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Episcopal Rhetoric: Precision Matters

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 04, 2011

The bishops of Arizona have joined their confreres in many other states by calling for the end of the death penalty. Neighboring New Mexico eliminated the death penalty last month, also with the support of the State’s Catholic bishops. Many other states had already done the same. We have no trouble with any of this.

But one of the reasons the Arizona bishops offered for their position gives us pause: “We firmly hold that capital punishment is state-sanctioned vengeance that is not in keeping with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” That’s a bizarre statement when compared with the constant teaching of the Church on punishment inflicted by the State, as for example in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense…. Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. (# 2266-7)

There is nothing about vengeance here. In fact, one of the most important reasons the legitimate public authority must take on the duty to punish offenders is to break the cycle of vengeance that is otherwise too often triggered by some injury. When “punishment” is meted out on a purely private basis, it always retains a quality of injustice which someone on the other side of a dispute feels constrained to redress. Assigning punishment for crime to the public authority is a civilizational advance precisely because it eliminates the element of vengeance and breaks the cycle of the personal vendetta.

The Catechism states clearly that “the efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good” (# 2266). It seems reasonable to suppose that those who favor the death penalty generally (as opposed to mobs demanding it in a particular instance) are simply seeking the most effective way to safeguard the public good and, as the passage quoted earlier suggests, to redress “the disorder introduced by the offense.”

My own opinion is that the arguments against the death penalty under contemporary circumstances outweigh the arguments in favor. The possibility of error in a judicial verdict is a grave cause for concern, and I do not believe that the death penalty is necessary to protect the innocent. There is little or no evidence to suggest that the death penalty is an effective deterrent. Even the fiscal advantage seems to lie with long-term incarceration rather than swift execution, so expensive has the process of imposing the death penalty become given the emphasis on caution and due process in modern states.

But to dismiss the death penalty as “vengeance” is not only profoundly mistaken but also an unwarranted insult to those who, in good conscience, reach a different conclusion, as Catholic teaching affords them the liberty to do. In fact this aspect of the Arizona bishops’ statement actually rather insultingly misleads all lay people, who bear the responsibility—as the bishops do not—of deciding whether and when the death penalty should be applied. In describing capital punishment as “vengeance”, the bishops in effect remove it completely as a moral possibility, robbing the laity of a responsibility which is theirs and theirs alone.

This is an abuse of episcopal authority. I grant that it is almost certainly an inadvertent abuse, an unfortunate result of the use of overheated language. But the careful use of language is essential to effective teaching. Poorly chosen words have the power to undermine the truth or even to state its opposite. In this instance, the Arizona bishops have stated with painful clarity that they “firmly hold” a falsehood. Especially for bishops, that is no small thing.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: tonydecker513018861 - Apr. 06, 2011 12:10 PM ET USA

    I do agree that the statement is outside of Episcopal authority. I am however, one that would side with those trying to outlaw it. The CCC teaches that the death penalty is allowable if it is the "only possible way of effectively defending human lives..." I believe it should be used in very grave circumstances, but I also believe it is overused and abused. It seems that our nation is not capable to use the death penalty as it was meant to be used.

  • Posted by: GabrielAustin9013 - Apr. 06, 2011 11:38 AM ET USA

    It is tiresome to learn that the bishops of a particular state or country or area have made such and such a decision. Bishops' opinions should affect their dioceses; they should be taken as the opinions of one bishop; of each bishop. Serious matters are not affairs of majority vote. I wonder when the last execution took place in Arizona. The Archbishop of Santa Fe congratulated himself for his efforts to eliminate the death penalty in New Mexico. The last execution took place 40 or 50 years ago.

  • Posted by: Steve214 - Apr. 05, 2011 7:39 PM ET USA

    Sensible article! I would only offer this caveat. Even if it is only a theoretical matter of principle, nobody who recognizes the dignity of human life can reasonable allow a murder to live who repeatedly murders after being sentenced to life in prison without parole. (Clearly, there are many cases where such a person kills at least one other person in prison, or after escape.)

  • Posted by: jacobtoo - Apr. 05, 2011 6:10 AM ET USA

    Why did the Pope say we in the first world should reject the death penalty? I bet it's that we are so steeped in the shedding of the innocent blood of unborn children, he thinks that even the legitimate "shedding of blood" is beyond our capacity to execute.

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