This Is Going To Hurt Me A Lot More Than It Is Going To Hurt You

October 10, 2007 § 17 Comments

Recent discussions about denying Communion to various politicians as punishment for their objectively wicked and very public acts have reinforced my impression that we have lost perspective on what it means to punish the guilty.

The primary purpose of punishment is always to correct the guilty party himself, and to redress the particular wrong he has done. Treating punishment as if it were primarily about political effects or preventing scandal or whatever is completely wrongheaded, in my understanding. Deterrent and other positive political effects of punishment are salutary to the extent they are side effects of punishment, but when punishment becomes about the side effects it isn’t punishment anymore. Licit punishment of a guilty party is always the best we can do for the punished person himself: even executing a murderer, when it is licit, represents the best we can do for the guilty party himself. Licit punishment always proceeds from charity, and never uses a person (not even a guilty person) as nothing but a means to some (however laudible) end.

So when we ask a question like “should John Kerry be denied Communion?” the proper formulation of the question is “would it be objectively good for John Kerry himself if he were denied Communion?” Doubtless there is plenty of controversy wrapped up in answering that question; but at least it is the right question.

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§ 17 Responses to This Is Going To Hurt Me A Lot More Than It Is Going To Hurt You

  • Rodak says:

    Zippy–Is executing a murderer *the best we can do* for that murderer, in the case that he is defiantly unrepentant of his crime? Who are we, or what is the state, to decide that, even if left alive, this sinner will not see the light, convert, and be saved? How do we dare to send a soul to eternal damnation by cutting off all hope?

  • zippy says:

    <>Is executing a murderer *the best we can do* for that murderer, in the case that he is defiantly unrepentant of his crime?<>In the case of a <>just<> execution, yes. A contrived (for the sake of clarity) case may be illustrative. Consider the situation of a primitive tribe on an island. The tribe has no way of incarcerating the murderer to prevent him from murdering again: tribal authorities are morally certain that the murderer will kill again if left to roam free. It is objectively better <>for the murderer himself,<> to say nothing of his potential victims, to lose his own life and be prevented from carrying out another murder.I’m not pretending to remove the controversy in the case of denying Communion to politicians who formally and publicly cooperate with grave evil. I am merely trying to situate it in the context of asking the right questions, based on right understanding of the nature of just punishment.

  • Rodak says:

    So, then, it is your contention that denying Rudy Giuliani communion will in some way prevent Rudy Giuliani, personally, from causing an abortion?I don’t see the analogy to your capital punishment hypothetical.

  • zippy says:

    <>So, then, it is your contention that denying Rudy Giuliani communion will in some way prevent Rudy Giuliani, personally, from causing an abortion?<>No. It would prevent him from commiting a sacrelege (and therefore prevent him from harming himself and the community further: every time we do evil we do harm to ourselves at least, and often others).

  • Rodak says:

    Okay. I now understand the bishop’s motive, but your analogy using a primitive tribe’s unjailable murderer would then seem to make the harmful effects *on society* of Rudy’s sacrilege equivalent to the harmful effects to the primitive tribe of subsequent murders. That doesn’t seem right to me. Nor does it answer my question of 7:24 a.m., since we *are* capable of locking a convicted murderer away and preventing him from murdering again.

  • zippy says:

    <>…your analogy using a primitive tribe’s unjailable murderer would then seem to make the harmful effects *on society* of Rudy’s sacrilege equivalent to the harmful effects to the primitive tribe of subsequent murders.<>NO! At issue is the harmful effects <>on himself<>. Punishment and preventative sanction by competent authority is justifiable precisely because when someone does wrong, he always harms not only others but <>himself<>.

  • Rodak says:

    Zippy–I said that I understand the bishop’s motive in not allowing Rudy to further injure himself. I don’t see the analogy with capital punishment, however. An unrepentant murderer does not serve consecutive terms in hell, I think. So he doesn’t further harm himself by not being executed.I think that capital punishment should be reserved for converted sinners who *consent to it* as just punishment for their repented crimes. Otherwise, they should be kept locked up and restrained from hurting themselves or others.

  • zippy says:

    <>An unrepentant murderer does not serve consecutive terms in hell, I think.<>Well, my theory of Hell (to the extent I have one) doesn’t require that (for example) a multiple murderer have identically the same experience as a one-time murderer. And my theory of human nature doesn’t assign obvious relative probabilities to gallows conversion versus other kinds of conversion. So in general the sort of inherently probabilistic argument you are making isn’t persuasive to me in the sense that dispositively it is better always and everywhere for the criminal himself to face imprisonment rather than execution.I do think that there are substantial injustices in how both our systems of imprisonment and our system of execution presently work though.

  • Rodak says:

    Zippy–I think that it is wrong to deny an unrepentant murderer the chance to repent by killing him in his state of mortal sin. So long as he can be restrained from repeating his crimes, he should be allowed to live in the hope that his abysmal self might be filled by the Holy Spirit.

  • zippy says:

    <>I think that it is wrong to deny an unrepentant murderer the chance to repent by killing him in his state of mortal sin.<>But he <>does<> have a chance to repent, at least up and until the moment of his death. You seem to be assuming that for every condemned criminal, maximizing the time available to him will maximize the probability that he will in fact repent. It isn’t at all obvious that that assumption is true statistically, and it definitely isn’t true as a matter of particular cases.There are reasonable arguments against using the death penalty, it seems to me, but this isn’t a particularly good one in my view. Specifically the best arguments against the use of the death penalty have to do with what using it does to those of us who use it rather than with its inherent justice or injustice.

  • Rodak says:

    No. I believe that the overwhelming majority of convicted murders allowed to live will *not* repent and be saved. But the parables of Jesus tell me that the one or two in a thousand, or ten thousand, who do repent and convert makes keeping the rest of the alive to the hope worthwhile, and, in my belief, mandatory.

  • Rodak says:

    p.s. I agree that capital punishment without the consent of the punished also does bad things to us.

  • M.Z. Forrest says:

    My only issue is that what you are stating is what a number of bishops are claiming not to do. IIRC, Canonist Ed Peters similarly claims that denying communion isn’t punishment. My reading of Burke indicates to me that he doesn’t think it is punishment. I think Bp. Bruskewicz even said excommunication isn’t punishment.I personally have difficulty understanding the reticence of calling the kettle black. They seem to want to imply that they have no choice in the matter, and the choices made by the offending parties create an obstacle. If they are doing this to avoid being viewed as arbitrary and capricious, I don’t see how it is helping them. It is like me telling my child that he left me no choice in spanking him. It is silly. I just don’t see how someone else’s choice as a moral actor removes the fact that my reaction is the choice of a rational moral actor. If I spank my child, of course I’m doing so because I think it is just, but I’m also doing so because I think it is appropriate under the execution of my duties as father. I don’t see why the bishops are afraid to claim likewise.Sorry for the rambling.

  • zippy says:

    <>Canonist Ed Peters similarly claims that denying communion isn’t punishment.<>Well, upon further reflection, if “punishment” is the final stage of executing justice alone then perhaps he is right, as a technical terminological matter. That rightness-as-a-technical-matter doesn’t deflect the main point though, I don’t think, which is that discussions about denying Communion which center on the fact that doing so (or not doing so) causes scandal as opposed to centering on the good of the person we propose to deny are wrongheaded.When a policeman interrupts a burglar and stops him from burgling the policeman isn’t doing it in order to prevent scandal to the public, to make non-burglars feel better about themselves, etc. What is being done is about the person and the immediate objects of the person’s act, and is being done as the best thing that can be done for the person at the time (letting someone get away with a crime is harmful to the criminal). What I think is completely off the wall about the discussions of denying Communion is that we have lost sight (once again) of the immediate object of the act: we are displacing <>what the act is about<> with some remote and diffuse effects of the act. So the (many of the) discussions on denying Communion reflect in part a loss of basic ability to morally reason.

  • m.z. says:

    I think that is mainly due to an inability to articulate why communion is being denied. There are three possibilities.1) Communion in itself is a good to be preserved from desecretion. A minister offering communion knowing such would be participating in the desecretion himself. It is manifest that offering a politician who supports abortion communion is an act of desecration.2) Abortion is an evil. The politician supports abortion. We don’t support abortion. Therefore to save children from abortion we must deny the politician communion.3) By articulating that which is gravely contrary to the natural law, the politician has made himself an authority opposing the rightful teaching of the Church and the bishop, and therefore as punishment, he is to be denied communion.It appears to me that the bishops are trying to argue 1. While a bit of a caricature, the pro-life advocates appear to argue 2. I would argue 3. I am simply not persuaded by argument #1, although if my bishop made the argument, I would comply.

  • c matt says:

    Well, what about argument 4)Supporting abortion is a grave evil that makes one not properly disposed to receive Communion. Taking Communion when not properly disposed to do so brings judgment upon one’s soul. Therefore, for his own good (avoiding condemnation of his soul) Communion should not be given. I would think of it in the sense of giving someone medication that is contra-indicated for their present physical condition. Likewise, Communion should be withheld for their own good because it would be “contra-indicated” for their current spiritual condition.In that sense, I could see where someone might not cosider it punishment in a strict sense.Similarly with ex-communication, it seems it is only a formal declaration of a state of affairs one has brought upon oneself. If you renounce belief of all that the Church teaches must be held and believed, you just ain’t Catholic anymore. Its not so much a punishment as a recognition of your current relationship.

  • thebyronicman says:

    “I think that it is wrong to deny an unrepentant murderer the chance to repent by killing him in his state of mortal sin.”Zippy responds: “But he does have a chance to repent, at least up and until the moment of his death.”Has anyone seen the film “Dead Man Walking”? Sean Penn’s character (based on a true story) is pressed to recognize his sinfulness and need for redemption precisely because he sees his life is about to end. He is otherwise intransigent in his victimhood, in his pride, in his denial of reality. he won’t face his sin until the moment of truth finally arrives for him. Ironically, I think that makes a strong case for the redemptive potential in the death penalty – especially provided that the Church fulfills her mission in the prisons.

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