Friday, August 3, 2018
A shortcoming of the Catholic debate (the past couple of days certainly included) over the death penalty is a frequent lack of attention to distinctly theological questions and how they might inform the debate. The best alternative to that theological sterility, I think, is the Anglican theologian Oliver O'Donovan, who has written perceptively (and ambivalently) about the death penalty for many years. Here is a bit from the conclusion of his essay responding to John Paul II's discussion of the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae:
I return in closing to the theological issue raised at the start: the failure of the encyclical to achieve a clear focus on the resurrection and its tendency to put the cross in its place, central to the salvation history of life but unrelated to the phenomenology of death. Now I can suggest a reason for this. John Paul’s failure, on the side of civil justice, to identify the link between judgment and mortality is reflected in a failure, on the side of death, to link mortality and judgment. Politically we have justice without death, anthropologically death without judgment….
The symbolic links of judgment and execution stand at the heart of what we understand about Christ’s reconciling death. We may be rid of ordinary uses of the death penalty in most Western states; I am glad to live in one where we are. We may one day be rid of it elsewhere, in Third World countries, Muslim societies, and so on. If we can achieve that responsibly, it will be a fine achievement – though we must be on our guard against irresponsible, crusading attitudes which fail to take the context (legal, economic, social, and moral) seriously. But we cannot be rid of the symbolic role that the death penalty plays in relating death to judgment. There will always be a death penalty in the mind – if, that is, we are all to learn to “die with Christ,” understanding our own deaths as a kind of capital punishment.
Oliver O'Donovan, "The Death Penalty in Evangelium Vitae," in Ecumenical Ventures in Ethics: Protestants Engage Pope John Paul II’s Moral Encyclicals, eds. Reinhard Hütter and Theodor Dieter (Eerdmans, 1998), 213–36 .