A friend and RCIA team member asks in regard to this post :
Anyway, what does it mean if I am a pro-life Christian and I understand the catechism but I’m not outraged by the execution in Utah? I guess I should be but I can’t muster it?
First perhaps “outraged” may be the wrong word. Perhaps a better one is disgusted or appalled by such a barbaric act. We are supposed to be a modern and civilized people.
No. You are not “required” to feel anything. But you are required to reflect on what the Church teaches on the death penalty.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (CCC #267).
The Church’s position is that while the death penalty is not everywhere and always evil, in the developed world it is not necessary in order to protect society. It is acknowledged, however, that in very rare circumstances that the death penalty is the only way to protect people from dangerous offenders. It may never be used just as a means of punishment or as a deterrent.
In the article that I linked to, Joseph Bottum acknowledged that there was a time when it would have been morally permissible:
The odd thing is that Gardner might have made a good example for legitimate imposition of the death penalty, once upon a time. He had a history of escapes, and, on trial in 1985 for the barroom murder of Melvyn Otterstrom, he was smuggled a gun and shot down an attorney named Michael Burdell in a botched attempt at a getaway from the Salt Lake courthouse. He was an open threat to the public, and the system appeared incapable of containing him. The ordinary course of social justice might well have required his death.
But that was twenty-five years ago. For more than two decades, the Utah State prison proved competent to restrain him—and to age him from the murderous twenty-four-year-old into a less dangerous forty-nine-year old.
There are times when a faithful Catholic can legitimately argue that a specific offender should be executed because he is extremely dangerous, and the state cannot protect society from him.
In the Utah case, however, the state was able for 25 years to protect society. Consequently, the “in order to protect society” loop hole cannot be invoked.
If we strive to think with the mind of the Church, we need to take her teachings seriously even when they go against our feeling or our gut instincts. As the (above) Catechism quote makes clear the reason for opposing the death penalty is because it denies the offender—a human person made in the image and likeness of God—every chance of redemption.
There is the rub. When someone commits a horrible crime the first thought or feeling that comes into our mind is “I hope that he or she rots in hell” or “I hope he gets what is coming to him”.
We are not responsible for the random thoughts and feelings that pop into our heads. But that is where the cardinal or human virtues kick in. Cardinal virtues are acts of human will that, over time cause us to master our wills. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
1804 Human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.
The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love.
In other words, because man is inclined to commit sinful acts, we are required to do the hard work of discipleship. In order to strive to be holy, in order to become another Christ we have to use right reason in order to tame our sometimes un-Christian thoughts and instincts.
So when my first thought is hang um and hang um high, I try and reign myself in by stopping to pray for the person in question. I should never wish harm to others even when they harm others. I should never wish that a person, even one that has harmed me greatly, would go to hell.
We are called to forgive our enemies. Very often this is only possible with the help of God’s grace. Often it can take years of persistent prayer.
I know from personal experience that forgiveness is often very, very difficult. But that is a subject for another post.