The execution of Saddam Hussein (no I haven’t watched the video–I caught a glimpse of him going to his execution on the TV news at the end of last year and was struck by the way the executioners’ balaclava-masked faces reminded me of the various “executions” carried out by extremists in the Middle East) has generated not a little comment in the Catholic Blogosphere about the proper attitudes of Catholics to capital punishment.
The statement that generated the discussion was from the Vatican Press Office on Dec. 30, by Fr. Federico Lombardi:
Capital punishment is always tragic news, a motive of sadness, even when it’s a case of a person guilty of grave crimes. The position of the Catholic church against the death penalty has been confirmed many times. The execution of the guilty party is not a path to reconstruct justice and to reconcile society. Indeed, there is the risk that, on the contrary, it may augment the spirit of revenge and sow seeds of new violence. In this dark time in the life of the Iraqi people, it can only be hoped that all the responsible parties truly will make every effort so that, in this dramatic situation, possibilities of reconciliation and peace may finally be opened.
The relevant passages from the Catechism are as follows:
2266 Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge.
The primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment has the effect of preserving public order and the safety of persons. Finally punishment has a medicinal value; as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender [cf. Lk 23:40-43].
2267 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.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offence incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessary “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” [John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56
(It should be noted that the last paragraph was in fact added to the catechism in the second edition, one of the very few changes to be made to the overall text of the first edition of the catechism.)
On the First Things blogsite on January 4 Robert T. Miller (an assistant professor at the Villanova University School of Law) opines that Lombardi’s press statement inexcusably mixes authoritative Catholic teaching with “empirical judgements” in a way which is “highly controversial”. He writes:
The claim that executing Hussein will likely lead to more violence in Iraq than otherwise would be the case is, obviously, not a teaching of the Catholic Church on faith or morals. It is, rather, an empirical claim about contingent matters of fact, about what policies are likely to have what consequences in the real world.
. Since only pronouncements by the Catholic magisterium on matters of faith and morals can be binding upon the faithful, he concludes that an empirical judgement such as this is not binding upon Catholics. He points out the clear distinction in the church’s teaching between abortion, which is wrong per se, and capital punishment, which is (in some circumstances) permissible. He states that:
Catholics must consider what [the Roman pontiff or the bishops] say with great respect, but they must do so in the process of forming their own judgments on such matters.
Even with regard to the passage from the catechism cited above, he regards the first paragraph of 2267 as binding upon Catholics and the second paragraph as only needing to ” be respected and considered in forming one’s conscience”. His general judgment of the Vatican’s pronouncement therefore is negative, and he concludes that “such statements tend to engender more confusion than clarity”. My difficulty with Miller’s objection is that he seems to say that an empirical judgement cannot be a moral judgment, and therefore cannot be binding upon conscience.
Although he generally agrees with Miller on the doctrinal distinction, John L. Allen Jnr at All Things Catholic takes a more positive, and I think more helpful, attitude to Lombardi’s announcement. Allen also compares the church’s stance on abortion to the church’s stance on capital punishment, but rather than distinguishing between “faith and morals” and “empirical judgements”, he distinguishes between
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.
Capital punishment would be one example of the latter in current Catholic teaching, the just war doctrine would be another. In summing up the commentary that has been made by Catholic prelates in recent days on the death penalty, Allen points out that:
Nowhere in Vatican commentary was there a concession that the church’s position on the death penalty is not absolute, nor any indication that it’s up to the secular authorities rather than religious leaders to make this sort of decision in concrete circumstances. Instead, the tone was of clear moral condemnation, suggesting that as a practical matter, the execution of Hussein — or of anyone in this day and age — is unambiguously wrong.
it is worth reading Allen’s commentary in full, and also worth pondering why, among all the Church’s theologians, the only ones who seem to oppose the Church’s current stand on both war and capital punishment are American.