Friday, November 13, 2009

The Execution of the Beltway Sniper

I suppose this should be a separate post, commenting on part of the last one.

As a committed, faithful Catholic who takes Catholic social thought seriously, and as a professional theologian well-read in the Catholic tradition, I fully approve of the execution of John Allen Muhammad.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is true, states, "If . . . 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 . . . ."

But this is intentionally vague language: what is meant by "the concrete conditions"? Does that phrase not specifically distinguish the problems of a particular time and place as against the more general demands of justice? Thus the conclusion begins, not "always," but "Re vera nostris diebus": Today, in fact . . . .

But the Catechism begins its treatment of capital punishment by stating:

"Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty 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, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender. [Thus] the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertaiment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty . . . ."

We thus have an odd -- perhaps deliberately odd -- disjunction. On the one hand, the death penalty is unnecessary now because it is not necessary to protect other people. On the other hand, the death penalty is sanctioned by tradition not just, not even primarily, to protect other people, but for the sake of the offender.

And the tradition is full of stories of people converting precisely in the shadow of the gallows. Punishment is medicinal because it manifests the gravity of the crime and allows the criminal to make expiation, to redress the disorder caused by his offense. It is no coincidence, in light of this traditional teaching, endorsed by the Catechism, that the man to whom Jesus says, "Today you will be with me in paradise" is a criminal who "voluntarily accepts" his cross as just "expiation" for his crimes.

In this light, we might say it is the height of self-centeredness and injustice for liberals in our society -- who, along with their culture of death, have lost all conception of justice and virtue -- to try to deny a mass murderer the opportunity to suffer the just penalty of his offense. The true "correction of the offender" is not served by letting someone sit in jail for the rest of his life while society tells him we're afraid to think about the gravity of his crime. Ironically, Dead Man Walking, a film intended to be anti-death penalty, is a beautiful (if awful) depiction of precisely how the death penalty is society's way of expressing love for the criminal. Sean Penn's character, a reasonable depiction of many characters who have fallen to the depths of murderous depravity, is able to convert only in the shadow of the gallows.

I submit that it is a profoundly important aspect of social justice and serious Christian political philosophy that we value the conversion of the sinner over our own fears of getting our hands dirty. The political order exists to make people better, and to help them get to heaven.

I also submit that the key phrase in the John Paul II/Catechism concern about the death penalty might be "legitimate authority." John Paul II lived under the totalitarianism of the Soviets, with its absolute unconcern for the person -- including, certainly, for the "correction"and conversion of criminal offenders -- and then under the regime of liberal Old Europe, with its utter "loss of the sense of sin" (see John Paul's beautiful discussion of this at the end of Chapter Two in Dominum et Vivificantem). In these cases, capital punishment could never be approached as a kind of "redress," "expiation," and "medicine." But I simply assert: Virginia is a profoundly different culture from Soviet Russia.

Finally, I submit that Benedict XVI has intentionally made no mention whatsoever of John Paul's concerns about the death penalty, perhaps in light of a different cultural experience and a recognition that Soviet Russia does not define the modern world. In the 1950's, when these two great men were coming of age, the Soviet jackboots were crushing John Paul's Poland while the genuinely saintly Konrad Adenauer was prime minister of Benedict's West Germany; John Paul only emerged from behind the Iron Curtain when he was already an old man, in 1978, by which time all of Catholic Europe had fallen to secular liberalism. It does make for a different estimation of legitimate authority.