Sunday, January 7, 2007

The Execution of Saddam Hussein and Church Teaching on the Death Penalty

NOTE: This is a supplement to a prior post, Capital Punishment, Cardinal Martino and the Catholic Church Dec. 29, 2007

John Allen Jr: "ontic" and "practical" absolutes?

This week's National Catholic Reporter: "Church opposition to execution 'practically' absolute" - an assessment of Catholic debate over the death penalty by John Allen Jr., both theoretical and in the context of the execution of Saddam Hussein:

one could argue that the reaction from the Vatican and from senior Catholic officials around the world to the Dec. 30 execution of Saddam Hussein, and its broader opposition to the war in Iraq in the first place, collectively mark a milestone in the evolution of yet another category in Catholic teaching: Positions which are not absolute in principle, but which are increasingly absolute in practice. Opposition to war, unless undertaken in clear self-defense or with the warrant of the international community, and the use of capital punishment are the leading cases in point.

In effect, recent Vatican interventions on matters such as the Hussein execution suggest the Catholic church now has two categories of moral teachings: what we might call "ontic" or "inherent" absolutes, such as abortion, euthanasia, and the destruction of embryos in stem cell research, which are considered always and everywhere immoral because of the nature of the act, and "practical" absolutes, i.e., acts which might be justified in theory, but which under present conditions cannot be accepted.

In discussion the arguments against the execution of Saddam Hussein, Allen mentions the "seamless garment" position offered by some members of the Vatican curia:
. . . there's the principled argument that the right to life must always be upheld. This point was made in a Dec. 30 interview in Ansa, the Italian news agency, with Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.

"Man cannot simply dispose of life, and therefore it should be defended from the moment of conception to natural death," Martino said. "This position thus excludes abortion, experimentation on embryos, euthanasia and the death penalty, which are a negation of the transcendent dignity of the human person created in the image of God."

Note that Martino listed capital punishment on a par with key life issues long understood to admit of no exceptions.

Two Discussions

There are two discussions going on -- the first centering on justifiability of the execution of Saddam Hussein per se; the second spurred by Cardinal Martino's framing of the issue, the merging of prudential judgement and Church teaching and the confusion that characterizes many discussions of this issue.

I think there were some good arguments for and against the execution of Saddam Hussein. I also think that while the execution of a bloody tyrant is just in principle (a case for Saddam's execution being made by Prof. Stephen Bainbridge), the practical manner in which it was carried out left something to be desired. If the New York Times' reporting of the actual situation is accurate (Before Hanging, a Push for Revenge and a Push Back From the U.S.), the Vatican's concerns about the execution seem to be vindicated. And it seems a good number of American officials on the ground had similar concerns as well.

As Richard. B. Woodward mused (Subtext Message: The cellphone video of Saddam's execution OpinionJournal January 4, 2007):

in everything from the partisan chants of Shiite bystanders to the grainy, low-lighted jumpiness of the footage and the horror-movie ski masks of the executioners, the video images of the execution contradict the fragile message that a secure and democratic government is in charge, rendering justice to someone who deserves to die.
IraqPundit put it more bluntly: Coming to a Bad End" - January 2, 2007:
I would never have thought it possible that by executing a ruthless mass murderer, Iraq would find a way to disgrace itself. Saddam deserved to hang, yet thanks to the breathtaking stupidity of Nouri Al Maliki's government, not only have Iraqis been further divided by the hanging, they have been diminished by it.

The second discussion -- the larger issue of the death penalty itself and the present confusion in debate over the Church's teaching -- is of greater interest to me, personally. I took issue in my last post with the manner in which Cardinal Martino framed his opposition to the execution -- describing it simply as "a crime" and now, according to John Allen, JR., embracing a "seamless garment of life" ethic ("Man cannot simply dispose of life, and therefore it should be defended from the moment of conception to natural death") ignores the complexities of the Church's position and leads the unwary reader to believe the Church's stance is abolitionist in principle.

Cardinal Dulles, IMHO, possesses more intellectual credibility in his effort to interpret the practical judgement of John Paul II in light of a "hermeneutics of continuity," seeking to reconcile it with Catholic tradition, and likewise asserting that "if the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millenia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture."

First Things' Robert Miller - Need for Clarification

In a post to First Things' blog -- Reading the Bishops Rightly -- Robert T. Miller affirms the importance of distinguishing various levels of Church teaching:

This is not to say that bishops should never speak on questions beyond faith and morals, including on particular questions, such as the execution of Hussein. When they do so, however, it would be better if they were clear on the nature of the statements they are making and the kind of deference faithful Catholics should give them. As things are, such statements tend to engender more confusion than clarity.

Worse, the current situation is ripe for abuse: Bishops, like everyone else, prefer it when people agree with them, and so some bishops are tempted to enunciate positions and invest them with the authority of their office, even when those positions go beyond matters of faith and morals and depend on particular, even idiosyncratic, views about empirical circumstances. There is a danger, in other words, of bishops leveraging their legitimate authority in faith and morals into the political arena by implicitly passing off empirical judgments as if they were teachings on faith and morals commanding the assent of faithful Catholics. We should resist this. One can oppose the naked public square without thinking that it ought to be dressed up in just any old garb whatsoever, no matter how tatterdemalion.

* * *

There is an ongoing exchange between several Catholic bloggers -- Dr. Michael Liccione (Sacramentum Vitae), Tom Kreitzberg (Disputations) and Paul (sorry, last name?) on this topic, which may be of interest:

  • "Yes, and . . ." - Dr. Michael Liccione (Sacramentum Vitae January 25, 2007) concurs with Prof. Miller that "that Catholics may legitimately dissent from moral judgments made by Church leaders, including the pope, if and when those judgments themselves depend on "empirical" judgments that may reasonably be disputed." The "reasonably disputed" is the qualifying factor.
  • "The scope of "prudential" dissent for Catholics" Sacramentum Vitae January 5, 2007), with attention to Cardinal Ratzinger's Doctrinal Commentary on the Professio Fidei and teachings which while "non-definitive", still require "religious submission of will and intellect" from Catholics. (Response: On the prudential 153: Catholic Deep Fishing January 6, 2006).
  • "Can you repeat the question?" Disputations January 5, 2007. Tom Kreitzberg agrees w. Mike, though cautions: "when you're not taking a test in a for-credit course on Catholicism, I hope you say, 'Frankly, I care a lot more about whether I'm wrong than about whether I'm a bad Catholic.'" (When the disputed question is which question is to be disputed - Response by Michael Liccione.

Similarities in the "Just War Debate"

As John Allen Jr. and Michael Liccione have both observed, the discussion of the death penalty closely mirrors that which is occuring over just war. There is no dispute over the fact that John Paul II and then-Cardinal Ratzinger opposed the war in Iraq, or that Benedict has taken a staunch position against war in his pontificate ('s Angelo Matera's series in the National Catholic Register: Benedict, The Peace Pope September 3-9, 2006; Catholic Hawks Circle Benedict September 24-30, 2006). However, as in the death penalty debate, there seems to be a similar erroneous conflation of prudential judgement and Church teaching.

I discussed the present confusion in the just debate in last year's Toward a Proper Understanding of the Catholic Just War Tradition Against The Grain May 18, 2006. By way of a more recent example, the New Oxford Review recently criticized the Catholic Church with exhibiting:

. . . a fundamental discontinuity between the Church's [own] opposition to the war in Iraq and her position with regard to individual support for it, or participation in it. More specifically, despite her well-known opposition to the war, the Church has failed to impose moral sanctions against those who directly or indirectly support it. The incongruity between her words and her actions substantially undercuts the Church's moral position on Iraq, and reduces the NOR's editorial position from championing Catholic truth to advocating an editorial opinion.
("Should Catholics Defend America?", by Paul R. Muessig. New Oxford Review July /August 2006).

After a jab at "neoconservative cabalists . . . foisting their Zionist vision of an uncritically pro-Israel American Empire on a complacent and largely ignorant American public", Muessig directs his attention to Catholics who "claim to be orthodox but support the war":

there's not an honest one in the bunch. They are no better than the cafeteria Catholics who support abortion, picking and choosing by which of the hard moral teachings of the Church they will abide. Given the choice between serving God or mammon, they have chosen the latter.
Muessig will no doubt remain unsatisfied until Fr. Neuhaus, Michael Novak or George Weigel receive some moral sanction at the hands of their bishop.

James Turner Johnson, in The War to Oust Saddam Hussein: The Context, The Debate, The War and the Future, criticized the guiding hermeneutics of the Catholic Bishops in the debate over Iraq which contrasts with the classical just war tradition. To quote directly from Johnson:

. . . As the bishops have developed and applied a 'presumption against war' in various contexts since 1983, they have transformed the traditional just war categories from moral concerns to guide the practice of statecraft into a series of moral obstacles that, as described and interpreted, are arguments against the use of moral force's ever being justifiable. The regular advancing of worst-case scenarios as unbiased moral advice underscores the opposition to uses of armed force as such and distorts the application of just war reasoning. The result is functional pacifism, despite the claim that this is what the just war idea requires. [p. 49]
I am unable to do Johnson justice in my blog, but encourage a reading of his book. An earlier portion of the text was published in First Things as Just War, As It Was and Is First Things 149 (January 2005): 14-24.

George Weigel has also offered a study of the transition of Catholic thought on war and peace in Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace, Oxford University Press, 1987 -- dwelling chiefly on the Second Vatican Council and positions on war taken by U.S. Catholic Bishops. (See this Review by Charles J. Leonard. Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly Newsletter Vol. 10, No. 4. Sept. 1987).

Bracketing for a moment the specific case of the war in Iraq, I think Dr. Johnson has demonstrated that there has been intellectual transition in contemporary Church thought on the interpretation of just war teaching which stands in sharp contrast to 'classical' Catholic tradition. More often than not, the Vatican, while registering its practical judgement on empirical matters regarding the war and the death penalty, has not adequately clarified or conveyed its present position in a way that reconciles it to past teaching.

According to John Allen, Jr.:

Indications from the Vatican and from a wide swath of Catholic officialdom suggest that in practice, it's unlikely there will ever again be a war (defined as the initiation of hostilities without international warrant) or an execution the church does not officially oppose.

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

A conclusion that I find personally troubling, in light of the widespread confusion it has wrought and its tenuous relationship with -- echoing Cardinal Dulles -- "two millenia of Catholic thought."

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