Monday, November 10, 2008

More from Fr. Harris and Dr. Costigan on the death penalty

A quite dreadful article appeared on the front page of yesterday’s Sydney Catholic Weekly, in which we heard more from Rev. Fr. Tim Harris on his opposition to the death penalty:

He said the Church’s position is clear: “we are against the death penalty in all cases”.

“We are pro-life in all its forms,” said Fr Harris, parish priest at Corinda Graceville in Brisbane.

“From my perspective I do not support the death penalty for the Bali bombers because I have no intention of stooping as low as they have in terms of their lack of respect for human life.

“I believe that humanity needs to retain its dignity and come up with other ways of punishing people who have done wrong.

“Murderers are individuals who need a punishment that fits the crime. A reciprocal putting to death is not the answer.”

Firstly, Fr. Harris is clearly quite wrong about the Church being “against the death penalty in all cases”; even if one were to concede that the death penalty were only permissible as a kind of lethal defence, the case of the Bali bombers is a good example of an execution justifiable on the grounds of protecting society, since the bombers remained influential while imprisoned and there was a risk of their supporters organising a break-out.

Secondly, ‘pro-life’ is really a shorthand for upholding the right to life, a right which it is possible for one to forfeit by one’s actions, as Pius XII taught in a speech of September 14, 1952.

Thirdly, we see repeated the notion of the death penalty as “stooping as low as [the bombers] have in terms of their lack of respect for human life”. In an earlier post I used a comparison to just war to show the inappropriateness of the notion of the death penalty as ‘reducing oneself’ to the level of the murderer. But an even better comparison might be the case of someone depriving someone else unlawfully of his liberty for a certain period; would anyone deny that imprisonment for an equal period (at least) would be a just sentence? Yet this is (superficially) just what the offender did. The difference, of course, is that the State has the authority to do so, and so it is with the death penalty. Abortion, murder and euthanasia are cases of someone innocent’s life being taken by someone who had no authority to do, whereas execution is the taking of someone guilty’s life by someone who has the authority to do so.

Fourthly, the attempt to imply that the death penalty entails a ‘loss of dignity’ is also false, since nothing can erase man’s ontological dignity, and the offender lost his operative dignity through his actions.

Fr. Harris’ final two sentences illustrate perfectly the illogic of his position: “Murderers are individuals who need a punishment that fits the crime. A reciprocal putting to death is not the answer.” What can one say about such a plain contradiction?

What Dr. Michael Costigan had to say, though, was even more egregious. Let me note firstly that the Weekly lauded Dr. Costigan as a “pro-life champion and former executive secretary of the Bishops’ Committee for Justice, Development, Ecology and Peace”. One wonders, then, why it did not contact the present executive secretary of the Committee. Also, what qualifies one to be a ‘pro-life champion’? I can recall no interventions from Dr. Costigan in the controversies over the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Bill or the abortion drug RU-486.

Now Dr. Costigan

says opposition to the use of the death penalty should be “universal and without reservation”.

“This applies to everyone under sentence of execution,” he said.

This is, again, quite false, even by the standards of John Paul II and the New Catechism. Errors of this sort are to be expected, but I was appalled by the following red-herring:

He added: “Of course, all decent people are outraged by the use of the death penalty in scandalous and utterly barbaric cases like the stoning to death of a young girl accused of adultery in Somalia.
Is this some sort of attempt at guilt by association? What does the persecution of an innocent girl who was the victim of rape have to do with the just punishment of three grown men who committed mass murder? Invoking a tendentious irrelevance like this is beneath the standards of mature discourse. Then Dr. Costigan says that

“It needs to be understood, however, that capital punishment diminishes all who use and defend it, whatever the circumstances.

“It is purely and simply an anti-life act of vengeance …

Capital punishment diminishes all who use and defend it? So Innocent III was ‘diminished’ by teaching that

Concerning secular power we declare that without mortal sin it is possible to exercise a judgment of blood as long as one proceeds to bring punishment not in hatred but in judgment, not incautiously but advisedly.
(Dz. 425,
What of the generations of Popes, Bishops and Doctors of the Church who used and defended it? What an insult; what arrogance.

Furthermore, does Dr. Costigan really fail to understand that, just as there is a distinction between righteous and malicious anger, there is a distinction between righteous and malicious vengeance? What of the Divine Vengeance that, for instance, the Catechism of the Council of Trent speaks of in its section on the Sacrament of Penance?

The utterances of Fr. Harris and Dr. Costigan may well represent a new low in the debate over the death penalty.

Reginaldvs Cantvar
Feast of St. Andrew Avellino, 2008 A.D.

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