dignity arguments on the death penalty and slavery

The Cathechism now states

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes…

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

Dignity arguments are always fallacious when claiming to establish universal norms.  This is because the way that dignity is recognized is entirely culture-dependent.  As with standards of modesty, the intentional object of dignity is an objective, universal reality, but the rules of its expression vary from people to people.  Even as we recognize this, we are nevertheless bound by rules of our own people.  Indeed, to follow a customary rule with full knowledge of its contingency is to make two acts of recognition at once, the first to the universal object (the dignity of persons, in this case) and the second to the value of spiritual unity with one’s people.  My neighbor’s dignity deserves to be recognized, and my people deserve that I should do it in the manner of my ancestors and neighbors.  Thus, dignity arguments may well be valid for the culture in which they are made.

For example, there is nothing intrinsically immoral about the owning of slaves.  The Church has recognized this from the beginning, and abolitionist arguments all fail (at least as intending to prove the intrinsic inadmissibility of slavery as opposed to noting some dangers and disadvantages of the practice).  No slave-owning people would have agreed that they fail to recognize the humanity of their slaves, and they knew their own minds far better than self-righteous Bostonians.  However, abolitionist propaganda has convinced the larger culture that to own a slave is to assert his lack of dignity or “full”  humanity (whatever that means), so now it has become immoral for us to purchase slaves, because we would now see this act as demeaning our slaves, and it is sinful to intend to demean according to the customs of one’s society.  For example, there is nothing intrinsically immoral, absent cultural context, about sticking one’s tongue out at another person, but if one’s people regard this act as a sign of ultimate hatred and scorn, then it is immoral to do so.

Pope Francis now provides an analogous argument against the death penalty.  That execution intrinsically fails to recognize the dignity of the condemned is absurd.  It is, in fact, the ultimate recognition of him as a moral agent.  All other times and places have recognized this.  The Church herself has always recognized it.  There are strong arguments for the intrinsic immorality of the death penalty, but this is not one of them.  Dignity arguments can at most apply within a single cultural context.  Thus, the Pope must appeal to “Today…growing awareness…”  Just execution by lawful authority may be in itself morally admissible, but we in the West have developed this bizarre hangup over killing people, so we should not do it.

Alternatively, one could regard the change to the Catechism as an act of papal authority.  The death penalty is not intrinsically immoral, but the spiritual power is superior to the temporal, and Christ’s Vicar on Earth now commands temporal powers to refrain from this act.  However, my explanation at least makes some use of His Holiness’ arguments, which appear to use his teaching/declarative role rather than his ruling/imperative role.  (“The Church teaches…” rather than “the Church commands…”)

I begin to think that it is becoming spiritually perilous for the laity to seek to know what the Church’s teaching is on topics which do not affect us personally.  The experience of physics and mathematics has led us to expect that the truth should be simple, beautiful, and clear.  We would like to have a few clear principles to understand, defend, and apply.  But when we wish to know what the Church teaches about something like the death penalty, we find that we cannot proceed as we would wish.  Instead of applying general principles, we must first gather two thousand years of documents, then try to carefully parse the language in each one looking for some set of readings that will make all of them consistent.  I admit that my mind rebels against this, and I say to myself “I don’t have time for all this lawyer sh*t”.  Perhaps this is my pride, that I think myself too good for “lawyer sh*t”.  Perhaps I’m just spoiled by science and philosophy.  But then again, there’s no reason why I must understand what the Church teaches on the death penalty.  I am not a magistrate with the power of life and death, and the Church has made it clear that she doesn’t want amateur apologists like me picking fights on her behalf.  So perhaps I should just leave it at that.  I do not know if the death penalty is always immoral.  I do not know what the Church teaches about it.  The question of faith–do I believe that what the Church teaches about it is true?–does not even arise for me on this issue.

13 Responses

  1. Simply compare the “dignity” of the slave, who is employed, useful, kept out of immorality, and most likely married and a parent, to the “dignity” of how the modern underclass chooses to live once they have been emancipated from the need to work- the ‘dignity’ argument becomes ridiculous.

    Human dignity is not incarnate, in the flesh, it exists in the soul. The flesh is under temporal authority. If slavery and the death penalty violate ‘humanness’ then it becomes immoral to compel anything against another human body.

  2. It’s just amusing the hoops you idol worshippers have to jump through to justify godly, holy practices such as slavery and death penalty to meet the perverse moral system laid out in that vile, evil book you call the new testament.

  3. Don’t forget slaughtering infidels and killing your children for looking crossways – straight tickets to paradise, baby!

  4. This change in teaching is absolutely catastrophic. Not because of the prohibition of the Death Penalty per se, rather the change in the underlying understanding of Justice and Desert, which in turn impact upon the understanding of Mercy. It opens the door to the the Catholic Gulag.

    Longenecker gets to the guts of it here.


  5. Simpler explanation: the Church is pozzed and Bergoglio is a Communist.

  6. Slumlord, while you are correct about the Catholic Gulag, all the necessary teaching was already in the CCC. Pope Francis’ change makes little difference. The potential was already in the teaching that we could be incarcerated indefinitely, for example for homophobia, until we agreed to ‘right thinking’. Now, we just can’t be executed for our unacceptable beliefs (admittedly, this might lead to a fate worse than death).

    Longenecker is an excellent resource.

  7. Longenecker:

    You can see that there was not much of an endorsement of the death penalty already. Francis just closed the loophole. I don’t think this is the monumental “change in the timeless doctrine of the church” the alarmists contend. First, this is social teaching. It is not doctrine or immutable moral teaching.

    When JPII radically changed things, the Longeneckers invited us to focus on the loophole and nothing but the loophole. Now that Francis mops up, the Longeneckers invite us to focus on how insignificant the loophole is. Very similar to the argument described in one of my favorite Bonald posts, The Empirical Two-Step.

    So, the change didn’t happen when everything but the loophole was closed, and it didn’t happen when the loophole was closed. Of course, the Longeneckers claim nothing has really changed at all, so I guess they are consistent, in a way. They do grasp that nobody but them is going to swallow this camel whole, though, so it gets cut up. You know, because the hoi polloi are too stupid to understand that Church teaching doesn’t really change when it goes from saying A to saying not-A. Because, like, there’s this groovy subject-Church, man, and it doesn’t change. Like, cosmic.

    Also excellent is his enthusiastic endorsement of usury. Does he write for Commentary, by chance?

  8. I notice that everybody criticizing Pope Francis takes pains to say that they are personally disturbed or revulsed by the death penalty and would prefer states not use it if possible.

    I don’t see why we’re obliged to feel that way. If those bastards on death row really deserve to die, isn’t it a better state of affairs if they get what they deserve? Why should we need another reason? Now, if the death penalty is intrinsically immoral, then we shouldn’t do it. This would mean the moral law constraining us to accept an inferior outcome to what we might otherwise have had, which happens all the time. Bad guys hanging from nooses would be the ideal, but we would not have the right to implement it. Must we be sickened by the thought of it, though?

  9. @Bonald

    Must we be sickened by the thought of it, though?

    Yeah, we should. Although the bastards are getting their just deserts, as far as I see it, I see the whole capital punishment thing as a waste of a potential life. The only “joy” in capital punishment is that there is some kind of justice for the victim.

    Killing a man’s a terrible thing, and sometimes it’s the only right thing to do, but it shouldn’t be done with glee.

  10. Yeah, we should.

    Exactly. Like the good Charismatic Protestants that we are, we know that what’s really important is that we carry around the right feelz inside our heads. That, and smile a lot. Sola Personality.

    Bonald, I am curious if you still endorse the claim that it is wrong for executioners to enjoy their job and to take their job specifically because they enjoy it:

    If someone took the job of executioner because he just liked chopping anybody’s head off, we would also say that is wrong

    This old claim stuck with me because I found it both strange and out of character.

  11. @ Dr Bill

    That, and smile a lot. Sola Personality.

    “I answer that, A thing may be a matter of rejoicing in two ways. First directly, when one rejoices in a thing as such: and thus the saints will not rejoice in the punishment of the wicked. Secondly, indirectly, by reason namely of something annexed to it: and in this way the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy. And thus the Divine justice and their own deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed: while the punishment of the damned will cause it indirectly.”

    I highlighted it for you………..out of my bountiful Christian love.


  12. Completely irrelevant to either Bonald’s question or to my point. Nothing in what St Thomas says requires either that we be sickened by capital punishment specifically or that sin is primarily concerned with our feelz.

    Charity, millstones: all the same thing as long as you gotz dem feelz.

  13. I thought that an abolition of the death penalty could actually be permitted under St. Thomas Aquinas’s analogy for the death penalty —that of removing a diseased limb or body part. A doctor is only permitted to remove even a diseased body part if there is no other option, otherwise removing it would be rash on the doctor’s part. Hence antibiotics and other medical advances make removing body parts a rash option in many more situations today. (I actually recall that among moral theologians in the 50s there was a strong debate about whether it was even permissible to donate healthy organs to another person). As far as protecting society, I doubt the death penalty has the same preventive effect it had in previous eras —especially with the increasing call for assisted suicide. In St. Augustine’s day, even the pagans were afraid of death, because they had an unpleasant afterlife despite not believing in Hell per se. Now the worst case scenario a majority of people think they face is a fade to black.

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