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Monday, September 26, 2011

Can the Death Penalty Be Pro-Life?

Richard Land in an article at the Washington Post thinks so. I'm not quite as convinced as he is.

I sympathize with his reasoning. People who are undoubtedly guilty of heinous crimes sure do seem to deserve death. I do not know how I would react as the father or husband of a victim of a serious crime. I would certainly be grieved beyond my imagination of grief, and angrier than I have ever been. I do not know what that could feel like, because it exceeds my experience.

Yet the Catholic Church has said more than once that a civilized society ought not resort to the death penalty if the protection of society from that same criminal can be attained in other ways. As a Catholic, I must take what the Church says seriously -- and since the arguments the Church presents do not rely strictly upon Catholic doctrine, everyone else ought to give these arguments serious consideration too. So there are two things to look at: What the criminal deserves, and what society needs.

If justice is tempered by mercy, and the needs of society can be achieved while being merciful, then mercy should prevail. Easy for me to say, considering my loved ones are at the moment safe. Maybe I would see things differently if my circumstances were different.

But ethical principles are universal and apply also to the grieving as much as to the clear-headed. While it may be permissible for civil authorities to use the death penalty, that does not bind civil authorities into actually using it. If a criminal has thrown away his right to live in a free society by his crimes, the penalty can be achieved by removing him from society or by killing him. If a secure way to removing him exists without killing him, then civil authorities should choose that as the means to achieving their goal of protecting society.

Killing someone is always serious business. The Catholic Church recognizes the rights of civil authorities to use lethal force in the protection of the innocent whether it be in a just war or by the death penalty, just as it recognizes the use of lethal force by individuals when it is necessary. But, taking the latter -- what are the ethics that govern the use of lethal force as self defense? First, the use of force should be proportionate to the risk, so there has be a legitimate and real fear of being killed or seriously injured to use potentially lethal force. Second, the use of potentially lethal force should also be the only available means, so if non-lethal force could stop the aggressor, it should be used instead.

I use the word "potentially" by intent. If I am being attacked and I have a gun and the use of that gun is the only way to protect myself in that moment, and disabling the aggressor would accomplish my protection, I should aim for disabling him. If mere disablement would not do it, I should aim for his body, hoping I do not actually kill him. The death of the aggressor is acceptable under the principle of double effect. The secondary effect of his death is foreseen and accepted, but not primarily intended. I should not want to kill him. I should want to stop him. I should accept the possibility of his death only as an unfortunate consequence of the circumstances.

As a Catholic, I must be concerned not only for my own eternal welfare, but also that of the assailant. Yes. Getting the assailant into heaven should be a concern of the victim, believe it or not. It hardly conduces to my own eternal welfare, not to mention his, to wish him dead and to kill him in the midst of his committing a mortal sin and under circumstances in which I might also be meeting God.

With the death penalty, the death of the criminal is expressly desired and accomplished cooly, after a long deliberation, and not in the heat of an immediate and serious conflict. This at least affords the criminal a chance to repent and reconcile to God before he dies. But that same time also demonstrates to civil authorities that the criminal can be removed from civilized society without killing him.

Also, I wonder where the virtues of forgiveness and mercy come into play with the death penalty. Can a grieving father forgive the loss of his beloved child through a brutal and heinous murder? I do not know. Is the death penalty consistent with such forgiveness? Can a society forgive? I do not know these things. But it seems to me that forgiveness is a trait of civilized people more than is vengeance. Mercy is higher and a greater act of power than is justice without mercy.

Jesus said of mercy, The measure with which you measure shall be measured out to you. Forgive, so that  you may be forgiven. I hope if I ever am unfortunate enough to sit face to face with my daughter's killer, I would be to him like I would want God to be with me. All of our sins are guilty of the death of Jesus. It is Jesus's suffering by which those same sins are forgiven. What a mystery. If my pious daughter is with God, and I suffer on earth, could not the sins against her and me somehow turn into the salvation of her killer? What harm and what good would come of trying? Of course, being merciful and forgiving does not necessarily mean not using the death penalty. But it leans in that direction.

All this is easy to say.

And I am convinced that civil authorities need to have the death penalty available to them. It's a matter of use.

But "pro-life" reflects an attitude toward its use that I think is rather different than Richard Land's take on the matter.

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