directs his attention to Catholics who "claim to be orthodox but support the war":

there's not an honest one in the bunch. They are no better than the cafeteria Catholics who support abortion, picking and choosing by which of the hard moral teachings of the Church they will abide. Given the choice between serving God or mammon, they have chosen the latter.
Muessig will no doubt remain unsatisfied until Fr. Neuhaus, Michael Novak or George Weigel receive some moral sanction at the hands of their bishop.

James Turner Johnson, in The War to Oust Saddam Hussein: The Context, The Debate, The War and the Future, criticized the guiding hermeneutics of the Catholic Bishops in the debate over Iraq which contrasts with the classical just war tradition. To quote directly from Johnson:

. . . As the bishops have developed and applied a 'presumption against war' in various contexts since 1983, they have transformed the traditional just war categories from moral concerns to guide the practice of statecraft into a series of moral obstacles that, as described and interpreted, are arguments against the use of moral force's ever being justifiable. The regular advancing of worst-case scenarios as unbiased moral advice underscores the opposition to uses of armed force as such and distorts the application of just war reasoning. The result is functional pacifism, despite the claim that this is what the just war idea requires. [p. 49]
I am unable to do Johnson justice in my blog, but encourage a reading of his book. An earlier portion of the text was published in First Things as Just War, As It Was and Is First Things 149 (January 2005): 14-24.

George Weigel has also offered a study of the transition of Catholic thought on war and peace in Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace, Oxford University Press, 1987 -- dwelling chiefly on the Second Vatican Council and positions on war taken by U.S. Catholic Bishops. (See this Review by Charles J. Leonard. Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly Newsletter Vol. 10, No. 4. Sept. 1987).

Bracketing for a moment the specific case of the war in Iraq, I think Dr. Johnson has demonstrated that there has been intellectual transition in contemporary Church thought on the interpretation of just war teaching which stands in sharp contrast to 'classical' Catholic tradition. More often than not, the Vatican, while registering its practical judgement on empirical matters regarding the war and the death penalty, has not adequately clarified or conveyed its present position in a way that reconciles it to past teaching.

According to John Allen, Jr.:

Indications from the Vatican and from a wide swath of Catholic officialdom suggest that in practice, it's unlikely there will ever again be a war (defined as the initiation of hostilities without international warrant) or an execution the church does not officially oppose.

At the level of application, at least, it would seem the debate is almost over, and the abolitionists are winning.

A conclusion that I find personally troubling, in light of the widespread confusion it has wrought and its tenuous relationship with -- echoing Cardinal Dulles -- "two millenia of Catholic thought."

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Capital Punishment, Cardinal Martino and the Catholic Church

I had said I would be taking a break from blogging during the holiday season, but having returned from vacation I couldn't help but take an interest in an ongoing debate on Evangelical Catholicism, beginning with " A Catholic response to the sentencing of Saddam" (Dec. 28, 2006), being in part a rebuttal to Jimmy Akin's criticism of Cardinal Martino (November 09, 2006).

In his original criticism of Cardinal Martino, Jimmy Akin asserts that "The death penalty is not a crime legally, nor is it one in principle morally," and that "even if we assume that "killing for vindication" is a crime -- an assumption that can be subject to extreme challenge -- it does not follow that Saddam's execution is simply killing for vindication."

Michael disagrees, and charges Jimmy with "negligence" in presenting the Church's teaching on the issue:

Akin . . . neglected to note the important fact that clear and crisp sections of John Paul II's Evangelium vitae were interpolated into the 1997 Latin edition of the Catechism, which is the definitive and authoritative version of the Catechism. Nor did Akin notice the insightful commentary on the Catechism published by the general editor of the Catechism himself, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn.
The crux of Michael's dispute with Jimmy is as follows:
The Church provides theoretical situations in which the death penalty can be used: "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor." However, given this theoretical situation, we must next ask whether such a situation actually, historically and practically exists: "such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent." The distinction between what is theoretically possible and what is practically the case is essential to the Catholic evaluation of the death penalty, not to mention to a plethora of moral and social questions. This is why John Paul II and Cardinal Schönborn use terms such as "practically" and "in practice" when they vocally oppose the death penalty. The possibility of a situation where the death penalty may be necessary is not denied in their teachings. However, there is strong skepticism expressed as to whether there are actual present conditions for the use of the death penalty. During the pontificate of John Paul II, not once were these conditions determined to exist anywhere in the world. This important distinction between the theoretical/possible and the practical/actual is not made by Akin, who instead conflates the two and privileges the theoretical teaching over the practical throughout his post on Saddam. Yet, is it not telling that he accuses Martino of being "sloppy" and "misleading", and describes Martino's analysis as below the "standard of high moral clarity that should be found in the public utterances of an official of the Vatican"? The misleading comments in actuality do not belong to Martino.
I expect Jimmy will respond to Michael's charges in his own time. However, on behalf of Jimmy I think his post was rightly motivated: not by a personal animus against Cardinal Martino, not "an attempt to make Martino look foolish" but rather a challenge to Martino's rendering (distortion?) of the Church's teaching on the death penalty by his characterization of the sentence of Saddam Hussein:
"For me, punishing a crime with another crime, which is what killing for vindication is, would mean that we are still at the point of demanding an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Unfortunately, Iraq is one of the few countries that have not yet made the civilized choice of abolishing the death penalty."
(Source: Vatican opposes Saddam’s death sentence Catholic News Agency Nov. 6, 2006).

You don't have to bear a grudge against Martino to recognize that there is gross potential for misunderstanding of the Church's position on the death penalty in that single comment -- the conflation of the death penalty with the desire for revenge and the intimation that the only "civilized choice" a country may have is to seek the wholesale abolition of capital punishment. (Suffice to say I agree with Jimmy's criticism here).

Is there Legitimate Room for Disagreement?

May one in fact disagree with the teaching of John Paul II on the death penalty (in Evangelium Vitae and later conveyed in the Catechism and the Compendium? -- Perusing the comments on Evangelical Catholicism, the hosts and their readers appear to be divided on this very question. Michael responds to a readers' characterization of the Pope's argument as a "personal prudential judgement" and insistence that one may disagree with John Paul II's opposition to the death penalty and yet remain "a Catholic in good standing":

First, if it was a personal judgment, then why would John Paul II circulate his opinion to the worldwide Church by means of an encyclical (Evangelium Vitae)? Second, I am sure that you are aware that papal encyclical letters carry a firm authority that demands the assent of the Catholic faithful . . .
Michael reiterates Lumen Gentium 25 ("This loyal submission of the will and intellect must be given, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra in such wise, . . .") and Pope Pius XII's in Humani Generis 20 ("Nor must it be thought that what is contained in encyclical letters does not of itself demand assent, on the pretext that the popes do not exercise in them the supreme power of their teaching authority. Rather, such teachings belong to the ordinary magisterium . . ."). During the 2004 presidential elections, the candicacy of Senator John Kerry -- a self-identified "pro-choice Catholic" -- was the source of much controversy. Liberal supporters often responded to criticisms by suggesting that Catholic legislators who supported the death penalty also dissented from Church teaching. In an oft-quoted letter to Cardinal McCarrick in 2004 ("Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion - General Principles"), then-Cardinal Ratzinger as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarified the difference by affirming:
3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. 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.

Now, if the present Pope of the Catholic Church has affirmed the possibility of disagreement among Catholics over the application of the death penalty, we should take this as an invitation to examine this issue further.

Church or State -- Who decides?

A related question in this debate: whether the 'locus of authority' reside in determining the application of the death penalty resides in the Church or the duly constituted civil authority? -- Michael concludes from his analysis of the conditions in Iraq:

The death penalty is not the only option available for dealing with Saddam, and so, de facto, the execution of Saddam Hussein is not a moral option under CCC 2267. Saddam's death sentence does not meet the criteria of Catholic social and moral teaching, and Martino has correctly noted that fact.

In a recent post, Michael takes a jab at "those who purport to understand issues of justice and peace better than the Cardinal" and "desk chair bloggers will likewise claim an expertise in the areas of Catholic social doctrine and global socio-poltical conditions from the limits of their laptops." While I agree with Evangelical Catholicism that any Catholic expressing their disagreement with Martino should do so with the respect that should be accorded to a Cardinal of the Church, I am concerned about the assumption that if a member of the Vatican curia pronounces this practical application of the death penalty to be "a crime," his doing so effectively rules out any disputation to the contrary.

In mounting his own case for clemency, Michael himself appeals in part to "global socio-political conditions." from his own laptop. In claiming, for instance, that "During the pontificate of John Paul II, not once were these conditions [for use of the death penalty] determined to exist anywhere in the world" -- I think you would encounter a number of legal prosecutors and officials with years of experience in law enforcement, who would beg to differ, and may even be more qualified to make that judgement than a member of the Vatican, even a President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

In Capital Punishment: Drawing the Line Between Doctrine and Opinion ( June 7, 2004), Dr. Jeff Mirus contends that:

In matters governing social stability and public safety, prudential judgement is inevitable. Moreover, the authority for judgement in this sphere is not given to the Church. It is the province of the secular arm -- the legitimately constituted civil authority -- to decide what is and is not sufficient to protect public safety.

Now, since the Church teaches that non-lethal means of punishment must be used whenever they are sufficient, no Catholic politician or ruler worthy of the name will attempt to impose the death penalty in cases where he does not believe it necessary to protect the public safety. But politicians, rulers, States and, indeed, the man in the street, may reasonably differ over whether capital punishment is necessary to protect the public safety in our time and under our circumstances.

* * *

Development or Reversal of Doctrine?

In The Purposes of Punishment (CHRISTIFIDELIS Sept. 14, 2003), Michael Dunnigan provides a helpful summary of the theological debate (and controversy) over the inclusion of John Paul II's prudential judgement in Evangelium Vitae in the 1997 revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, including the positions of those who have weighed in (Cardinal Schonborn, Cardinal Dulles, Fr. Rutler) in the pages of Catholic Dossier and National Catholic Register. According to Dunnigan:

Catholic teaching on capital punishment is in a state of dangerous ambiguity. The discussion of the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is so difficult to interpret that conscientious members of the faithful scarcely know what their Church obliges them to believe. Although the constant teaching of the Church has been that the state has a right to impose the death penalty, the Catechism declares that the actual circumstances in which capital punishment is legitimate are practically nonexistent. Moreover, the Catechism weaves doctrine so tightly together with prudential and factual judgments that it is not at all clear how much of its discourse on capital punishment actually is being put forward as binding Catholic teaching. [. . .]

[R]ecent pronouncements of the Magisterium — Evangelium vitae and the Catechism — affirm the Church’s traditional teaching that, in appropriate circumstances, the State may have recourse to capital punishment. However, the same statements circumscribe very narrowly the ambit in which this recourse is legitimate. In the words of the director of the commission that prepared the Catechism, the official version “leaves the door to the death penalty theoretically open . . ., while closing it practically" [C. Schönborn, “Brief Note on the Revision," Catholic Dossier 4, no. 5 (1998), 10]. This unprecedented restriction on the imposition of the death penalty raises the question of the legitimate ends or purposes of punishment. The key issue in the debate over the death penalty is whether the recent statements of the Magisterium contradict the Church’s previous teaching on the purposes of punishment.

The confusion that characterizes the death penalty debate among Catholics is in part due to the fact that the Catechism gives the impression that the Church has indeed eliminated retribution as a legitimate purpose of punishment:

The preliminary version of the Catechism said, “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means . . .” [CCC prelim. vers., 2267 (emphasis added)]. Thus, this passage described as justifications for capital punishment not only the safety of persons, but also the protection of public order. The ordinary meaning of public order is sufficiently broad to encompass the traditional purposes of punishment, namely retribution and deterrence.

However, in the revision of the Catechism, the reference to public order was deleted, so that a sole justification for the death penalty remained in the official version, namely physical safety. “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means . . .” [CCC off. vers., 2267 (emphasis added)].

Even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was led to "dissent" against the Magisterium, protesting in the National Catholic Register that "to eliminate retribution as a legitimate purpose of capital punishment is to depart from “the (infallible) universal teaching of the past 2,000 years." Scalia further voiced his argument in a First Things article God’s Justice and Ours (First Things 123 (May 2002): 17-21).

Responding to Scalia (Antonin Scalia and His Critics: The Church, the Courts, and the Death Penalty First Things 126 (October 2002)), Cardinal Dulles makes the distinction between the prudential judgement of the Pope and the teaching of the Church. And, while he himself agrees with the prudential judgement of the Pope, he likewise reaffirms the right of Catholics to disagree:

As to the Pope’s assertion that the death penalty should today be rare, I would reaffirm, against Justice Scalia, that this is to be understood as an exercise of the Pope’s prudential judgment. “Prudential” has a technical theological meaning with which Justice Scalia seems not to be familiar. It refers to the application of Catholic doctrine to changing concrete circumstances. Since the Christian revelation tells us nothing about the particulars of contemporary society, the Pope and the bishops have to rely on their personal judgment as qualified spiritual leaders in making practical applications. Their prudential judgment, while it is to be respected, is not a matter of binding Catholic doctrine. To differ from such a judgment, therefore, is not to dissent from Church teaching.

Dunnigan goes on to examine the doctrinal treatment of the death penalty in the Catechism. He believes that a "development of doctrine" has indeed occurred in John Paul II's choice to ground his teaching on the death penalty in the context of legitimate defense, rather than the traditional teaching on punishment (with narrow restrictions on when the sentence may be employed). However, he concurs with Professor Gerald Bradley (The Teaching of the Gospel of Life Catholic Dossier Vol. 4, No. 5), that analyzing the death penalty in this manner "renders the recent teaching of the Magisterium obscure" and is in need of "authoritative clarification."

I believe that these recent pronouncements contain a legitimate development of doctrine, namely that, to a certain extent, it is proper to analyze capital punishment in light of Church teaching on legitimate defense and that, in this light, it becomes clear that capital punishment is legitimate only when non-lethal means are insufficient to vindicate legitimate societal interests. However, my opinion also is that these pronouncements are “not free from all deficiencies.” That is, they define too narrowly the interests that society legitimately may vindicate through imposition of the death penalty. These legitimate interests are not limited to the protection of physical safety, but, consistent with the Church’s traditional teaching on the purposes of punishment, they also include retribution or the reparation of the disorder created by the crime.
The Analysis of Avery Cardinal Dulles

Another instructive article I've read on this topic -- probably the best survey of what Catholic tradition actually teaches on capital punishment -- is Avery Cardinal Dulles' Catholicism and Capital Punishment First Things 112 (April 2001): 30-35.

Despite what Dulles refers to as its "tempting simplicity," there is no basis for a strictly abolitionist position on the death penalty either in the scriptures or Christian tradition:

The Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. I know of no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases. . . .

Pope John Paul II spoke for the whole Catholic tradition when he proclaimed in Evangelium Vitae (1995) that “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.” But he wisely included in that statement the word “innocent.” He has never said that every criminal has a right to live nor has he denied that the State has the right in some cases to execute the guilty.

It is thus the obligation of Catholics to discern when the death penalty ought to be applied. Here Dulles then examines the fourfold purpose of punishment -- "rehabilitation, defense against the criminal, deterrence, and retribution" and the effectiveness of the death penalty in achieving these ends. He concludes:
The death penalty . . . has different values in relation to each of the four ends of punishment. It does not rehabilitate the criminal but may be an occasion for bringing about salutary repentance. It is an effective but rarely, if ever, a necessary means of defending society against the criminal. Whether it serves to deter others from similar crimes is a disputed question, difficult to settle. Its retributive value is impaired by lack of clarity about the role of the State. In general, then, capital punishment has some limited value but its necessity is open to doubt.
Cardinal Dulles ends his study with a 10-point summary encapsulating the Church's teaching:
  1. The purpose of punishment in secular courts is fourfold: the rehabilitation of the criminal, the protection of society from the criminal, the deterrence of other potential criminals, and retributive justice.

  2. Just retribution, which seeks to establish the right order of things, should not be confused with vindictiveness, which is reprehensible.

  3. Punishment may and should be administered with respect and love for the person punished.

  4. The person who does evil may deserve death. According to the biblical accounts, God sometimes administers the penalty himself and sometimes directs others to do so.

  5. Individuals and private groups may not take it upon themselves to inflict death as a penalty.

  6. The State has the right, in principle, to inflict capital punishment in cases where there is no doubt about the gravity of the offense and the guilt of the accused.

  7. The death penalty should not be imposed if the purposes of punishment can be equally well or better achieved by bloodless means, such as imprisonment.

  8. The sentence of death may be improper if it has serious negative effects on society, such as miscarriages of justice, the increase of vindictiveness, or disrespect for the value of innocent human life.

  9. Persons who specially represent the Church, such as clergy and religious, in view of their specific vocation, should abstain from pronouncing or executing the sentence of death.

  10. Catholics, in seeking to form their judgment as to whether the death penalty is to be supported as a general policy, or in a given situation, should be attentive to the guidance of the pope and the bishops. Current Catholic teaching should be understood, as I have sought to understand it, in continuity with Scripture and tradition.

Retribution - a Valid Basis for Execution?

The dispute with Martino has largely focused on deterrence -- whether Saddam's presence constitutes a threat and whether "non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor." This has been the chief basis of Michael's criticism of the Iraqi verdict and bloggers who support the verdict (or at any rate, disagree with Martino's characterization of the verdict as "a crime").

I do not feel particularly qualified to discuss the legitimacy of the execution based on deterrence -- to do so would require specific knowledge of the Baathist resistance in Iraq, the threat posed by those who would hope to restore Saddam to power, and other societal factors which are beyond my competence. (I don't think Martino is especially privy to this kind of information either, hence I question his judgement).

Moving on, I think the strongest argument in favor of Saddam's execution could be made on the basis of retribution, and it is not at all suprising to see a number of other Catholics arguing this as well.

Dulles believes that "the retribution administered by the state is largely symbolic, and instructional [alluding to] an order of divine justice" -- and that preserving "the moral order of society" can be accomplished by other means of punishment than execution. However, he has also recognized that "if the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millenia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture."

I have to wonder if the case of Saddam Hussein isn't just one of those situations, where the gravity and extent of his crimes constitute one of those horrific situations where the death penalty is deserved for the preservation of the moral order?

* * *

The Catholic Church's position on the death penalty is fairly complex, and requires careful study and reflection -- much confusion abounds as to its present position. It is not as permissive as some conservatives hope it would be. But, as Cardinal Dulles demonstrates, neither can it be construed as abolitionist (contrary to the assertions of the American Catholic).

In light of which, I find it entirely understandable that when the head of the Vatican's Justice and Peace calls for clemency for a mass-murdering tyrant guilty of horrific crimes against humanity, characterizes the sentence of the court as itself "a crime," and reasserts the Church's "opposition to capital punishment" without the qualification that is understandably needed, some Catholic bloggers are moved to provide a better explication of what the Church teaches.

Coincidentally, at the time of this blogging, Martino again expressed his opposition to the execution of Saddam Hussein (Vatican cleric hopes for clemency for Saddam Reuters Dec. 28, 2006):

Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican's Justice and Peace department, was quoted in Italy's Repubblica newspaper on Thursday saying there was a chance for last-minute clemency for Saddam after an appeals court upheld his death sentence.

"There's still a period of 30 days (before the death sentence must be carried out), the president's signature is required, things can happen," Martino was reported as saying.

The former papal envoy to the United Nations said there was "no doubt" that Saddam was responsible for mass murders, but that did not change the Church's opposition to capital punishment.

"You can't think of compensating for one crime with another one," he said. Saddam was sentenced in November for crimes against humanity and the death penalty was upheld on Tuesday.

* * *

250,000-290,000 Iraqis "disappeared" under the reign of Saddam Hussein. A detailed description of this tyrant's crimes against humanity can found in "Justice For Iraq", a policy paper by Human Rights Watch.

Or, you can take a tour with blogger Michael Totten of a "genocide museum" in Suleimaniya, Kurdistan, where 10,725 people were killed in a single building, at the hands of Saddam's torturers, many of them women and children.

According to CNN, Saddam Hussein is expected to be executed "this weekend". I urge all readers to pray for his repentence and conversion.

Related Posts / Articles:

Recommended Reading

There are a number of informative articles / essays on this topic for further reading and consideration. I welcome any further suggestions for inclusion in this roundup:

  • In fairness to Cardinal Martino, his thought on the death penalty and understanding of the Church's teaching is developed at length in an article Death Penalty Is Cruel and Unnecessary L'Osservatore Romano February 24, 1999. If one wishes to truly assess Martino's position on the death penalty and understanding of the contemporary Church's position, it would be better to begin with this particular address than his "off the cuff" remarks to the press which are the cause of much controversy. (Michael may be kind enough to provide other articles by Martino as well on this matter).
  • Cardinal Avery Dulles has written extensively on this subject, and when it comes to an explication of John Paul II's thought, I find Dulle's characteristically nuanced approach preferable to Martino. See for instance:
  • God's Justice and Ours, by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia First Things 123 (May 2002): 17-21:
    The death penalty is undoubtedly wrong unless one accords to the state a scope of moral action that goes beyond what is permitted to the individual. In my view, the major impetus behind modern aversion to the death penalty is the equation of private morality with governmental morality.
  • Antonin Scalia and His Critics: The Church, the Courts, and the Death Penalty First Things 126 (October 2002): 8-18.
  • Death Penalty Symposium: [Correspondence between] Scalia and Dulles National Catholic Register March 24-31, 2002.


Wednesday, July 14, 2004

What about "pro death penalty" legislators?

[NOTE: The following is a cross-post to Catholic Kerry Watch]

FoxNews has posted the transcript of Hannity & Colmes' interview with Marc Balestrieri (thanks to Catholic Light for the tip).

BALESTRIERI: [...] There are other pro-choice Catholic politicians. But unlike any of the other ones, Senator Kerry has gone out of his way to make this an issue against the teaching of the church, in violation of the Vatican's directives and he is using Catholics to...

COLMES: Well, it sounds like you're making it an issue. I'm just wondering, will you -- should you also go after Catholic legislators who are for the death penalty?

BALESTRIERI: Those who are for the death penalty must apply the strict criteria of the Catholic Church, deciding whether or not there's absolutely no other way to protect the community apart from executing the criminal.

COLMES: But why single out John Kerry? There are many legislators who are pro-death penalty, and that's not what the church talks about.

There are many other legislators who agree with John Kerry on the issue of abortion who also happen to be in office. Maybe they're not running for president. So it's clear to me that you're singling out John Kerry because of politics?

BALESTRIERI: Alan, I think it's -- I think it's difficult if you're not a Catholic to understand the exact difference between abortion, which is a heresy, and capital punishment, which is not always the case.

Abortion is an intrinsically evil act. It can never be performed if it's direct and voluntary. Whereas capital punishment is only extrinsically evil, and under certain strict circumstances, it can be permitted. There's a great difference there.

The (mistaken) equasion of the Church's condemnation of abortion and capital punishment has been raised countless times, often with the intent of diverting attention away from the chief issue at hand: the legislator's stance on abortion and the absolute condemnation of the Church. Colmes (the token liberal voice of the Fox News' tag team) mentioned "pro-death penalty" legislators twice, and Mr. Balestriery displayed great patience in correcting him in the brief time that was allotted to him on air.

The errors contained in such an equasion have been addressed by my co-editors in the past, but for those who persist (and I anticipate there will be plenty after Colmes) let's go over this one more time:

The morality of capital punishment involves the question of justice and legitimate defense of society -- namely, whether execution of an "unjust agressor" may be employed in defense of the common good. On this issue the Catechism [2263-2267] teaches:

". . . 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."
Now is not the time (nor is this blog the place) for an extended discussion of the death penalty. Those who wish to do so can peruse the extensive list of articles here, beginning with Cardinal Dulle's "Catholicism and Capital Punishment" First Things 112 (April 2001): 30-35).

It is sufficent here to remember that the Church's condemnation of capital punishment is, for the above reasons, conditional, it's condemnation of abortion absolute. Catholic Tradition has always defended the "inviolable right of every innocent being to life", and "affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion." Likewise, it has always condemned direct euthanasia: the deliberate killing of those who are sick, handicapped, or otherwise deemed "not suitable for life," and found such acts morally unacceptable.

Consequently, the Church distinguishes between -- and does not equate -- its condemnation of abortion/euthanasia and its criticism of capital punishment as a form of defense.


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