Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Justice or vengeance?

Avery Cardinal Dulles died recently and his death occasioned considerable discussion of his life and thought. He was widely regarded as one of the most important Catholic theologians of the modern era. Today the Weekly Standard publishes an article by Mark Tooley that explains Cardinal Dulles's [and Catholicism's] position on the death penalty.
Dulles observed that Scriptural support for the death penalty was consistent, starting with God's covenant with Noah: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image." The Mosaic code, obviously, ordained it for numerous offenses beyond murder. In the New Testament, he wrote, "the right of the State to put criminals to death seems to be taken for granted," including by Jesus. St. Paul, in Romans, apparently referenced the death penalty when he wrote that the magistrate who holds authority "does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute His wrath on the wrongdoer." ....

"The mounting opposition to the death penalty in Europe since the Enlightenment has gone hand in hand with a decline of faith in eternal life," Dulles observed. Capital punishment's demise in secularized countries seems tied to the "evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith."

Dulles insisted that Catholicism has "never advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty." He recalled "no official statement from popes or bishops, whether in the past or in the present, that denies the right of the State to execute offenders at least in certain extreme cases." Catholic teaching has justified capital punishment "on the ground that the State does not act on its own authority but as the agent of God, who is supreme lord of life and death." Problematically, the modern state today is "generally viewed simply as an instrument of the will of the governed," Dulles wrote, so that the death penalty is commonly seen as vengeance by a self-assertive, angry society rather than a divine judgment on objective evil.

Unlike the church, whose main focus is mercy, the state's focus is justice, Dulles explained. "In a predominantly Christian society, however, the State should be encouraged to lean toward mercy provided that it does not thereby violate the demands of justice." State agents who administer executions can do so without hatred and with respect, knowing that "death is not the final evil," and hoping that the condemned will "attain eternal life with God."

Dulles quoted from Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, which declared "as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system," cases mandating execution "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." The Pope, with the church's bishops, have prudentially, but not infallibly, concluded that modern states, although retaining their right to execute the guilty, should largely avoid the practice, "if the purposes of punishment can be equally well or better achieved by bloodless means, such as imprisonment." Dulles concluded: "I personally support this position."[more]
Dulles and the Death Penalty

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