Friday, August 3, 2018

"State your peace tonight"

As you may have heard, yesterday Pope Francis promulgated a change to section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Section 2267 concerns the death penalty. From he first edition of the Catechism, which was promulgated in 1992 (published in English in 1994), to the second edition, which came out in 1997, this same section was revised to reflect what Pope John Paul II had written in his encyclical letter Evangelium vitae. Here is the revised text promulgated yesterday:
Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide


The footnote after the direct quote refers the reader to a speech given by Pope Francis on 11 October 2017 to those participating in a meeting convened by the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization. 11 October is a significant date because it marks the day on which, in 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council. It was on 11 October 1992, the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Council, that Pope John Paul II promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, by means of which he gave the Church its Vatican II Catechism, something the 1985 Synod of Bishops asked him to do.

This is the text of 2267 in the second edition of the Catechism:
The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. "If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

"Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]
To give you a complete picture of the history of 2267 in the forms promulgated by the ordinary papal magisterium, as opposed to various schemata that may have been proposed during the seven years it took to compose the Catechism, the first edition of the Catechism stated:
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, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person
In my view, the change between the first and second editions of the Catechism represented a greater development in Church teaching than Pope Francis's revision, which simply builds on the logic of the previous revision. Accompanying the revised text, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith sent a letter to bishops providing a fuller treatment of the matter.

There is a lot I could write about the changes and the reasons for them but I am going to push that off to another day, maybe. Besides, we have a traditio to get to.

I will confess my personal bias, which is always in favor of life regardless of the issue (i.e., abortion, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, war, etc.). This is my default setting, not only as a Christian but as a human being. I have opposed the death penalty since reading George Orwell's essay "A Hanging" when I was 17. While I recognize that, at least with regard to egregious cases that arguably merit the death penalty in which the guilt of the person has been duly determined, there is no absolute moral equivalency between the death penalty and abortion, I am puzzled by those who oppose abortion and yet whole-heartedly support the death penalty. It bears noting that, while not absolute, there is some moral equivalency between abortion and the death penalty, most obviously both include killing a defenseless person. However, I must admit that I am more puzzled by those who support abortion and oppose the death penalty.

Recently philosopher Edward Feser, along with Joseph Besette, published a full-throated defense of capital punishment: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. Fortunately, theologian David Bentley Hart took the time to respond to the book's outrageous thesis and poor argumentation. His initial review of Feser's and Bessette's book, "Christians & the Death Penalty," was published in Commonweal. His reply to Feser's response to his Commonweal review, "Further Reflections on Capital Punishment (and on Edward Feser)," was published in the on-line publication Church Life Journal. I have to state that, as a Christian, I cannot really wrap my mind around retributive punishment, which strikes me as being very much at odds with the teaching of Jesus Christ. In the course of human events, it is sometimes necessary for the Church re-discover the Gospel in its radical depths.

Since I invoked so-called "retributive justice," while it has to do with imprisonment and not the death penalty, - I live where retributive justice is practically an article of faith for the majority religion, including something called "blood atonement" (this does seem to be changing) - I read something the other day that broke my heart: "'I'm so sorry I was a coward that day': Man seeks parole for killing Utah trooper 25 years ago while 18." Of a crime committed 25 years ago (shooting and killing Utah Highway Patrol officer Dennis "Dee" Lund) by a then-18 year-old, now 43 year-old, who has always expressed deep remorse for his crime a representative for the family of the slain trooper said: "As a family, we want the max for him. I hate to say that. He's probably making a lot of progress. But that doesn’t help my family make progress. We still suffer. I don’t say he should suffer. But we just want him to pay his maximum sentence like it's designed." While I usually don't recommend this, I urge you to read the comments on the article. Sadly, many people arguing in favor of continued Rodney Lund's incarceration would likely be among the first to insist the United States is a Christian nation.

Tuesday evening, I went to a concert. Three bands performed: The Fixx, X, and the Psychedelic Furs, respectively. It was a great show. Of course, this gives me ample fodder for our Friday traditio for the next several weeks. I will begin with "Stand or Fall" by The Fixx.

Gaining popularity in the early 1980s, many of The Fixx's songs have a heavy Cold War vibe. Listening to "Stand or Fall" last Tuesday, I was struck by the renewed relevancy of its lyrics. I remember in the immediate aftermath of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the concomitant break-up of the Warsaw Pact news commentator Danial Schorr opining that the dangers of the bi-polar world look relatively safe when compared with what was to come as a result of a multi-polar world. If the 21st century has proven anything, it's the truth of Schorr's assertion. It seems to me that the U.S. has yet to find a strategic foothold in the multi-polar world.

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