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Mark Shea: ‘Killing’s bad ‘n all, but how much is too much?’ – Capital Punishment, Part 9 (final)

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PHOTO: Nina Strehl

Last time in this space we discussed the false understanding of prudential judgment which imagines it to mean, “If you don’t like what the Church teaches, feel free to blow it off.” We learned that the correct meaning of “prudential judgment” refers to how best, not whether to obey the Church’s guidance. And this brings us to our final point about the Church’s guidance with respect to killing vs. much of modernity’s understanding.

Some years back there was an argument (again largely centered in the conservative wing of American Catholicism) concerning the use of torture. The argument was, like arguments over the death penalty, driven entirely by politics. The reason Australian Catholics are not riven by arguments about torture or the death penalty the way American Catholics are is simple: Australia, along with the rest of the civilised world, banned the death penalty years ago and Australia had no political party committed by its president to defending the use of torture in the War on Terror.

In America, conservative Catholics are also political conservatives, so they feel a great need to square their faith with the urgent agendas of their politics. (Liberals are the same, which is why “Catholics for a Free Choice” exists to try to square their support for abortion with the circle of actual Catholic teaching.)

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Again and again, throughout the Bush years – in the very teeth of clear Magisterial teaching which declared the use of torture to be gravely and intrinsically immoral – conservative Catholics strove to rationalise it and pronounce a blessing on it. This is not the time or the place to explore the entirety of the pretzel logic deployed by conservative American Catholics to justify torture. Rather, I want only to point to one argument that was continually put forward to excuse it. It ran this way: “In war, you get to kill people, so why on earth do you not get to commit the lesser act of torture?”

I mention this argument because it profoundly summarises the radical difference in spirit between the gospel’s approach to human life and dignity and that of conservative dissent with respect to both torture and the death penalty. It comes down to this: the Church never asks “When do we get to kill?” just as it never asks “When do we get to torture?”

On the contrary, with respect to torture, it says “Treat prisoners humanely and you will not come within miles of torture.” Likewise, the Church only asks (with immense reluctance) “When might we tragically have to kill and how do we avoid that if at all possible?”

In war, you have to kill sometimes. But the instant a combatant in a war ceases to be a threat is the instant that you no longer are permitted to kill him. If you shoot a captive who has laid down his arms, the technical descriptor for you is not “war hero” but “war criminal”. In the same way, the instant a combatant becomes a prisoner is the instant he is owed his full human dignity as a creature made in the image and likeness of God and therefore cannot be tortured just as he cannot be shot. The human person cannot “forfeit his right” to life and human dignity because he cannot forfeit the fact that he is a human person. He can, if absolutely necessary, be killed if he is a clear and present danger to innocent human life. But the moment the threat is past is the moment we must temper our actions with mercy in the hope that, even yet, he may be saved. The momentum of the Tradition is entirely ordered toward life and redemption. The momentum of questions like “When do we get to kill or torture?” is entirely ordered in the opposite direction.

And that, in the end, is why appeals to “prudential judgment” as an excuse to battle the plain teaching of the Church founder on a very large rock: namely, they lack a single ounce of prudence. In what conceivable universe is it wise for Christians to side against the Magisterium and with Communist China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, and a handful of other barbaric Islamic despotisms? In what world does it make sense for Christians to urge a sword into the hands of a rapidly de-Christianising Caesar and beg him to slay those he deems to be a threat to his power? And how, above all, is it prudent for those who champion the Church’s teaching on the dignity and sanctity of human life in the question of abortion to divert a single second of our time and energy away from that to fight against the Church so that we can maximise the shedding of human blood in the largest gulag on Planet Earth? Our mission ought to be to seek redemption and, within justice, liberty for the captive (Isaiah 61:1: Luke 4:18), not death.

The bottom line is this: Retributive punishment is ordered toward redemption, not toward some abstract karmic code of justice that rules like Javert’s fixed stars even over God. Nothing rules over God. The Church has not “contradicted” her teaching on the death penalty for the very good reason that the Church always permitted mercy and leniency as an option with capital crimes. A true contradiction would be for the Church to, for instance, say that deliberately taking innocent human life is legitimate as, for instance, defenders of the mass nuclear homicides at Hiroshima and Nagasaki do. That, indeed, overturns two thousand years of Tradition. But shifting from “Life can be spared sometimes” to “Life should be spared as often as possible and we now have the technology to always spare it” is simply to move in a direction the Church was already headed. Christ thirsts not for blood, but for love. We must not give him the vinegar of vengeance to drink but imitate him in mercy as far as we can.

May my country imitate the good people of Australia and abolish the death penalty soon. And may Catholics abandon the foolish choice to fight the Magisterium on this point. Jesus Christ, King of Death Penalty Victims, pray for us that we may wisely and prudently distinguish between this real development of doctrine and merely clinging to sinful vengeance and the love of death.

(Online editor: emphasis added)

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