Thursday, October 1, 2015

Capital Punishment: CCC 2267, and Last Three Popes

The Catholic Church's Teaching on the Death Penalty

The Bear recognizes the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the Church's handbook to us, its faithful members.
2267 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 to 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 definitely 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 nonexistent."
The CCC does not absolutely forbid capital punishment. It does however, limit its legitimate use to situations where the state cannot otherwise protect people's safety. It bases this on "the dignity of the human person."

The CCC recognizes that the legitimate uses of capital punishment "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." This quote is from St. Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56. The reason for this is that modern states have effective prison systems that were lacking in the days when the Church itself employed capital punishment.

In November, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI told a group of anti-death penalty activists that he hoped their efforts: “will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty.”

In March of this year Pope Francis called for the abolition of the death penalty. Vatican Radio reported this:
Capital punishment is cruel, inhuman and an offense to the dignity of human life. In today's world, the death penalty is inadmissible, however serious the crime that has been committed. That was Pope Francis’ unequivocal message to members of the International Commission against the death penalty who met with him on Friday morning in the Vatican.
Recent Executions in the U.S.

More recently, Pope Francis intervened in the execution of an Oklahoma man. The letter from the Pope's personal representative in the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano said this:
Together with Pope Francis, I believe that a commutation of Mr. Glossip's sentence would give clearer witness to the value and dignity of every person's life, and would contribute to a society more cognizant of the mercy that God has bestowed upon us all. 
Richard Glossip was convicted of procuring the murder of a motel owner. The man who actually did the killing did not receive the death penalty. Welcome to the strange and inconsistent world of capital punishment, where the Bear spent most of his career as first a prosecutor, then as a defense lawyer. Glossip's execution has been briefly delayed.

Kelly Gissendaner was executed in Georgia, despite papal intervention. She, too was not the actual killer, and the killer did not get the death penalty. She was a model of rehabilitation, and sang Amazing Grace as they executed her. What is particularly poignant in the Gissendaner case was that the children eventually came to terms with their mother, who procured the death of their father. They gave up a final meeting with their mother to pursue a stay of execution.


The Face of Christ in a Killer

As the Bear noted, he has both prosecuted and defended these cases. He quickly learned that he had a gift for seeing the person behind the crime. He never forgot that they were human beings judged for the worst moment in their lives. A colleague named John O'Gara put it boldly and received much abuse for what he said. We worked together on the Chris Coleman case. (The Bear's role was minor.)

Some would say that if anyone deserved the death penalty, it was Chris Coleman. He was convicted of murdering his beautiful wife and his two handsome boys so he could start a new life with a sexy dog track waitress with whom he was having an affair. He worked for televangelist Joyce Meyers, so divorce was out of the question. A jury concluded that he strangled his family one by one with a length of twine. There was also evidence that he spray painted obscenities over their bodies as they lie in their beds to make police believe it was some sort of Helter Skelter scenario. Illinois abolished its death penalty shortly before it became a factor in Coleman's sentencing.

What John O'Gara said -- and the Bear applauded -- was this: "I look into Chris Coleman's face and see the face of Christ."

The Bear wonders if only those who have been privileged to defend a human life could get that. "In the image of God," to recall what the Church says, is, for Catholic lawyers like John O'Gara, a lived reality under the most challenging circumstances. It doesn't mean we approve, or like, or have sympathy for our clients. We know as much as anyone the horror of such a crime. The Coleman case still haunts the Bear. What has been seen cannot be unseen, and the memories are as vivid as the glossy photos of death's indignities: beauty ruined, life cut short. It isn't any kind of human response. It can only be supernatural, as Jesus saw His own image in the face of the Roman soldiers who crucified Him.


Conservative Litmus Test

The Bear knows from experience that conservative Catholics often let their conscience be formed by their party, rather than the Church. Those who approve the death penalty hold onto it with an unbreakable strength, as if it mattered to them personally. Sometimes the Bear thinks it is because "the other side," the liberals are generally opposed to it. We can't agree with them!

At any rate, the current teaching of the Church is clear. If you're going to going to take out section 2267, there's no principled reason for not removing any other section. Sometimes the Bear marvels that the Catholic left and right share the same penchant for not listening to the Church! That's human nature, the Bear supposes, to want to have our own opinion on everything. We are also a very polarized society in general.

The Bear mentioned that he had prosecuted a death penalty case. He was a conservative Republican Assistant Attorney General. The Bear has remained conservative, and has taken no delight in the Obama presidency. It is as a conservative and Catholic that he came face-to-face with Christ in the murderers he represented on the defense. It should not have to be added that he found in them the image of God not because they were murderers, but because, however much people love to call them "monsters," they're just men. We may (and do) disfigure the image of God, but the Bear is not aware of any means for eliminating it. 

The Church says this whole "image of God" thing is important. So the Bear sits, and pays attention.

The Bear has heard it said that capital punishment actually respects the image of God because the murderer killed someone in God's image. That's the old lex talionis wearing an ill-fitting theological dress. We do not restore to the victim what his murderer took. More to the point, one does not promote a good by attacking it. It is we, now, who either accept or refuse to accept that a killer is a human being in the image of God. Are we going to allow our Catholic faith to raise us above the killer? Or will we respond emotionally, willfully, and kill a brother or sister in the image of God despite what our Church says?

One of the hardest parts of Catholicism is sacrificing your own will, your own opinions, which Americans hold so dear.

In this matter, the Bear respectfully invites you, if you have made it this far, to join him in following the Roman Catholic Church's teachings on this matter. They are not hard to understand, and offer a good opportunity to show humility and obedience. You may also find yourself a little more peaceful for that.

2 comments:

  1. http://www.ewtn.com/library/catechsm/qaconf.htm

    The Bear does not know if you are familiar with, or respect the late Fr. Hardon, but his discussion on the CCC is consonant with the value the Bear places on it. In other words, the Bear holds it in higher regard than those, such as Scalia, and his unnamed canon lawyer friends, for example, who seem to relegate it to some "food for thought" category. If that were the case, and we're all left to make up our own minds about everything in the CCC, then the Bear hardly sees the bother.

    The Bear is certain adolescent boys will be pleased to have Justice Scalia's green light to take the razor blade to 2352 and 2354. Likewise, homosexuals can read, consider, and make an informed decision to ignore 2359. 'sAll good.

    This proves what the Bear has said before. A conservative (such as Scalia) will ALWAYS allow his views on the death penalty to be determined by his political philosophy, and a liberal will ALWAYS do the same. Why emotions run so high over such an issue that affects nearly nobody is beyond the Bear. Frankly, Scalia's position is, in the Bear's opinion, unworthy of him, nor would he accept such an argument in his court!

    So, anyone who wishes to thumb through the CCC making up their own minds about this and that is welcome to do so, and the Bear won't argue, as it would clearly do no good. The Bear is happy to have a resource that tells him how the Church views so many topics. It seems to him that as Catholics we ought to believe as the Catholic Church tells us we should!

    Bears have totally different politics from humans. A Bear might be against the death penalty, while being against gun control and abortion. Of course, should someone die after having their face bitten by a Bear, that falls under the rule of Unlucky or Incredibly Stupid, in which case it was clearly meant to happen and the Bear is innocent.

    The Bear in any case does not think a judge must personally believe in every law before he can rule on cases, any more than the Bear had to believe in murder to defend murderers. Since the Bear shall never be a judge, the question is moot.

    Justice Scalia is always a pleasure to read; his opinions are famous among lawyers for their style.

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  2. GREAT link, thank you!

    Fr. Hardon - specifically his catechism - was a major factor in my becoming Catholic. Not only did he explain everything clearly, usually starting with Scripture (important to an Evangelical), but he kept quoting others. He quoted St Francis de Sales so many times that I finally had to find his books; that was difficult in those days before Amazon!

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