Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fr. Rolheiser on the death penalty

This link, to the latest column by Rev. Fr. Ron Rolheiser O.M.I., appeared in Tuesday’s CathNews. Originally I had intended not to comment on this piece, since it is largely unsubstantiated waffle of the sort that one finds in the C.N.S. opinion/spirituality columns provided to Diocesan weeklies, but since in-principle opposition to the death penalty is one of the great errors of the day, I thought I might say a few words about it.

Fr. Rolheiser writes with the following premise in mind:

Rene Girard once wrote that the cross of Christ is the most revolutionary moral event ever in human history and its implications are still slowly unfolding within human consciousness.
Firstly: who is this René Girard? Is he a Pope, Bishop or Doctor of the Church? Likewise the Gil Bailie whom Fr. Rolheiser cites. Now I don’t doubt that, as Father puts it, “it is taking us many centuries to understand more fully what is contained in the revelation of the cross”, but what Fr. Rolheiser fails to explain is how an evolution from in-principle support for the death penalty, except where the common good might require the limitation of its application, to in-principle opposition to the death penalty, except where the defence of society might require it, can be considered to be a legitimate doctrinal development.

Fr. Rolheiser compares the following situations:

For example: It took the universal church more than 1500 years to understand that we may not use force and violence to spread the gospel or to silence those who do not agree with us. It took all the churches more than1800 years to understand and accept that slavery was wrong; It took all the churches nearly 2000 years (and Pope John Paul II) to understand and accept that capital punishment is wrong. And it has taken all the churches more than 2000 years to understand and accept somewhat more fully the equality of women.
Now firstly, the Church has never taught that we may use violence to spread the Gospel, but certainly it might legitimately be used in its defence. And slavery, understood as the ownership by one man of another man’s whole being, has never been compatible with the Gospel. Furthermore, an inequality in ontological dignity between the sexes has never been Church teaching either. So lumping capital punishment in with these other aberrations is quite unfair.

It seems also that Fr. Rolheiser does not grasp the significance behind the fact that the liceity of the death penalty as a punishment rather than just a deterrent or precaution was taught and practiced for some two thousand years—almost the entire era of human redemption.

His next comparison:

We too, like Al-Qaeda, had our own period of history wherein we believed that error had no rights and that violence and killing could be justified in God's name. Today, happily, within all the Christian churches, that is becoming harder to justify, irrespective as to whether that killing is abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, or pre-emptive war
(my emphasis)
is simply egregious and really quite uncalled for. Error has no rights, though those in error still have the right to come to truth and goodness. Capital punishment is a legitimate exercise of the authority that God entrusts to the state, and is not mere wanton ‘violence and killing’.

His implication of a moral equivalence between “abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, [and] pre-emptive war” suggests that he is a disciple of the ‘seamless garment approach’, but this approach is only legitimate with respect to innocent life; as Pius XII pointed out, the state does not deprive the condemned man of his right to life, since the man deprived himself of it by his actions.

I might add as a digression that Father’s reference to “pre-emptive war” is presumably a swipe at the Second Gulf War, which I agree was unjustified, though not merely by virtue of being pre-emptive. A pre-emptive strike could be justified if an intention imminently to attack is clear; no such imminence was evident in Iraq, regardless of whether Saddam did indeed possess weapons of mass destruction.

Essentially, then, Fr. Rolheiser’s opposition to the death penalty follows from a discounting of past teaching and practice and the disproportionate weighting of present teaching.

Finally, I point out that any reference to the virtue of justice is completely absent from Fr. Rolheiser’s piece. This is deplorable, but unsurprising, since it is only with reference to this cardinal virtue that the necessity of the death penalty can be understood.

Reginaldvs Cantvar

1 comment:

David said...

St Pius V in the Catechism of the Council of Trent, said that executions were an act of "Paramount Obedience to the [fifth] commandment."

The whole "rarely if ever" argument / consistent ethic of life seems to put JPII in the company of "Catholics for Choice"; he's essentially teaching that doctrine on life issues can change as society "evolves"; so all of those Saints who supported the rope were wrong? In mortal sin? "Magesterialist" Catholics whose idea of "Tradition" never extended beyond the last JPII encyclical really have to answer how it is that JPII turned the Church's teaching full-circle based on purely socialogical considerations...