Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Boston bomber should not be put to death

Earlier this week, Thomas McDonald wrote that he could see the possibility of a just decision to pursue the death penalty in the case of the surviving Boston bomber:
In the case of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, we need to consider other issues, however.

Is it possible he will ever get out? Given his age and our short memories, yes, it’s possible.

Is it possible he will be a danger to the public if he is imprisoned for life? Given his motives (radical religious fundamentalism acting in a global war against American citizens and interests), it seems quite obvious that he could be.

It’s too early to tell whether the death penalty will be pursued, and whether Catholics should support it if it is pursued. It’s still an open question for me, but I think as the story and case comes to light, Catholics should be able to learn what they can and make a prudential judgment about the support for, or rejection of, the application of the death penalty.

We do well to reject the death penalty whenever we can. Doing so promotes a wider culture of life and exercises the most powerful witness to God: mercy.

But there may be times when its application is in the good of society, if only to protect society in a way life in prison cannot. The Boston bombings may be one of those cases.

I appreciate the thoughtful tone of what McDonald writes here--this is not some kind of "death penalty cheerleading" which we have, sadly seen from some Catholics.  But even at the time that I read this post it was already seeming as though it might not be at all necessary to execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and the more information that comes out--though as always what the media tells us and what's really going on may end up varying rather widely in the end--the more it seems as though the possible justifications for a morally sound use of the death penalty are absent in this case.

Remember, here's what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the death penalty and the use of force to protect society from aggressors:
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
Now, let's look at the situation we have here.

First, it cannot be said enough that both Tamerlan Tsarnaev and his younger brother Dzhokhar committed crimes of unspeakable evil, and that their actions were clearly those of unjust aggressors whom the state has an absolute duty to stop.  That lethal force was used to stop Tamerlan who had not only a gun but (reportedly) explosives and who was clearly not planning to surrender peacefully was clearly a just thing to do.

Having said that, though, we have to consider that the younger brother, Dzhokhar, was apparently actually unarmed at the time of his capture (which makes one wonder about why the poor homeowner's boat had to get so terribly shot up).  Had the police used lethal force in their capture of him without even attempting to ascertain that he was, in fact, unarmed, it would be objectively unjust (even if, on a subjective level, we can understand that emotions were running high and fears that the second Tsarnaev brother might not only be armed but wearing a suicide vest were pretty rampant for a while).  But should lethal force--that is, the death penalty--still be considered a morally valid option in his case?

The question is not, remember, whether Tsarnaev is guilty of gravely evil acts that left innocent people dead and more innocent people seriously wounded--he is.  It is also not a question of how much under his brother's control he was, how much he has cooperated with authorities (or whether he has, now that he has been read his rights, stopped answering questions for the time being), or even whether he and his brother did plan further attacks--at least, those questions are going to be very interesting to law enforcement, but they don't by themselves answer the key question for Catholics pondering the morality of the death penalty in this case.  And that question is this: is Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, himself, so serious a continuing threat to human life and safety that society can only be justly protected if he is put to death?

If the younger Tsarnaev brother had been the one in charge of things, if he had been the one who might have active ties to terrorist sleeper cells, and if law enforcement officials could show that he did, indeed, present a continued threat to the lives and safety of innocent people by the mere fact that he continues to breathe and have a heartbeat even if he spends the rest of his life behind bars, we might be able to answer in the affirmative.  But every single thing that has been revealed so far has shown that the Tsarnaevs acted alone, that the older brother, Tamerlan, was the one with radical ties and suspicious travel, that even so there's no evidence that Tamerlan had an active relationship with a terror cell full of people who will continue to carry out his plots.  In other words, the Tsarnaevs were, in the words of Mark Shea's tongue-in-cheek headline, a couple of Chechen losers, not the shadowy masterminds pulling the strings of a vast network of would-be killers.

So executing Dzhokhar Tsarnaev can't really be argued from the standpoint of the necessity of public safety and protecting human lives, with leaves us with this part of the Catechism quote above: "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."

And it is almost impossible to see how--barring some sort of gross negligence on the part of those responsible for his eventual incarceration--nonlethal means would not be sufficient to protect America from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.   Provided, then, that there is no sudden twist in our information which proves that the younger Tsarnaev brother really was calling the shots at the head of some vast network of killers and will continue to occupy that position behind bars, which seems almost as unlikely as CNN reporters refraining from publishing wild speculation as fact, I am confident as a Catholic saying that the surviving Boston bomber should not be put to death.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Abortion is both torture and murder

From the trial of Kermit Gosnell:
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A former abortion clinic worker capped the five-week murder trial of her former boss with powerful testimony that she saw more than 10 babies breathe before they were killed.

"I thought they were breathing," Kareema Cross testified Thursday, explaining that she saw their chests go up and down in the clinic run by Dr. Kermit Gosnell. "He would say they're not really breathing."

Cross, 28, is the final prosecution witness in the capital murder case against Gosnell. He is charged in the deaths of a patient and seven babies allegedly born alive.

Cross also described seeing three babies move, one after being born in a toilet, and heard a fourth give a "soft whine." [...]

She said she routinely saw Gosnell abort babies who were past the state's 24-week abortion limit. She said staff left late-term patients alone on the second floor after they'd been given painkillers and potent drugs to induce labor, and said some even stayed overnight unattended in a makeshift bedroom.

She said Gosnell and others snipped the backs of the babies' necks after they were born and sometimes removed the brain through the opening. And she described the clinic as filthy and the equipment as outdated. [...]

Another photograph, taken by a co-worker, showed "the largest baby she had ever seen" aborted at the clinic.

The jury has seen the disturbing picture before and heard from the boy's then-teenage mother. The baby's gestational age has been estimated by some to be nearly 30 weeks.

The teen mother was asleep when the baby came out, and Gosnell put the body in a container the size of a shoe box, Cross testified. The baby drew in its arms and legs and curled up in a fetal position, she said.
Is there any reason in a civilized country for this sort of thing to happen?  No, not really.  But in America, it is clear that the acceptance of Sex Without Consequences as a guiding principle of the public "virtue" requires easy abortion all the way through a pregnancy, up to the very moment of birth.  Dr. Gosnell's alleged crime is that he thought it would be okay to abort living children even after birth.  Even there, it could be argued that he is merely ahead of his time.

Abortion is both the torture and the murder of the living unborn human in his or her mother's womb.  But in America, only the born count--and only some of the born.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Anti-Semitism is neither traditional nor Catholic

In recent days, Dawn Eden, Mark Shea, and Simcha Fisher have been writing about anti-Semitism, especially a form of loud Internet anti-Semitism that tends to be associated with self-described Traditional Catholics.

Please note the careful phrasing of the above.  Just because some people who describe themselves as Traditional Catholics say rather disgusting things about the Jewish people does not in any way mean that all who are drawn to the Extraordinary Form Mass hold these opinions, or that anti-Semitism is somehow a component of traditional Catholic beliefs.  I am not saying either of these things, nor should those who love the Extraordinary Form but rightly reject all anti-Semitism feel as though this post is still somehow directed at them.  It isn't.

Here are some things the Church has said that are relevant to this topic:

From the Council of Trent:
Besides, to increase the dignity of this mystery, Christ not only suffered for sinners, but even for those who were the very authors and ministers of all the torments He endured. Of this the Apostle reminds us in these words addressed to the Hebrews: Think diligently upon him that endured such opposition from sinners against himself; that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds. In this guilt are involved all those who fall frequently into sin; for, as our sins consigned Christ the Lord to the death of the cross, most certainly those who wallow in sin and iniquity crucify to themselves again the Son of God, as far as in them lies, and make a mockery of Him. This guilt seems more enormous in us than in the Jews, since according to the testimony of the same Apostle: If they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory; while we, on the contrary, professing to know Him, yet denying Him by our actions, seem in some sort to lay violent hands on him. [...]

Furthermore men of all ranks and conditions were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. Gentiles and Jews were the advisers, the authors, the ministers of His Passion: Judas betrayed Him, Peter denied Him, all the rest deserted Him. 

From Nostra Aetate:

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(13) still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.

Furthermore, in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel's spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

Divisions among the Jewish authorities concerning Jesus
595 Among the religious authorities of Jerusalem, not only were the Pharisee Nicodemus and the prominent Joseph of Arimathea both secret disciples of Jesus, but there was also long-standing dissension about him, so much so that St. John says of these authorities on the very eve of Christ's Passion, "many.. . believed in him", though very imperfectly.378 This is not surprising, if one recalls that on the day after Pentecost "a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith" and "some believers. . . belonged to the party of the Pharisees", to the point that St. James could tell St. Paul, "How many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed; and they are all zealous for the Law."379
596 The religious authorities in Jerusalem were not unanimous about what stance to take towards Jesus.380 The Pharisees threatened to excommunicate his followers.381 To those who feared that "everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation", the high priest Caiaphas replied by prophesying: "It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish."382 The Sanhedrin, having declared Jesus deserving of death as a blasphemer but having lost the right to put anyone to death, hands him over to the Romans, accusing him of political revolt, a charge that puts him in the same category as Barabbas who had been accused of sedition.383 The chief priests also threatened Pilate politically so that he would condemn Jesus to death.384
Jews are not collectively responsible for Jesus' death
597 The historical complexity of Jesus' trial is apparent in the Gospel accounts. The personal sin of the participants (Judas, the Sanhedrin, Pilate) is known to God alone. Hence we cannot lay responsibility for the trial on the Jews in Jerusalem as a whole, despite the outcry of a manipulated crowd and the global reproaches contained in the apostles' calls to conversion after Pentecost.385 Jesus himself, in forgiving them on the cross, and Peter in following suit, both accept "the ignorance" of the Jews of Jerusalem and even of their leaders.386 Still less can we extend responsibility to other Jews of different times and places, based merely on the crowd's cry: "His blood be on us and on our children!", a formula for ratifying a judicial sentence.387 As the Church declared at the Second Vatican Council:
. . . [N]either all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his Passion. . . [T]he Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy Scripture.388
And since this blog is primarily concerned with the social justice teachings of the Church, here is another relevant passage from the Catechism:

1929 Social justice can be obtained only in respecting the transcendent dignity of man. The person represents the ultimate end of society, which is ordered to him:
What is at stake is the dignity of the human person, whose defense and promotion have been entrusted to us by the Creator, and to whom the men and women at every moment of history are strictly and responsibly in debt.35
1930 Respect for the human person entails respect for the rights that flow from his dignity as a creature. These rights are prior to society and must be recognized by it. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority: by flouting them, or refusing to recognize them in its positive legislation, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy.36 If it does not respect them, authority can rely only on force or violence to obtain obedience from its subjects. It is the Church's role to remind men of good will of these rights and to distinguish them from unwarranted or false claims.

1931 Respect for the human person proceeds by way of respect for the principle that "everyone should look upon his neighbor (without any exception) as 'another self,' above all bearing in mind his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity."37 No legislation could by itself do away with the fears, prejudices, and attitudes of pride and selfishness which obstruct the establishment of truly fraternal societies. Such behavior will cease only through the charity that finds in every man a "neighbor," a brother. 

From all of the above, it should be easy to see that any hatred of or contempt toward the Jewish people is not compatible with the Catholic faith.  This hatred or contempt may take many forms: denying or minimizing the Holocaust, for example, or whispering about secret Jewish financial or economic conspiracies designed to control the world in some way, or a tendency to believe that powerful Jewish men and women are secretly engaged either in "infiltrating" the Church or in openly attacking Christianity through various political means.  I myself have heard and seen some of these ideas expressed at various times and in various places; when they are openly expressed it is both right and relatively simple to combat them by instant and complete repudiation of such notions.

There is nothing traditional or Catholic about harboring unjust discrimination against a group of one's neighbors; to do so is to treat human beings like objects, denying them their intrinsic dignity and worth as "other selves" and seeing them instead as some shadowy and less-than-human enemy.  It cannot be said clearly enough that this is wrong, and must not be permitted to continue.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Justice and mercy shall meet

Want to know what justice without mercy might look like?  Here's an example:
A Saudi court has ruled that a man who paralysed his best friend should now himself be crippled in an 'eye-for-an-eye' punishment.

Ali Al-Khawahir has been in prison since stabbing his friend in the backbone 10 years ago, when he was only 14 years old.

According to the Saudi Gazette, a court has ruled that the accused should now be "fully paralysed" unless he pays the compensation demanded by the victim.
Originally the victim asked for two million Saudi Riyals (£350,000) however this sum has since been reduced to one million Saudi Riyals (£176,000), according to Mail Online. 

It is not clear how the punishment would be carried out. However it has been speculated that the victim's spinal cord would be severed.

Al-Khawahir's 60-year-old mother, who does not have sufficient funds to pay the compensation, has begged people to contribute to the fund.

"Ten years have passed with hundreds of sleepless nights. My hair has become grey at a young age because of my son's problem. I have been frightened to death whenever I think about my son's fate and that he will have to be paralysed," she said according to a report in Saudi Gazette.
Now, nobody I know thinks that a boy of 14 who stabs his best friend in the back should be given a slap on the wrist and sent home.  He did something seriously wrong, and the punishment has to be serious as well.

Ten years in prison might or might not be just (though there's no word in this article on how much longer he will remain in jail).  But severing his spinal cord?  Most of us would not call that justice; we would call it cruel and unusual punishment.

But there was a time in history when such "eye-for-an-eye" punishment was the standard of justice.  It's even reflected in the Bible, in the book of Leviticus, when these kinds of punishments, which seem horrible to us today, were spelled out as being what was required in a variety of circumstances.

What changed?  Were those things just then, but unjust now?  Can justice change?  Or is it our understanding of justice and our appreciation for the necessity of mercy to season justice that has changed?

I don't think any of us would want to be in a place where justice meant deliberately severing the spinal cord of a man who is in prison.  And I think that says something about how Christianity changed our concept of what justice means, and what role mercy properly plays in our dispensing of it.