If Only You Spoke Hovitos

January 9, 2007 § 15 Comments

John Allen worries that the Magisterium is heading toward functional pacifism in war and an absolute-in-practice ban on the use of the death penalty:

At the level of application, at least, it would seem the debate is almost over, and the abolitionists are winning.

Usually this sort of discussion goes off the rails before it even gets started. Allen uses moral categories like “ontic absolutes” and “practical absolutes” (I rather suspect that the latter term is self-contradictory) in making the case that when the Magisterium describes the circumstances necessary for an execution to be just She is being too strict, and anyway people can disagree about circumstances. I note for the record that the Magisterium doesn’t use these categories (“ontic absolutes” and “practical absolutes”) when she talks about moral theology. The Magisterium talks about moral theology in terms of the object (chosen behavior), intentions, and circumstances of human acts. I humbly suggest that when people try to “do” Catholic moral theology without using the terms that the Magisterium uses (or cognates of those terms), they are probably astray after the first sentence.

Also for the record, now that we are moving toward the use of Catholic terminology to talk about Catholic moral theology, people don’t disagree only about circumstances: they also disagree, with just as much vehemence and sincerity (or their lack), about what behavior was chosen (the object of a given act) and with what intentions.

This idea that the principles that the Magisterium teaches about circumstances are a more – or less – legitimate subject for argument than objects and intentions is simply false. It is just that for some people the object of the act they want to do (or to formally support) is their Gethsemane; for some the intentions; and yes, for some, the circumstances. And a taxonomy of American moralists could probably be constructed based on which one of those each moralist most diligently works to obfuscate.

(HT: Sacramentum Vitae)


§ 15 Responses to If Only You Spoke Hovitos

  • Step2 says:

    I used to speak Hovitos, back in the day. I intended to tell you about it, but I chose to forget it since the circumstances were so unfavorable. In practical terms, it was absolutely impossible to contradict anything anybody said.

  • Dudley Sharp says:

    Pope John Paul II made significant errors within his Evangelium Vitae, with regard to the death penalty and, as a result, those teachings should not have been enterred into the Catechism. Please review.Pope John Paul II: a pro-death penalty essayby Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters(contact info, below)October 1997, with subsequent updates thru 8/06 SEE ADDITIONAL REFERENCES AT THE END OF THIS DOCUMENT In 1997, the Roman Catholic Church decided to amend the 1992 Universal Catechism to reflect Pope John Paul II’s comments within his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). Therein, the Pope finds that the only time executions can be justified is when they are required “to defend society” and that “as a result of steady improvements . . . in the penal system that such cases are very rare if not practically non existent.”  This is, simply, not true.  Murderers, tragically, harm and murder, again, way too often. Three issues, inexplicably, escaped the Pope’s consideration.  First, in the Pope’s context, “to defend society” means that the execution of the murderer must save future lives or, otherwise, prevent future harm.    When looking at the history of  criminal justice practices in probations, paroles and incarcerations, we observe countless examples of when judgements and procedures failed and, because of that, murderers harmed and/or murdered, again. History details that murderers murder and otherwise harm again, time and time again — in prison, after escape, after improper release, and, of course, after we fail to capture or incarcerate them.   Reason dictates that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and/or murder again than are executed murderers.   Therefore,  the Pope could err, by calling for a reduction or end to execution, and thus sacrifice more innocents, or he could “err” on the side of protecting more innocents by calling for an expansion of executions. History, reason and the facts support an increase in executions based upon a defending society foundation.   Secondly, if social science concludes that executions provide enhanced deterrence for murders, then the Pope’s position should call for increased executions.   If  we decide that the deterrent effect of executions does not exist and we, therefore, choose not to execute, and we are wrong, this will sacrifice innocent lives and also give those murderers the opportunity to harm and murder again.   If we choose to execute, believing in the deterrent effect, and we are wrong, we are executing our worst human rights violators and preventing such murderers from ever harming or murdering again – again, saving more innocent lives. No responsible social scientist has or will say that the death penalty deters no one.  Quite a few studies, including 8 recent ones,  find that executions do deter.   As all prospects for negative consequence deter some,  it is a mystery why the Pope chose the option which spares murderers and sacrifices more innocent lives.   If the Pope’s defending society position has merit, then the Church must actively support executions, as it offers an enhanced defense of society and greater protection for innocent life. Thirdly, we know that some criminals don’t murder because of their fear of execution.  This is known as the individual deterrent effect.  Unquestionably, the incapacitation effect (execution) and the individual deterrent effect both exist and they both defend society by protecting innocent life and offer enhanced protections over imprisonment. Furthermore, individual deterrence assures us that general deterrence must exist, because individual deterrence could not exist without it.  Executions save lives.   Therefore, the Pope’s defending society standard should be a call for increasing executions. Instead, the Pope and other Church leadership has chosen a position that spares the lives of known murderers, resulting in more innocents put at risk and more innocents harmed and murdered —  a position which, quite clearly, contradicts the Pope’s, and other’s, emphasis on defending society. Contrary to the Church’s belief, that the Pope’s opinion represents a tougher stance against the death penalty, the opposite is true. When properly evaluated, the defending society position supports more executions. Had these issues been properly assessed, the Catechism would never have been amended  —  unless the Church endorses a position knowing that it would spare the lives of guilty murderers, at the cost of sacrificing more innocent victims.   When the choice is 1) sparing murderers, resulting in more harmed and murdered innocents, who suffer through endless moments of incredible horror, with no additional time to prepare for their salvation, or 2) executing murderers, who have on average, an additional 10 years on death row to prepare for their salvation, and saving more innocents from being murdered,  the Pope and the Catholic Church have an obligation to spare the innocent, as Church tradition, the Doctors of the Church and many Saints have concluded. (see reference, below) Pope John Paul II’s death penalty stance is his own, personal prudential judgement and does not bind any other Catholic to share his position. Any Catholic can choose to support more executions, based upon their own prudential judgement, and remain a Catholic in good standing. Furthermore, prudential judgement requires a foundation of reasoned and thorough review. The Pope either improperly evaluated the risk to innocents or he did not evaluate it at all.  A defending society position supports more executions, not less. Therefore, his prudential judgement was in error on this important point of fact. Furthermore, defending society is an outcome of the death penalty, but is secondary to the foundation of justice and biblical instruction. Even though Romans and additional writings do reveal a “defending society” consideration, such references pale in comparison to the mandate that execution is the proper punishment for murder, regardless of any consideration “to defend society.”  Both the Noahic covenant, in Genesis 9:6 (“Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.”), and the Mosaic covenant, throughout the Pentateuch (Ex.: “He that smiteth a man so that he may die, shall be surely put to death.”  Exodus 21:12), provide execution as the punishment for unjustifiable/intentional homicide, otherwise known as murder.  These texts, and others, offer specific rebuttal to the Pope’s position that if “bloodless means” for punishment are available then such should be used, to the exclusion of execution. The Pope’s prudential judgement does not trump biblical instruction. Most telling is the fact that Roman Catholic tradition instructs four elements to be considered  with criminal sanction. 1.  Defense of society against the criminal. 2.  Rehabilitation of the criminal (including spiritual rehabilitation). 3.  Retribution, which is the reparation of the disorder caused by the criminal’s transgression. 4.   Deterrence It is a mystery why and how the Pope could have excluded three of these important elements. In doing so, though, we can confirm that his review was very incomplete and, thus, improper.   At least two Saints, Paul and Dismas, faced execution and stated that it was appropriate. They were both executed. The Holy Ghost decided that execution was the proper punishment for two devoted, early Christians,  Ananias and his wife, Saphira,  for the crime/sin of lying. Neither was given a moment to consider their earthly punishment or to ask for forgiveness. The Holy Ghost struck them dead. For those who erroneously contend that Jesus abandoned the Law of the Hebrew Testament, He states that He has come not “to abolish the law and the prophets . . . but to fulfill them.”  Matthew 5:17-22.  While there is honest debate regarding the interpretation of Mosaic Law within a Christian context, there seems little dispute that the Noahic Covenant is still in effect and that Genesis 9:6 deals directly with the sanctity of life issue in its support of execution. (read “A Seamless Garment In a Sinful World” by John R. Connery, S. J., America, 7/14/84, p 5-8). “In his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die (Mt 15:4; Mk 7:10, referring to Ex 21:17; cf. Lev 20:9). (Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, 10/7/2000) Saint Pius V reaffirms this mandate, in the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566), stating that executions are acts of “paramount obedience to this [Fifth] Commandment.”  (“Thou shalt not murder,” sometimes improperly translated as “kill” instead of “murder”).  And, not only do the teachings of Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine concur, but both saints also find that such punishment actually reflects charity and mercy by preventing the wrongdoer from sinning further.  The Saints position is that execution offers undeniable defense of society as well as defense of the wrongdoer. Such prevention also expresses the fact that execution is an enhanced defense of society, over and above all other punishments. The relevant question is “What biblical and theological teachings, developed from 1566 through 1997, provide that the standard for executions should evolve from ‘paramount obedience’ to God’s eternal law to a civil standard reflecting ‘steady improvements’ . . . in the penal system?”.  Such teachings hadn’t changed.  The Pope’s position is social, not biblical nor theological.   If Saint Pius V was correct, that executions represent “paramount obedience to the [Fifth] Commandments, then is it not disobedient to reduce or stop executions? The Church’s position on the use of the death penalty has been consistent from 300 AD through 1995 AD.  The Church has always supported the use of executions, based upon biblical and theological principles. Until 1995, says John Grabowski, associate professor of Moral Theology at Catholic University, ” . . .  Church teachings were supportive of the death penalty.  You can find example after example of Pope’s, of theologians and others, who have supported the right of the state to inflict capital punishment for certain crimes and certain cases.” Grabowski continues: “What he (the Pope now) says, in fact, in his encyclical, is that given the fact that we now have the ability, you know, technology and facilities to lock up someone up for the rest of their lives so they pose no future threat to society — given that question has been answered or removed, there is no longer justification for the death penalty.”  (All Things Considered, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, 9/9/97.) The Pope’s position is now based upon the state of the corrections system — a position neither biblical nor theological in nature.  Furthermore, it is a position which conflicts with the history of prisons.  Long term incarceration of lawbreakers in Europe began in the 1500s.  Of course, long term incarceration of slaves had begun thousands of years before —  meaning that all were aware that criminal wrongdoers  could also be subject to bondage, if necessary – something that all historians and biblical scholars — now and then and in between —  were and are well aware of.   Since it’s inception, the Church has issued numerous pronouncements, encyclicals and previous Universal Catechisms.  Had any biblical or theological principle called for a replacement of the death penalty by life imprisonment, it could have been revealed long before 1995.   There is, finally, a disturbing reality regarding the Pope’s new standard.  The Pope’s defending society standard requires that the moral concept of justice becomes irrelevant.  The Pope’s standard finds that capital punishment can be used only as a vehicle to prevent future crimes. Therefore, using the Pope’s standard, the moral/biblical rational — that capital punishment is the just or required punishment for murder — is no longer relevant to the sin/crime of murder.   If defending society is the new standard, the Pope has decided that the biblical standards of atonement, expiation, justice and required punishments have all, necessarily, been discarded, with regard to execution.  The Pope’s new position establishes that capital punishment no longer has any connection to the harm done or to the imbalance to be addressed.  Yet, such connection had always been, until now, the Church’s historical, biblically based perspective on this sanction.  Under a defending society standard, the injury suffered by the murder victim is no longer relevant to their punishment.  Executions can be justified solely upon that punishments ability to prevent future harm by the murderer.  Therefore, when considering executions in regard to capital murder cases, a defending society standard renders justice irrelevant.  Yet, execution defends society to a degree unapproachable by any other punishment and, therefore, should have been fully supported by the Pope. “Some enlightened people would like to banish all conception of retribution or desert from our theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself.  They do not see that by doing so they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it?” (quote attributed to the distinguished Christian writer C. S. Lewis) Again, with regard to the Pope’s prudential judgement, his neglect of justice was most imprudent.  Some Catholic scholars, properly, have questioned the appropriateness of including prudential judgement within a Catechism. Personal opinion does not belong within a Catechism and, likely, will never be allowed, again. I do not believe it had ever been allowed before. In fact, neither the Church nor the Pope would accept a defending society standard for use of the death penalty, unless the Church and the Pope believed that such punishment was just and deserved, as well.  The Church has never questioned the authority of the government to execute in “cases of extreme gravity,” nor does it do so with these recent changes.   Certainly, the Church and the Pope John Paul II believe that the prevention of any and all violent crimes fulfills a defending society position.  And there is no doubt that executions defend society at a level higher than incarceration. Why has the Pope and many within Church leadership chosen a path that spares murderers at the cost of sacrificing more innocent lives, when they could have chosen a stronger defense of society which spares more innocents? Properly, the Pope did not challenge the Catholic biblical and theological support for capital punishment.  The Pope has voiced his own, personal belief as to the appropriate application of that penalty.   So why has the Pope come out against executions, when his own position — a defense of society — which, both rationally and factually, has a foundation supportive of more executions? It is unfortunate that the Pope, along with some other leaders in the Church, have decided to, improperly, use a defending society position to speak against the death penalty. The Pope’s position against the death penalty condemns more innocents and neglects justice. ——————————————- Please also refer to:(1)  “Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty”, at homicidesurvivors(DOT)com/2006/10/12/catholic-and-other-christian-references-support-for-the-death-penalty.aspx (2)  “Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective” atwww(DOT)sspx.org/against_the_sound_bites/capital_punishment.htm (3) “The Purpose of Punishment (in the Catholic tradition)”, by R. Michael Dunningan, J.D., J.C.L., CHRISTIFIDELIS, Vol.21,No.4, sept 14, 2003www(dot)st-joseph-foundation.org/newsletter/lead.php?document=2003/21-4 (4) “MOST CATHOLICS OPPOSE CAPITAL PUNISHMENT?”, KARL KEATING’S E-LETTER, Catholic Answers, March 2, 2004www(dot)catholic.com/newsletters/kke_040302.asp (5) “THOUGHTS ON THE BISHOPS’ MEETING: NOWADAYS, VOTERS IGNORE BISHOPS” , KARL KEATING’S E-LETTER, Catholic Answers,, Nov. 22, 2005www(dot)catholic.com/newsletters/kke_051122.asp copyright 1997-2007 Dudley Sharp Dudley Sharp, Justice Matterse-mail sharp(at)aol.com, 713-622-5491,Houston, Texas Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O’Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author. A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally. Pro death penalty sites www(dot)cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPinformation.htmwww(dot)clarkprosecutor.org/html/links/dplinks.htmwww(dot)dpinfo.comjoshmarquis(dot)blogspot.com/www(dot)lexingtonprosecutor.com/death_penalty_debate.htmwww(dot)prodeathpenalty.comwww(dot)prodeathpenalty.org/www(dot)yesdeathpenalty.com/deathpenalty_contents.htm  (Sweden)www(dot)wesleylowe.com/cp.html

  • zippy says:

    <>As all prospects for negative consequence deter some, it is a mystery why the Pope chose the option which spares murderers and sacrifices more innocent lives.<>It isn’t a mystery at all. Executing a murderer to keep him from killing others (directly or indirectly) can be licit. Executing a murderer to set an example** so that others won’t commit murders is killing the murderer as a means to a utilitarian end unrelated to the actual acts of the murderer himself, and is thus always morally illicit.This lengthy commenttarrhia in response to my own post provides a near-perfect illustration of my point: if you don’t use the language and underlying deontology that the Magisterium uses (which, by the way, was clarified by the authoritative Magisterium for the first time ever in detail in the encyclical <>Veritatis Splendour<>), you start being wrong right at the first sentence.[**] That is, executing a murderer who would not otherwise be executed if the motivation of deterrence of other murderers was not present. Setting an example can be a licit side effect of an execution, but using an execution just as a means to set an example is always immoral.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Zippy,Wow, John Allen worries because the Church’s understanding of its own tradition is gradually more reflective of the very clear words of Jesus on many issues–“If thine enemy smite thy cheek.” “If thine enemy sue thee for thy coat give him also thy cloak.”I, for one, am pleased to see this gradual modulation in understanding because I think it more perfectly conforms to difficult aspects of the gospel truth that have too long been surpressed in favor of “emanations and penumbras.” However, I doubt seriously whether tradition will allow an “absolute-in-practice” stance. It may. I also doubt that “functional pacifism” is either viable or probable.Once again, these things come close to reflecting my own imperfect understanding of Christ’s teaching. I’ve always conformed that understanding to what the Church teaches, so far as my feeble ability to understand it might go.But, finally, to your point–if we don’t start with an acceptance of the fundamental vocabulary, there is no basis for clear understanding or discussion. If I cannot use the magisterium’s words with the understanding underlaying them, then perhaps I should abandon the discussion entirely. I find this principle operational in much of my approach to St. Thomas Aquinas–I am incapable at times of accepting the underlying postulates of some of his propositions, therefore, while I can argue the postulates, I cannot address the conclusions because I cannot allow the chain of reasoning. So it is with a majority of assertions that lead to conclusions. If I can’t agree with the assertion, then I cannot agree with the conclusion. In a certain sense a vocabulary is a set of axioms or assertions that must be understood in the way that the proponent intends them before the argument can be followed. To argue against the vocabulary may be valid upon occasion, but to construct one’s own without an understanding of the preexistant conditions will only muddy the waters.Just as I suppose I’ve done with this comment.shalom,Steven

  • Step2 says:

    Zippy writes-“Executing a murderer to set an example so that others won’t commit murders is killing the murderer as a means to a utilitarian end unrelated to the actual acts of the murderer himself, and is thus always morally illicit.As a utilitarian, I believe that is at least partially inaccurate. We are consequentialists in many ways, but our focus is always on enhancing happiness and limiting suffering. Life in prison involves greater suffering than humane forms of capital punishment. The prevention of miscarriages of justice and chances to rehabilitate are factors to be weighed in opposition to that, of course. The effect of deterrence, if it could be proven empirically, would be at most a minor consideration.

  • Anonymous says:

    Step2:You’ve missed the point. It’s one thing to make judgments of utility, which we must all do in some circumstances. But it’s another altogether to make that the unique and supreme criterion of moral judgment, i.e., to be a utilitarian or “consequentialist.” That is a philosophically controversial position in itself, and is theologicallly inadmissible for Catholics—as JP2 made clear in <>Veritatis Splendor<>.Zippy applies the lesson well in the case of capital punishment.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Zippy,On a slightly different point, I don’t get any real sense of “hand-wringing” or “worry” from Allen’s article. He reports that there appears to be a general trend in a direction that tends toward absolutism in matters that are not definitively absolute. I honestly don’t know how he feels about this trend (mercifully). Once again, I find myself in awe of how well John Allen does in reporting observations without loading them with agenda. It may be present there, but it is awfully difficult to sift through and find where John Allen stands. That is why I like him so well.shalom,Steven

  • Step2 says:

    It is certainly possible that I have missed the point, but I am doubtful that is the case here. Zippy was making a criticism of utilitarianism. His criticism was based on what in my view was a mischaracterization of the utilitarian viewpoint. I gave a correct characterization. When the situations are reversed, Zippy has never been shy about correcting my mistakes about his position. Quid pro quo and all that jazz.

  • zippy says:

    Steven: good point. Being generally unfamiliar with Allen’s writing is both a liability and an asset on my part, I suppose, and there is a danger of me reading him in the light of his commenters rather than in his own light.Step2: I should know better than to use the word “utilitarian” frivolously in the knowledge that you are lurking about. But I wasn’t really arguing against utilitarianism per se, just pointing out the distinction my logarrheic commenter was failing to make in the context of Catholic deontology.

  • William Luse says:

    While the length of the comment is annoying, and while you are correct in your rebuttal of the point you address, there is another he raises that ought to be dealt with:<>The Pope’s new position establishes that capital punishment no longer has any connection to the harm done or to the imbalance to be addressed. Yet, such connection had always been, until now, the Church’s historical, biblically based perspective on this sanction.<>In other words, Mr. Sharp seems to think that the Church has always held that capital punishment is valid because it is a <>just<> punishment. (Not *must* be in all cases, but *can* be in many.) I should think it must meet this requirement before all others, and that his objection, on its face, is not unreasonable.

  • Anonymous says:

    Dear Bill,I would grant you your proposal were it not that Jesus was always emphasizing NOT redressing the balance. Justice cannot right the scales. The only way to truly redress the balance is to take the life of the criminal and give it to the person wronged–and we can’t do that–so true justice cannot prevail in any sense. An eye for an eye is not justice. A death for a death may not be either.But then it may. I haven’t considered it for long enough to sort out all of the implications. Nor do I know the roots of that tradition of teaching and how sound they are–so I speak off the top of my head. But I’m more inclined to follow one whose judgment I respect and whose learning is far greater than mine in these things. I can’t imagine that JPtG did not keep in mind the great tradition of the Catholic Church when he issued this teaching. And perhaps part of his point was what I noted above. There is no real redress of balance–merely a continuing cycle of the Culture of Death.shalom,Steven

  • zippy says:

    Bill: it is true enough that not everything in the post was objectionable. But even on that point silence seems to be being construed as rejection, which is another of my pet peeves (treating silence on a subject as a positive assertion of irrelevance or license is a pet peeve of mine, that is).

  • William Luse says:

    Steven,All justice in this life is at best a feeble approximation, whatever punishment we might be discussing. I just want to be assured that the late Pope’s teaching in no way conflicts with what came before. It’s one I’ve had trouble understanding.Zippy,You need to reduce the number and intensity of pet peeves. Some of us look forward not to your silence, but to your sallying forth.There is, by the way, a discussion of this going on at Right Reason, provoked by Pruss. Hope I have the energy to read it all.

  • Steven says:

    Dear Bill,What does it matter if it conflicts with previous teaching if it is true? If the previous teaching is flawed, where is the problem with fixing it? This is what I would consider in the line of a tradition that might not be infallible and which is in each age made appropriate to the age. If the John Paul saw, as I believe he did because I believe him to have been a prophet unlike any other in the recent past, that this teaching contributed to the downward pull of all society into the chaos of the culture of death, he could easily look at past teaching and see its validity and question the validity of “justice” which amounts simply to revenge.But then, I don’t have a problem with the teaching so I’m not a good one to speak. In fact, I have greater problems, far greater problems with the teaching of previous times–both on this and on “just war.” But then, you already know that, don’t you. 😀shalom,Steven

  • William Luse says:

    <>What does it matter if it conflicts with previous teaching if it is true? If the previous teaching is flawed, where is the problem with fixing it?<> I seriously doubt – when it comes to the taking of a man’s life – that the Church was teaching a ‘flawed’ morality that needed ‘fixing’.<>This is what I would consider in the line of a tradition that might not be infallible and which is in each age made appropriate to the age.<>So when the next age comes along and some Pope says that it’s time once more to fire up the faggots, I trust you’ll be fine with it.

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