Wednesday, March 24, 2004

Sucker for punishment
Well, fresh back from the trail of spin doctoring and a series of blog hall meetings to explain myself regarding the blessing of children, I may be raising another touchy subject now. Capital punishment.

First, what I hope will be the uncontroversial part. Last evening, Oklahoma executed Vietnamese national Hung Thanh Le for the brutal 1992 murder of his business partner. For the moment, lay aside whatever your opinion of capital punishment is. I think that is a fair request for the point I want to make in this paragraph. Mr. Le's execution had been twice delayed. The first time, just days before the execution, the Governor issued a stay to review the case after the Pardon & Parole Board recommended clemency (a rare recommendation in Oklahoma). The second time, the Governor, on request from Vietnam, issued a stay of execution WITHIN AN HOUR of the planned execution. The man had already eaten his "last meal" at that point and was in the cell next to the execution chamber. Now, I think that is cruel. And it is on that point that, I hope, readers will agree with me, regardless of one's opinion of capital punishment. I can't imagine what it must be like to know you are days from death and then to have it stopped. And then to be only minutes from death before it is stopped. I think that is a form of mental and emotional cruelty. Certainly, I am sure Mr. Le was thankful it was stopped, at least on two occasions, however, I can't imagine what such anticipation or anxiety must do to a person. I am not denying the terrible, brutal cruelty Mr. Le's victim experienced.

Now, the perhaps controversial part. Maybe I should post separately on capital punishment. Fr. Tharp can confirm that it is a sort of personal crusade of mine in this Archdiocese to see that the Church's authentic teaching regarding capital punishment is clearly and appropriately presented. What am I getting at? By and large, the doctrine on capital punishment is equated with the doctrine on abortion. One gets the impression, if not the outright misrepresentation of fact, that to be Catholic and in support of capital punishment is just as unallowable as to be Catholic and in support of abortion. The doctrine on capital punishment, complete with its more recent additions by Pope John Paul II, is presented as if capital punishment is never allowable under any circumstance. The entire tradition of 'legitimate defense' is ignored and, in fact, what the Church really and currently teaches regarding capital punishment is misrepresented.

The Church has always and still does recognize (no, Pope John Paul II's recent forceful and laudable addition to this doctrine has not changed this) that the State does indeed possess the right to execute someone convicted of the most heinous crimes. Pope John Paul II's development of this doctrine declares that out of respect for the dynamic reality that is the moral person, to offer time for penance and reconciliation, and to combat the culture of death, that the State ought to limit itself, to refrain from employing capital punishment. Notice what the Pope did not say. He has not denied that execution remains as a right that the State does possess. He has simply encouraged self-restraint. And notice, such wording is not the case with the far more serious issue of abortion. Catholic doctrine on abortion states that it is never allowable under any circumstance. In fact, the penalty of excommunication is attached to those who commit this grave sin with full knowledge and deliberate consent (the usual conditions applying). Such penalty does not exist regarding capital punishment. It remains that the State does have the right to do what it does.

I applaud Pope John Paul II's recent addition to the history of Catholic doctrine on capital punishment. I am encouraged by signs that society is listening and responding in certain sectors. I myself am not in support of the use of capital punishment. But, I do demand that authentic Catholic doctrine be clearly and honestly presented for what it is. I find it bothersome that many Catholic consciences have been placed in bad faith because of the misrepresentation of the doctrine on capital punishment. And I find that bothersome even as I am careful to tell such souls that if their support for capital punishment is motivated by vengeance, hatred, and blood lust, they had indeed better reform because it will not sit well with them on judgment day. But notice why I would tell such persons that -- it's because of what I judge their motivation to be, the intent of their support, not the fact of their support of capital punishment. The bottom line, questions of motivation aside, one can be a Catholic "in good standing" and be in support of capital punishment; one cannot be a Catholic "in good standing" and be in support of abortion.

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