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Mark Shea: What of ‘retributive justice’? – Capital Punishment, Part 7

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When governor of Texas, George W Bush rejected widespread pleas for clemency for reformed killer Karla Faye Tucker. PHOTO: CNS

As we saw previously in this series, the main argument for retaining the death penalty by most Catholic apologists for it is “retributive justice”.  The complaint is that Pope John Paul II and the post-concilliar Church downplays “retributive justice” and focuses only on preventing danger to the community.  The charge is that there is some necessary demand that murder be met with death.  But as we have seen, that is simply not the reality of either Scripture or Christian tradition as it has actually been lived.

So essentially, the answer of the Church since Evangelium Vitae is that life in jail is sufficient retribution since retribution is ordered toward redemption, not toward abstract fulfilment of karmic “balance” to which the sovereign omnipotent God himself is subject. Since the Church has always left room for mercy and has never in her history demanded that capital criminals can only be justly punished by death, she chose in the end to expand that option for mercy to all. The bottom line is that while there is life, there is hope.  As the Psalmist says,

What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
Will it tell of your faithfulness? (Ps 30:9)

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“Ah!,” comes the objection, “but one very strong argument in favour of the death penalty is that nothing so wonderfully concentrates the mind as the prospect of a hanging!  Criminals have been brought to repentance by being brought to the gallows!  That’s why execution is so important to maintain as the truly merciful option.”

Pope Benedict XVI and US President George W Bush listen as the US national anthem is played during a ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in 2008 in Washington. PHOTO: CNS

The problem with this Orwellian “Mercy Killing” argument is that it subordinates human dignity to some other end.  Start talking about the death penalty as an incentive for getting sinners to repent and where do you stop?  Why not threaten everybody with death?  It isn’t, after all, just murderers who need to repent their sins.  All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

“Yes,” comes the reply, “but not all are murderers.”

Don’t bet the farm on that.  In words of Holy Church “sinners were the authors and the ministers of all the sufferings that the divine Redeemer endured” (CCC 598).  And in the words of Jesus, “with the measure you use it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:2).  If the Church is not eager to kill, why are you?  As Gandalf says, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement.  Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

It is the eagerness of the executioner to deal out death in judgement that is the other factor overlooked by advocates of this argument: what the death penalty does to us is as big a consideration as what it does to the victim.  And the proof of it is that when the sinner does repent as Karla Faye Tucker repented and turned her life over to Christ, the death penalty advocate still wants to kill her and expresses that with mockery of her repentance:

In his autobiography, Bush claimed that the pending execution of Karla Faye Tucker “felt like a huge piece of concrete … crushing me.” But in an unguarded moment in 1999 while travelling during the presidential campaign, Bush revealed his true feelings to the journalist Tucker Carlson. Bush mentioned Karla Faye Tucker, who had been executed the previous year, and told Carlson that in the weeks immediately before the execution, Bianca Jagger and other protesters had come to Austin to plead for clemency for her. Carlson asked Bush if he had met with any of the petitioners and was surprised when Bush whipped around, stared at him, and snapped, “No, I didn’t meet with any of them.” Carlson, who until that moment had admired Bush, said that Bush’s curt response made him feel as if he had just asked “the dumbest, most offensive question ever posed.” Bush went on to tell him that he had also refused to meet Larry King when he came to Texas to interview Tucker but had watched the interview on television. King, Bush said, asked Tucker difficult questions, such as “What would you say to Governor Bush?”

What did Tucker answer? Carlson asked.

“Please,” Bush whimpered, his lips pursed in mock desperation, “please, don’t kill me.”

Carlson was shocked.4 He couldn’t believe Bush’s callousness and reasoned that his cruel mimicry of the woman whose death he had authorised must have been sparked by anger over Karla Faye Tucker’s remarks during the King interviews. When King had asked her what she planned to ask Governor Bush, Karla Faye had said she thought that if Bush approved her execution, he would be succumbing to election-year pressure from pro-death penalty voters.

Election-year pressure?

Bush was receiving thousands of messages urging clemency for Tucker, including one from one of his daughters. “Born-again” evangelists such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, normally ardent advocates of execution, urged him to commute Tucker’s sentence. When Pope John Paul II urged Bush to grant mercy to Tucker, Bush responded disingenuously in a letter to the Pope, saying, “Ms. Tucker’s sentence can only be commuted by the Governor if the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends a commutation of sentence.” On several occasions, Bush stated publicly that in deciding Karla Faye Tucker’s fate, he was seeking “guidance through prayer,” adding that “judgements about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority.”

But there was no way Bush could avoid the godlike power thrust on him as governor. When Russian president Vladimir Putin declared that life-or-death judgements should be “left to the Almighty,” he meant that such supposed judgements, even if they are believed to be divine, cannot properly be discerned and administered by flawed human agents. This recognition led him to oppose government executions. But while Bush claimed to leave the judgement of Karla Faye Tucker to God, in reality he exercised his own political judgement and authorised her death.

“But the call to abolish the death penalty is not binding dogma,” comes the reply.

True enough.  Almost everything the Magisterium teaches is not binding dogma.  Indeed, even most Scripture, inspired though it all is, is not binding dogma.  For instance, when Paul writes to the Corinthians about marriage, he makes a distinction between the words of Jesus (“Not I, but the Lord…”) and his own views (“I, not the Lord…”).  And yet though Paul does not lay down a dogma, he still speaks with authority.  Something similar obtains here.  The Pope, by virtue of his office, says, “Don’t execute people unless it is absolutely necessary to protect others from harm.  In the first world, what with advanced prison technology, that effectively means, ‘Abolish the death penalty’.”

“But that’s still just a prudential judgement, right?  So we don’t have to listen to the Church if we don’t want to, right?”

Thereby hangs one of the biggest false understandings of Church teaching in the world – of which more next time.

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