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Capital Punishment Revisited

December 9, 2017 Frontpage No Comments

By CHRISTOPHER MANION

Here’s a highly recommended book that sheds the patient, clear light of reason on the issue of capital punishment. Every U.S. bishop should read it.

+ + +

Edward Feser and Joseph M. Bessette: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, $24.95). Visit ignatius.com or call 1-800-651-1531.

In recent years, position statements and lobbying efforts of the USCCB have ranged across a wide variety of prudential issues, from global warming and tax policy to immigration and the death penalty.
There are many policy approaches to such issues that might conform to the precepts of legitimate Catholic social teaching, so Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Church, requires that action on in this area be left to the laity.
However, leaders and bureaucrats at the USCCB routinely violate that magisterial teaching, and pretend that theirs is the only permissible “Catholic” position when they choose a particular agenda item to champion.
Over the years, this bad habit has put the faithful in a position of delicacy, patiently and charitably reminding the bishops that they are trespassing in the realm that is the property of the laity.
This is not to say that the political positions taken by the conference on prudential matters necessarily violate the faith. Even though the agendas most aggressively supported by the conference are usually borrowed from the platform of the Democrat National Committee, it is permissible for Catholics to embrace many of these opinions.
However, many alternatives that do not embrace the fundamental principles of the socialist welfare state are also consistent with Catholic teaching. In other words, these are matters on which good Catholics can disagree. They lie within the broad realm of freedom that the Catholic faith uniquely offers in political and social issues.
Do the bishops ever consult the laity regarding these alternatives? Alas, seldom if ever. In fact, the bishops make no pretense that their views represent those of the faithful. Even though they often champion “dialogue” with Muslims, sodomites, and heretics, dialogue with their orthodox critics is a waste of their time, since theirs is the only “moral” position.
And we the faithful must remember: The bishops’ serial violations of Lumen Gentium would be just as egregious if they opposed the Democrats’ welfare-state agenda and celebrated the free-market platform of the GOP. Their consecrated task simply requires that they steer clear of that territory altogether.

A Model Of Catholic Scholarship

Feser and Bessette’s monumental work is so welcome in so many ways. It offers a model for the thorough, careful, and charitable approach that the faithful must embrace to address the myriad of issues that lie in the realm of the laity. This task is indeed difficult, since the bishops who opine on these issues do not often return the favor. In fact, their episcopal authority is brandished as a symbol of their agenda’s moral superiority.
In fact, what has come to be called the “Seitz Syndrome” prompts the prelate to respond to critics with what that beleaguered bishop of El Paso admits is anger, not rationality. Hence, that syndrome’s targets among the laity must brace themselves, since they will be called “hypocrites” and “Pharisees” for daring to disagree with their prelates’ politics.
With all this in mind, Feser and Bessette deserve our thanks for taking on this thankless but critical task. They know that a work like theirs must be taken on as a labor of love; the writer accepts the likelihood that the hierarchy will take little notice of views not their own.
Alas, our bishops’ bureaucracy boasts hundreds of well-paid “experts” drawn from the democratic and socialist left who have been embedded there for decades. The faithful have paid their salaries twice: in our first collections on Sunday and in our federal taxes. The writer who dares confront this well-heeled bureaucratic hive will be on his own. Even in the best of worlds he will not hear the lapdog media applauding, nor will he expect pats on the back from his pastor and bishop.
Regarding capital punishment, the bishops’ strenuous advocacy is well-known. Several Catholic bishops were among the first signers of the “National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty” last May.
Yes, Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict have called for its abolition; they stressed that their opinions were not magisterial, but that rational voice has faded. So today it falls to the laity to explain the principles underlying the issues of crime and punishment, laying out the arguments to explain the principles in the light of the rich tradition of Catholic thought. After all, the laity has a fundamental right to the truth, including when it comes to capital punishment.
And the truth is exactly what Feser and Bessette offer in their impressive study. Since popular arguments against the death penalty are often based on sentiment, they take great care in presenting a clear and rational discussion to shed the patient, clear light of reason on the issue. The authors do a masterful job, addressing the issue of capital punishment from the point of view of the Natural Law, Church teaching, and theological and philosophical anthropology.
A fascinating chapter discusses the challenge of serving salvation in the world and salvation in the next in the context of real crimes. The authors even address, in charity and at length, the variety of positions expressed over the years by the bishops themselves.
Here the authors cannot avoid drawing a painful conclusion: “Unfortunately, churchmen have in recent years not been equally respectful of the authority and duty of public officials to exercise their prudential judgment in applying Catholic social teaching when it comes to the death penalty.”

The Burden Of Bureaucracy

Yes, busy bishops must often assign to their staffs, lawyers, and advisers the detailed studies that inform the positions they take publicly. Well, it’s time for a change: Simply put, every bishop should read this book.
Can he deal with its rational analysis shorn of sentiment and opinion? The authors have written so clearly and cogently that the reader who supports abolishing the death penalty can at least say that he has honestly considered the best possible arguments against his own position. In fact, the authors make the bishops’ arguments better than they make them themselves!
The authors write that “no Catholic may condemn capital punishment as intrinsically unjust, though a Catholic may still oppose the use of the death penalty on prudential grounds. But we will also show that there are no good prudential grounds for opposing it and that there are powerful prudential grounds not only for maintaining it but for applying it with some regularity.”
They continue with a blow to the bombast so often heard from chanceries: “many Catholics today glibly assert that capital punishment is incompatible with promoting a ‘culture of life’….It is simpleminded sloganeering, not serious thinking.”
With this particular point the authors put their finger on a regrettable tendency that has become a bad habit of hierarchs when defending their opinionated agendas. The pro-life movement — led since its inception by the laity, not the hierarchy — has championed the powerful symbol of “pro-life” as an irrefutable tribute to the reality of the unborn child’s humanity.
So it is distressing, but not surprising, that many peddlers of political palaver have tried to hijack the “pro-life” label and apply it to their personal political agenda, on particulars ranging from foreign aid and tax policy to immigration and “global warming.”
That rhetorical dodge, reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty’s wordplay, smacks too much of an acquiescence to what Pope Benedict called the “Dictatorship of Relativism.” It serves only to dilute the Church’s adamant defense of life, as well as to delude the public regarding the honest use of words.
This beautifully researched and clearly written work will now become the standard Catholic work on capital punishment. But will it convince even one bishop?
That prospect is a false hope and a distraction. In this and all efforts, the writer must have the goal not of persuading the hierarchy but of telling the truth, and letting the truth tell its own story. And the story told by this brilliant work is indeed worth telling.

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