A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


John Allen on capital punishment, the Vatican and Hussein

A thoughtful piece from John Allen on the hardening opposition in the Vatican to any use of capital punishment, as evidenced by the sharp criticism of the execution of Saddam Hussein.

About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

It is heartening to see that Rome now 'absolutely' sees the death penalty as essentially a barbaric act. This would seem a no brainer to those more authentic Christians of the first three centuries who sacrificed their lives, not others, for God. What else would one expect from a founder who accepted crucifixion rather than have his followers use force?What does it say when secular Europe seems to have it right on this one while religious America does not? Would Jesus say to those religious what he said to James and John: "You know not of what spirit you are?"Now if Rome will be more responsive with pedophilia and the bigger scandal to be revealed with reference to finances, the renewal of the church will be more evident. those inside it has never been a real secret as coverup was the constant mantra. How else could Cardinal Cody of Chicago offer thousand dollar bills all over Rome without rebuke?

Other than a problem with "creeping infallibiism," the movemnt toward a firm stand on principle on peace and the death penalty seem not only to be the case but widely welcomed.Nevertheless, in a community like my Atomic City, it will be broadly brushed aside in practice as naive by many faithful Catholics. I guess I fear that will be a broad reaction in the US as well.

Robert Miller, over at the First Things blog, had a disturbing take on the recent comments of various Vatican officials regarding Hussein's execution and the death penalty in general. Here are a couple of excerpts (note, too, the nauseating obsequiousness toward Fr. Neuhaus):"Speaking to the St. Thomas More Society of Philadelphia last spring, Fr. Neuhaus said, When it is not necessary for the bishops to speak on a particular subject, it is necessary that they not speak on that subject. As with everything Fr. Neuhaus says, there is a lot of truth in that."Snip . . . "Respect as I may what the Roman pontiff and the bishops say when speaking on matters other than faith and morals, I wish they would move in the direction of the policy suggested by Fr. Neuhaus. The reason is that many Catholics, even highly educated ones, are so poorly catechized that they dont distinguish between statements they are required to believe with theological faith, statements to which they ought give a religious submission of will and intellect, and other statements that they need only respect and consider in forming their own judgments."I suppose another way of putting this is to say that the bishops should shut up unless they're either repeating, robot-like, whatever was contained in the Borromeo Catechism, or unless they're in agreement with the ultimate repository of truth, Fr. Neuhaus. Otherwise, those poor uncatechized souls out there (read, those who don't to First Things or agree with Neuhaus) will be led astray.The saddest part of this post is the way Miller sidelines the bishops and leaves very little room for them to take up their prophetic role in the world. One shudders to think what the church would be like if bishops in the third and fourth centuries were to hew to these guidelines. Same for the Fathers of Vatican II.I am honestly baffled as to how these people can get away with this kind of stuff and still be lauded as exemplary Catholics. They claim to be faithful to Rome while they blithely disregard or openly oppose statements from bishops that they don't like. They loudly voice their suspicions of organizations like Voice of the Faithful, but then take it upon themselves to tell the bishops how to do their job. And I thought they were against cafeteria Catholicism!

Pius IX did not oppose capital punishment, and he is now beatified, is he not? Perhaps the prisons in the Papal states were not secure. Perhapt the abolition of the advocatus diaboli was short-sighted.Any civilized person will have been repelled by the execution of Saddam Hussein. As for capital punishment generally I agree with those who think it should be a last resort. I am not convinced that it never has any deterrent effect. I also am aware that it is impossible to prove an absolute negative in such matters.Most of the arguments against ca;pital punishment advanced by church spokesman seem to me pragmatic rather than founded on principle. John Paul seems to have been the first Bishop of Rome to find that slavery was intrinsically wrong. In doing so he revolutionized Church doctrine. He was also right. Will Benedict say that capital punishment is intrinsically wrong? This will be another revolution in Church doctine and that will not be the least interestingf thing about it. But if he does, will he be right. I am not sure. It will be interesting to see what aguments he offers.

In the 1970's and 1980's our parish had a resident priest who often emphasized that the Church allowed the death penalty. He continued to state that position as editor of the diocesan newspaper, frequently contrasting it with the absolute prohibition against abortion. At the time, I thought this man's fondness for execution a disservice to the pro-life cause. However, I also suspect a clerical unwillingness to admit change in church doctrine. Here I must bring up the name of Giovanni Battista Bugatti, 1780-1869, papal executioner, God help him, times 516.Link:

The interview with Cardinal Dulles is interesting, not least in light of his important 2001 essay. There, he states that opposition to the death penalty comes from the fact that "on balance, it does more harm than good". His focus is quite interesting. Whereas John Paul seemed to focus on the protection of society from the criminal, Dulles thinks there are other purposes of capital punishment, especially retributive justice. He claims that in modern secular societies, this is meaningless, and there is no way the death penalty can meet the criterion of the "symbolic anticipation of God's perfect justice". And when that goes, the death penalty becomes an instrument of vengeance, but is not only immoral, but can yield disproportionate evil effects. Dulles is clearlty concerned with continuity. But others who have opposed the death penalty are more strident: Abp.Chaput (no flaming liberal he!) seems to accept an authentic development of doctrine, noting that "humans learn the hard way, but eventually we do learn", comparing opposition to the death penalty to opposition to slavery. My problem with Dulles's argument is that it supposes that secular leaders in times past were better motivated than the secular authorities today. I'm not sure I buy that, quite frankly. I'm much more comfortable with the idea that human sin makes it almost impossible for us to ever meet the standard of true retributive justice absent all notion of vengeance, and that, for that reason, the death penalty is nearly always wrong (reduced to John Paul's narrow conditions). This is perhaps more of a break with the past that Dulles is comfortable with, but I think it a valid argument nonetheless. And, of course, John Paul's position is compatiable with both points of view.But whether you accept Dulles's logic or not, the real focus is (and should be) on vengeance, and this was clearly on the minds of the Vatican officials when they spoke about Saddam's hanging. Various American commentators who denounced them as "euro-weenies" fail to appreciate this, and it is they (not the Vatican) who are out of step with the traditional Catholic approach to the death penalty.

Here is the video of Sadaam's execution if you are so inclined.

The objection to capital punishment as a form of vengeance is certainly valid, but that can also be an objection to any form of punishment. A recent case hereabouts concerned a woman who drank excessively and then drove her car north in a south-bound lane. The result was a head on crash. The woman survived as did the other driver, but he did suffer serious injury. However a teen age passenger in the woman's car was killed. The judge has indicated that prison time will be involved when he accepted the woman's guilty plea. What is the justification for prison time or for any punishment. Certainly a desire for vengeance is not a justification. And nothing can repair the damage done. I can think of two reason for punishment. One is that it reinforces the lesson for the woman that her recklessness was no small thing, and one can hope that she will have learned something. Another is that the publicity may warn others that drunken driving is a serious matter. It is difficult to measure the deterrent effect on others, but one can hope.All that said, I have come to the conclusion that the death penalty is probably never justified. As it happens I am from Rhode Island where the death penalty was abolished in the 19th century. The most diffcult case is that of a person who murders a guard or fellow prisoner while incarcerated. Perhaps solitary confinement would then be appropriate.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment