Friday, September 21, 2012

The Death Penalty and Human Digntity

This is the first of a series of posts to examine the death penalty.

It is easy to see that many priests and bishops are troubled by the death penalty.  It would be troubling if they were not, since it is their calling to be shepherds.  The honest ones will admit that Catholic teaching does not demand the absolute abolition of the death penalty, but they argue that consideration of human dignity means that it should practically be abolished.  My argument is that it is precisely because of human dignity that the death penalty should not be absolutely abolished.

We humans have three claims to dignity.

  1. "And [God] said: Let us make man to our image and likeness.... And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them."
  2. "For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man."
  3. "For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures."
One of the consequences of our first claim to dignity -- that we are created in the image and likeness of God -- is that we are moral actors.  This sets us apart from mere animals.

Without this understanding, it is impossible to understand anything about any kind of punishment for crimes.  That is why it is unfortunate that the Catechism places so much emphasis on the "practical" side of the question.  If a tree drops a limb that kills someone, it might be deemed dangerous and removed, which we would find rational, or it may be chopped down in a fit of fury even though it poses no further threat, an act we would certainly find irrational.  It is not likely that many would find it irrational, though, to prosecute and jail Edger Ray Killen for the murders in 1964 of three civil rights workers, even though at the time of the trial in 2005 Killen was 80 years old and no longer a threat to society.  The tree is not a moral agent, Killen is.

Where I come from, there is an expression:  so-and-so is "not worth hanging".  It is an expression that must not be taken literally.  We can really be indebted to another person, but not to a useful tree; justice may call for the execution of someone guilty of terrible crimes, but it will never call for the death of a tree.  Any attempt to save the lives of condemned criminals by denying that they are more morally significant than a tree must be resisted, precisely because of the human dignity the Church defends.

The point of this post is only to answer a question that Msgr. Pope asked me some time ago when we were disagreeing about the death penalty:  "Why is this important to you?"

This barely touches the surface of the subject of the death penalty, but this will have to be enough for part 1.

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