Monday, October 6, 2008

Mr. Hayes and Dr. Costigan on the death penalty

An article in yesterday’s Sydney Catholic Weekly reported on the plans of Mr. Chris Hayes M.P. (my local Member) for “passing laws making it illegal for states and territories to reintroduce the death penalty.” But what was of more interest to me were the remarks of Dr. Michael Costigan, “former executive secretary of the Bishops’ Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace”, to whom the Weekly turned for comment. (This is the same Dr. Costigan who recently glibly asserted that the maxim that ‘error has no rights’ has been abandoned.) He said that

such a law, if adopted, could presumably be reversed in the future by a pro-death penalty administration, but one hopes such a return to support for barbarism would be more difficult to achieve after the passage of such legislation than it may be now.

He added: “Those pro-life advocates who are firm in their opposition to capital punishment believe that Australia should be as consistent as the Popes in calling for its abolition everywhere and in all cases, even where heinous crimes are involved.”
The report notes that

[Mr. Hayes’ notice of motion] asks Indonesia to “understand Australia’s principled position in relation to the imposition of the death penalty.”
So here we see several of the usual errors that crop up in discussion on the death penalty. Firstly, the notion that support for it is ‘barbarism’, in contrast, presumably, to the ‘principled position’ of the abolitionists. Secondly, the question of permanently valid Catholic doctrine on the matter. And thirdly, the notion that support for capital punishment is somehow a betrayal of the pro-life cause.

As regards the supposedly unprincipled barbarism of the pro-execution movement, one wonders who is the less principled: those who are so deeply infected with utilitarianism that they can only understand punishment as a means to other ends, or those who understand that punishment is an end in itself, as suggested by the status of justice as a cardinal virtue, to which other ends are subordinate.

And are we really expected to believe that dozens of generations of Catholics, spread over almost two millennia, were really just poor benighted barbarians awaiting the glorious dawn of the 1960s and the revelation that the death penalty is in fact immoral? What arrogance. As for the ‘consistency of the Popes’, presumably Dr. Costigan is not referring to Leo X, who condemned the error

That heretics be burned is against the will of the Spirit.

Or St. Pius V, whose Catechism of the Council of Trent taught that execution

is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder.

Or Pius XII, who taught, in a speech of September 14, 1952, that the State does not dispose of the condemned man’s right to life, since the condemned man forfeited it by his actions. And no doubt these Popes would just be the tip of the iceberg, whereas the Popes of the 1960s till now are the iceberg, as far as opposition to the death penalty goes.

As for the notion that support for the death penalty is a betrayal of the pro-life cause, it should be noted that we can only really speak of the innocent as having a right to life, since the duty not to kill does not cover execution. The falseness of the notion that execution is a breach of the right to life is apparent from the teaching of Pius XII that I have cited.

Reginaldvs Cantvar


IS said...

Mr. Latham's old electorate...

Cardinal Pole said...

"Mr. Latham's old electorate..."

Yes, but don't hold that against me!