Saturday, May 28, 2005
BAINBRIDGE ON SALETAN ON BUSH ON LIFE: SOME CLARIFICATIONS ABOUT THE CHURCH, JOHN PAUL II, AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Some relevant points.
1. The official position on the Church--that is, the position of the magisterium--has long been that it is not "in principle" immoral for the state to impose the death penalty.
2. An important part of the justification for this position was that, in the words of the Angelic Doctor,
By sinning man departs from the order of reason, and therefore falls away from human dignity, insofar as man is naturally free and exists for his own sake, and falls somehow into the slavery of the beasts, so that he may be disposed of according to what is useful to others. . . . Therefore, although it be evil in itself to kill a man who preserves his human dignity, nevertheless to kill a man who is a sinner can be good, just as it can be good to kill a beast. . . .
As E. Christian Brugger has explained:
"Though the Catholic tradition has always affirmed the absolute immunity of innocent human life from intentional attacks and destruction, moral culpability for gravely wrong acts has traditionally been understood to forfeit that status. The tradition is quite clear that the lives of those who deliberately commit serious crimes are not inviolable . . . . [Thomas] Aquinas says that a grave sinner 'falls' from human dignity and may be treated as a beast, Pius XII that a dangerous criminal, 'by his crime, . . . has already disposed himself of his right to live.' In both cases, the life of the malefactor through the malefactor’s own deliberate act(s) becomes violable."
Brugger goes on to explain, however, that “[t]his is not the teaching of the  Catechism [of the Catholic Church] or of [the pope’s 1995 encyclical] Evangelium Vitae. In fact, John Paul II emphatically states in the latter that ‘Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity’ (no. 9).” The Church’s new position is that we human beings cannot forfeit our inherent dignity, because God’s love for us—which is the fundamental ground of our inherent dignity—is unceasing. The Administrative Committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently declared “each person’s life and dignity must be respected, whether that person is an innocent unborn child in a mother’s womb . . . or even whether that person is a convicted criminal on death row.”
3. So, the man-becomes-beast justification--the one-can-forfeit-one's-dignity justification--is no longer available as a (partial) buttress for the traditional teaching of the Church that it is not in principle immoral for the state to impose the death penalty.
4. Indeed, the position of John Paul II--and of such traditionailst stalwarts as Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Finnis--is that it is in principle immoral for the state to impose the death penalty. Yes, the position of John Paul II is more radical that the official position of the Church. JP II taught that to execute a human being is to fail to respect “the inalienable dignity of human life”; it is to treat him as if he lacks inherent dignity.
Why did John Paul II teach that it is always morally forbidden to kill any human being, innocent or not, intentionally? Brugger has explained that to kill someone intentionally is necessarily to want to kill him (though it is not necessarily to want to be in the situation in which one feels constrained to want to kill him), and to want to kill a human being, no matter what “beneficial states of affairs [killing him] promises, . . . is contrary to the charity we are bound to have for all.” By contrast, to kill someone with foresight but not intent is not necessarily to want to kill him; indeed, it may be that one would rejoice if one’s action did not result in killing anyone, even if it is virtually inevitable that one’s action will yield death.
So, according to John Paul II, as interpreted by Brugger, one may never kill a human being intentionally: “[T]he intentional destruction of a person’s life” is necessarily a failure of love; it is necessarily “contrary to the charity we are bound to have for all”; as such, it is necessarily a failure to respect “the inalienable dignity of human life.” To respect the inalienable dignity of a human being—to treat a human being as if he has inherent dignity, not as if he lacks it—is to treat him lovingly; to fail to treat him lovingly—to act “contrary to the charity we are bound to have for all”—is to fail to respect his inherent dignity. (“[W]hereas ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself’ represents the Greek of the Septuagint (Leviticus 19:18) and of the New Testament, the Hebrew from which the former is derived means rather ‘You shall treat your neighbor lovingly, for he is like yourself.’”) Because to execute a human being is necessarily to kill him intentionally, one may never execute a human being. For government to execute a human being is necessarily for it to treat him as if he lacks inherent dignity. According to this “unconditionalist” principle, there are no conditions in which it is morally permissible to execute a human being—or, more generally, to kill a human being intentionally. The moral impermissibility of such action is unconditional: No matter what conditions obtain—even if, for example, in a particular society capital punishment has been shown to have a significant deterrent effect—to kill a human being intentionally is beyond the moral pale.
5. So, make your choice: (1) The official position of the Church, which Brugger argues (and I agree) can no longer be justified. (2) John Paul II's radical position. (3) Some other position.
But what one should no longer do is proceed in blissful ignorance of the fact that the official position of the Church and the position of John Paul II are not the same.
If I had to choose between the two positions, I would choose JPII's position, which in my judgment has an integrity that the official position of the Church utterly lacks, now that the man-becomes-beast rationale has been excommunicated.
[For citations and fuller argument, which I provide in my recent essay on Capital Punishment and the Morality of Human Rights, click here.]