Friday, May 28, 2010

Justice, mercy, and the death penalty

What should Catholics think about the death penalty?

Unlike the issues of the morality of torture, abortion, and euthanasia, the death penalty is an issue that Catholics can disagree about in good faith. It must be said from the starting point of any discussion about the death penalty that the Church recognizes the authority of the State to punish the guilty and protect the innocent, and that in the pursuit of this goal the State may sentence a criminal to die, and carry out that awful sentence.

But I think in our deliberations about whether the death penalty ought to be used, and under what conditions, we'd be remiss to ignore the Catechism, which says:

2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.

2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67

2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

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 nonexistent.NT

That last point, of course, comes from Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelicum Vitae. The death penalty is addressed a few times in that letter, particularly here:

56. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offence".[46] Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.[47]

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person".[48]

I personally struggled to embrace this view of the death penalty. For a long time I saw it only as a matter of meting out to violent murderers their "just desserts." I ignored tales of innocent people being executed (or released from Death Row years after being convicted), and of the disproportionate justice offered to the wealthy, who could afford expensive lawyers, and the poor, who had not these means to defend themselves against criminal charges. I didn't think about that corporal work of mercy which orders us to visit the imprisoned, or consider the impact on the souls of victims' families when they would publicly demand the death of the criminal as a kind of revenge for their suffering and loss.

Surprisingly enough, it was a purely secular source that led me to rethink my position in favor of the use of the death penalty as it is used here and now, in 21st century America. It was the late Erle Stanley Gardner's book, The Court of Last Resort, that first made me rethink my assumptions in favor of the death penalty. At the time I read this book, I'd been presented with Catholic arguments against the death penalty--I had just rejected them as "liberal" without really thinking about them. Mr. Gardner's book, detailing cases where men were waiting to die when there really was reasonable doubt that they were guilty--and in some cases, abundant evidence that they couldn't possibly be guilty--made me think about the issue in a new way.

Death, after all, is irrevocable. If an innocent man is executed, there is nothing that can be done to remedy the matter. But if a guilty one merely lives out the rest of his life in prison--who, exactly, is harmed? Society is not harmed--because we can't execute prisoners merely to avoid the cost of housing them. Society would only be harmed if the incarceration were lacking and the prisoner continued to hurt or kill people while behind bars--which does happen, and must be addressed.

Let's begin the conversation, respecting each other's views. The death penalty is not something that is morally evil--but is it imprudent, often unjust, and at odds, ultimately, with the Christian idea of mercy?

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Human trafficking - another assault on human dignity

Here's one I hope we can all agree on: the "trade" of people, especially of impoverished women, is a crime that cries out to heaven.

Major global events which draw large crowds from around the world also hide a dirty secret: the trafficking of people, essentially kidnapped into slavery, and often used for prostitution.

I first noticed the news covering this story around the last Super Bowl and around the Olympics in Vancouver. Now, the bishops are raising concerns about the World Cup. I'd guess that the Shanghai World Exposition has its share of forced labor and imported prostitution as well, though I haven't heard anything on the news.

Again, I'm in the sorry position of having more questions than answers. I don't know what steps we might take to protect the vulnerable or to reduce the demand for such inhumanity. But it's something to think and pray about.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Is the State a Person?

First off, I'd like to apologize - particularly to Red - for my recent absence from the blog. I have a number of explanations which do not really add up to an excuse.

I'm fascinated by the comments on Red's post on the Fifth Commandment. I'm particularly interested in the arguments that the State has an authority to act which goes beyond the authority of any of its members.

The State, in the examples given, has the authority to execute prisoners and to wage war. No mere citizen has that authority. A person only is able to execute or wage war upon another person when acting as an agent of the State.

Now, I'm not in any way an expert on politics, or even on political philosophy. But it's clear to me that "The State" had rather a different implication in the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas than it does for us today. Today, we generally assume a constitutionally founded, geographically defined, internationally recognized nation-state, with recognizable institutions for legislative and executive functions. Thomas could have had none of those assumptions. In his day, the State would have ranged from more-or-less independent city-states to feudal regions to monarchies, all of which argued (and even warred) over borders, relationships, and dues. Moreover, the Church had a more political profile in his day, arguing with civil leaders about the authority to appoint bishops and to crown rulers.

So, although I have the highest respect for Thomas's philosophy and theology, I would consider it a betrayal of his thought to simply accept his statements about the State and it's role and authority without further examination.

So I ask, what is the basis of the State's authority, from the standpoint of the Church? And then, what does this imply about the State's authority to act in such ways as, for example, to defend its borders or to execute criminals or to regulate migration?

For the record, I don't yet have answers to these questions. Nor do I expect that there is only a single form of government that would meet the requirements of Catholic moral teaching. And furthermore this may just plain be too abstract a topic for this policy-focused blog. But consider it an introduction, and feel free to give me pointers toward texts I might not have met yet myself.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Torture is torture

An excellent new editorial by Sean P. Daily for Gilbert Magazine tackles the issue of torture:

Those who see abortion as an evil are often frustrated by those who attempt to justify abortion by vague arguments about “choice” or even more practical arguments about exceptions for rape or incest, or the health of the mother. But many of these same people lose their moral clarity when the subject is torture. Suddenly they are the ones bringing up exceptions and parsing definitions.

There is so much confusion over this issue that in a recent TV interview, a prominent Catholic journalist let a former Bush Administration speechwriter, also a Catholic, grossly misrepresent Catholic teaching in a shameful apologia for torture.

Let us re-establish clarity. Torture, whether physical or psychological, is a barbaric, savage act, not justifiable under any circumstances, and unworthy of a civilized society.
But don’t take our word for it. For those readers who are religious, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America began calling for America to cease torturing prisoners more than a year ago. American Episcopal bishops agree, as do other Protestant denominations. For our Catholic readers, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “I reiterate that the prohibition against torture cannot be contravened under any circumstances.” The Catholic Church draws no distinction between physical and psychological torture.

For those readers who aren’t religious, we turn to U.S. law and international law, where torture is, without exception, condemned. Not one state or municipal law enforcement agency permits it. The Army Field Manual, which regulates interrogations by the U.S. military, prohibits torture. So does the Geneva Convention—a treaty to which both the Holy See and the United States are signatories. None of these institutions or documents draws any distinction between physical and psychological torture either. For all, torture is torture.

Read the whole thing here.

Is it still "enhanced interrogation" if someone else does it?

Is "enhanced interrogation" okay if the Iraqi government is the one alleged to do it?:

The corpses of at least three of the six Sunni Muslim detainees who died while in Iraqi government custody earlier this month showed signs of torture, their families said Thursday as they vowed revenge at emotionally charged funerals.

Iraqi authorities announced an investigation into the suffocation deaths of six men who were being transported on May 12 in a poorly ventilated truck en route to appear before an investigative committee in Baghdad. The families said they were informed the men died in a "shipping container." [...]

Relatives of three of the dead detainees spoke to McClatchy Newspapers on condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation against other family members still in government custody. In accounts that couldn't be verified independently, the families all described similar findings upon receiving the bodies of the men:

-Salah Jaata al-Nimrawi, 46, a captain in the former regime's army, fought against al-Qaida as a member of the U.S.-backed "Awakening" movement. His family said U.S. forces detained him 21/2 years ago in connection with a roadside bomb attack in Hit. The family said they received his corpse this week with a blackened eye, crude stitches on his torso, a broken hand and signs of torture on his fingers and feet.

-Murad Jalil Jassim, 27, of Ramadi, was detained in 2005 after a roadside bomb exploded on the same highway he was driving, relatives said. Relatives said his family paid bribes to retrieve his body from the Baghdad morgue and discovered suspicious holes on his neck, cigarette burns on his back and other signs of abuse.

-Mushtaq Talib al-Janabi, 35, a teacher from Fallujah, was detained by Iraqi forces last summer because he was driving a white truck, which violated a citywide ban on such vehicles after reports that some were being rigged with explosives, his family said. Relatives received his body this week and observed signs of electrical burns on his thighs and cigarette burns on his torso.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Reflections on the fifth commandment

It occurred to me as I was reading the conversation going on between a couple of commenters in this thread that it might be a good idea to have a little discussion about the fifth commandment as it relates to matters like torture and similar human life/human dignity issues.

The principle "It is always wrong directly and intentionally to take the life of an innocent human being," is often cited; I think it sums up the fifth commandment rather nicely, at least as regards being able to determine why certain things are wrong. For example, both abortion and euthanasia are always wrong because in both the life of an innocent human being is directly and intentionally taken--but if an ectopic pregnancy must be removed, or if an elderly person undergoes surgery which unfortunately fails to provide healing but instead hastens death, in neither case is the death of the innocent person directly intended.

But an additional point is provided in CCC 2269, under the discussion of homicide: "The fifth commandment forbids doing anything with the intention of indirectly bringing about a person's death. The moral law prohibits exposing someone to mortal danger without grave reason, as well as refusing assistance to a person in danger."

So, how is it possible that the Catechism spells out so clearly that it is always wrong directly or indirectly to take the life of an innocent human being--and yet the Catechism allows for the possibility that a person may kill another in various circumstances without incurring any moral penalty?

The key word in the discussion of both direct and intentional killing and and indirect, intentional killing is, I believe, the word "innocent." There is no circumstance where it might be morally permissible to kill, or to allow to die through indirect action willed toward the person's death, an innocent human being.

In the situation where a person is an aggressor, threatening the life of another, the principle of self-defense may permit the use of lethal force to stop the aggressor. The Catechism puts it this way:
2263 The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. "The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not." (65)

Then in the discussion about war (in which the "just war" doctrine's principles are restated) and in the discussion about the death penalty, these issues, too, are framed as matters of self-defense, where the "self" in question includes one's nation in the event of war, or of society as a whole in the event that society can't defend the innocent without executing the criminal.

I find this interesting, because not only is the word "innocent" important, but so is the word "intentional." In other words, one may defend oneself (and by extension one's country and one's society) from unjust aggressors using force up to and including lethal force, but only, it would appear, because the principle of double-effect applies, in that the killing of the aggressor is the unintentional, secondary effect and the preservation of innocent life is the primary one.

But because we are talking about a double-effect scenario, it follows that not only may the death of the aggressor not be sought for its own sake, nor desired as the outcome, nor held to be a good, but also that the death of the aggressor is not morally permissible in circumstances where a lesser restraint against him which does not cause his death is possible. What does that mean?

For starters, it would mean that something like this would be completely impossible from a moral perspective. Anwar Al-Awlaki may be plotting against the United States, and there may be a completely legitimate need to stop him from doing this. But plotting acts of aggression and actively carrying out such acts are two different things; it may be necessary to shoot a terrorist who is attempting to walk into a crowded restaurant while wearing a bomb because he is actively attempting to kill innocent people, but it would not be necessary to place snipers on the roof of the terrorist's apartment building because intelligence suggests that he might be considering such an act. There are plenty of ways to stop him from carrying out his planned attack without necessitating his death, and the moral law is clear: when non-lethal means of self-defense remain an option, the defender has an obligation to make use of those means before resorting to lethal ones, which must be considered a last resort.

It is true that in many self-defense scenarios, a person seeking to preserve his life may not have the ability to assess the situation calmly and correctly before using lethal means. This is true in home-invasion situations, on the battlefield, and in other situations where it simply isn't possible to tell whether non-lethal means will work to stop the aggressor before resorting to potentially lethal ones. But no one has the right to seek to kill an aggressor intentionally--and the duty to assess the situation and come up with non-lethal means to stop the aggression grows the further removed from a direct attack the situation becomes.

I bring up all of this because it is sometimes said, "We have the right to kill someone in self-defense. If we can kill him, we can certainly torture him for the same reason." But as the Catechism makes clear, we do not have a right to kill anyone, in self-defense or otherwise. We have the right to protect ourselves from an aggressor, up to and including the use of lethal force. But it is protection, not the death of the aggressor, which is willed; the death of the aggressor is the unintended and undesired consequence in this double-effect case.

And there is no possible way that it can become morally right to torture someone on the grounds of self-defense, because torture is always a direct and intentional act. Attempts to frame the use of torture in double-effect terms will always fail, because the protection of the innocent does not permit the defender to inflict pain and suffering, directly and intentionally, on the human being who is not actively threatening him but is instead wholly in his power and at his mercy.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Bishop Slattery on Immigration

I agree with the bishop completely:

Illegal immigration is an issue which concerns every American; but the issues are complex and unless we are willing to recognize the fundamental human rights with which the Creator endows each individual - and enact laws which respect those human rights - our legislative response to the problem of uncontrolled illegal immigration will be the creation of an underclass of hunted, marginalized families, whose children belong neither to this country nor to the land of their parents.

It is the clear teaching of the Catholic Church that sovereign nations have the right to control their borders; but the corollary of this teaching must also be upheld: when our nation’s demand for labor attracts a massive number of potential immigrants, the United States must do what it can to establish an orderly process whereby needed workers can enter the country in a legal, safe and dignified manner to obtain jobs or to reunite themselves with family members.

However in recent years, the federal government has neither protected the sovereignty of our borders, nor has it provided a realistic means for workers to enter the country legally. Instead it has allowed millions of immigrants to enter the country illegally for the sake of our economy; while leaving it to state and local governments to deal with the resultant chaos of millions of valuable workers who have no legal identity, no automobile insurance (and are unable to obtain it), no health coverage (with no funds to pay for it) and no means of acquiring legal residency.

These workers are not unknown to us. They live in our neighborhoods and pray with us at Mass. We benefit every day from their labor in framing and painting our houses, roofing our office buildings, finishing new cement for us, harvesting and processing our food, and serving us in our restaurants. These men and women broke the law by entering the country illegally; but they did this with the tacit permission of the federal government and most have since become part of the fabric of everyday life in America.
Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

An interesting post

As we continue pondering the topic of immigration, I'd like to point out this very interesting blog post by Jack Smith at the Catholic Key:

It is not the “strangers” from Mexico, the Philippines, China or Vietnam, almost all of which have a very solid grasp on gender and are happy to work hard at the many small, often family businesses they run who would regard Sparks as “too conservative”.

Actually, the “strangers” who have loused up San Francisco, and indeed California, are immigrants from other states. The massive immigration in the 1950s to the 1970s of rootless individuals from other states seeking to find themselves or lose themselves in San Francisco has turned a once great, and once very Catholic, city into an embarrassing freak show. From the transsexual sex toy salesman Theresa Sparks (Kansas City) to the abortion queens Barbara Boxer (Brooklyn) and Nancy Pelosi (Baltimore) to psychopaths like Jim Jones (Indiana) to the intolerant gay narcissists Tom Ammiano (New Jersey) and Mark Leno (Milwaukee), nearly every kind of nut in California shares in common being a white, native born American from another state (Mayor Gavin Newson, admittedly, is a native San Franciscan).

I used to joke that California doesn’t need a wall along its Southern border, but along the Sierra Nevada. [...]

Similar scenes are common throughout other immigrant communities in the City. In the Mission, an impossible number of taquerias, carnicerias, groceries, panaderias and other small businesses are manned by Mexicans and other Latinos (legal and not). In a City which has the lowest number of children per capita of any American city (SF literally has more dogs than children), a single parish in the Mission, St. Peter's, has over 400 baptisms a year. A largely Hispanic parish south of San Francisco had 500 First Communions last week. I'll bet those statistics are alarming to some people. To me, they are a glimmer of hope and a sign of life in a city otherwise intent on suicide. I'll take the culture and fecundity of the Mexicans over the alternatives in the Mission - like the massive BDSM porn factory in the former San Francisco Armory or the useless, unemployed, pasty-white, pierced, art/activist/anarchist “community” which also finds a home in the Mission. [All links in original--E.M.]

This is an interesting viewpoint, and one that it makes sense to discuss: if America were a healthy nation with a healthy culture, would there be the "gaps" in labor, population etc. that immigrants, legal or not, are coming here to fill?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Human dignity and the immigrant

Sometimes when Catholics read the news, it can seem like America's Catholic bishops are all too eager to support the idea that the USCCB is really just the Democratic Party at prayer.

Take the recent statement posted on the USCCB's website, written by Bishop John C. Wester, on Arizona's new immigration law, which reads in part:

On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), I join with the Catholic bishops of Arizona in strongly opposing the enactment and implementation of Arizona SB 1070. This new law, although limited to the State of Arizona, could have impact throughout the nation, in terms of how members of our immigrant communities are both perceived and treated.

SB 1070 gives law enforcement officials powers to detain and arrest individuals based on a very low legal standard, possibly leading to the profiling of individuals based upon their appearance, manner of speaking, or ethnicity. It could lead to the wrongful questioning and arrest of U.S. citizens and permanent residents as well as the division of families—parents from children and husbands from wives. It certainly would lead to the rise in fear and distrust in immigrant communities, undermining the relationships between their members and law enforcement officials.

If you stopped there, you'd miss what to me is possibly the most important paragraph in the statement--the one that comes next:

SB 1070 is symptomatic of the absence of federal leadership on the issue of immigration. For years now, the U.S. Catholic bishops have called upon Congress and two Administrations to enact meaningful and just comprehensive immigration reform.

As Robert mentioned in his earlier post, the Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with immigration in CCC 2241:
The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.
It seems to me that the Catechism passage shows the sort of balance that needs to take place between the rights of the immigrant and the rights of the common good of the residents of the country to which he aspires to move. A nation does have the right to control its borders, to regulate immigration, and to establish just laws and reasonable penalties for the breaking of those laws. At the same time, the immigrant who comes to that nation in violation of those laws does not somehow lose his right to be treated like a human being; he should not wander in a kind of legal limbo, forbidden to work or to put a roof over his head on the one hand, but ignored by the authorities responsible for enforcing immigration laws on the other.

When I read this summary of SB 1070, the Arizona law in question, I found some parts of it reasonable, most particularly the degree to which the law seems to reflect frustration on the part of Arizona's lawmakers that the federal efforts to curb illegal immigration have, thus far, been so laughably ineffective. Unfortunately, I also see some of the things that worry the U.S. bishops on this, including:

--the chance of racial profiling
--the provision which essentially makes it illegal for an illegal immigrant to work
--the provision which permits immigration status to be investigated when "determining eligibility for any public benefit, service or license provided by any federal, state, local or other political subdivision of this state..." among other things.

What this could mean is that those currently present illegally in Arizona might find their families at risk of homelessness and hunger, without any means either via honest work or with the help of public programs to alleviate these ills.

It is true that those entering our country do not have the moral right, except in rare circumstances when to remain in their own country would mean loss of life, to come here in violation of our immigration laws. But once they are here, we do not have the right to treat them without regard to their human dignity, which allows them to work and to survive. This is especially true when it is the injustice of our laws which turn, too often, a blind eye toward the "recruitment" of illegal immigrants by employers in agriculture, food production, food services, construction, hospitality, landscaping, retail, and dozens of other businesses, many of them large corporations, while "cracking down" on the individual man or woman who is here illegally.

And though there are laws against hiring illegals, the penalties are often rather weak--fines that range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars per employee, for example. What is that to a company that may be saving millions of dollars a year by hiring employees who don't need to be paid the minimum wage and aren't subject to any of the "rights of workers" laws designed to protect workers--and who can't belong to any union?

For now, the bottom line for me is that while I sympathize with the frustration that helped create the Arizona law, I think that the enforcement efforts are disproportionately aimed at the wrong people: the individual illegal immigrant, who may be married to an American citizen and have American citizens for children, in some cases. The majority of the effort to reform immigration law needs, in my opinion, to be aimed at those corporations who are willing to flout our nation's laws on immigration again and again in order to increase their profits and satisfy their Wall Street investors--because until that happens, these employers will continue to create a demand for illegal workers. And as long as there is demand, does anyone doubt that there will continue to be a steady supply?

If you're in the Seattle area...

Blessed Sacrament Parish is offering a presentation on moral and effective interrogation techniques. Behold:
"How to Break a Terrorist" by Matthew Alexander

Join us for a presentation by Matthew Alexander on the immorality and ineffectiveness of torture. Alexander spent 14 years as a US Air Force interrogator, and was awarded the Bronze Star for his service in Iraq. He is a national figure and the author of How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq.

Saturday, May 22 at 7:30 PM in the church. For more information contact Nina Butorac at 206-732-7351.