Saturday, April 5, 2008

Pots & Kettles

I picked up or rather was given a copy of CATECHISTS, a magazine for, well, catechists. Generally it is fairly good, but.. (you knew that was coming) .. this issue contained an article which particularly irked me. Enough so that I sent a letter to the editor. It concerned a feature proporting to have advice from "Master Catechists."
My letter follows:
I am writing about an answer given by Kate Ristow's in answer to the question "Can a catechist disagree with Church teaching." While I certainly agree with Ms. Ristow's position that a catechist must teach in accordance with the Church's position on subjects, the example given by her in the article is an example of her doing exactly what she says a catechist must not do, impose her own beliefs in preference to the teaching of the Church.
Her example? To quote:
" Let's say, for example, that one of the topics your textbooks addresses is the Ten Commandments. As you teach the Fifth Commandment- You shall not kill -and the text rightfully emphasizes the sacredness of life, you simply can not tell the kids that you personally the death penalty is an acceptable option for punishing murderers. You must teach that it is our duty to protect life in all circumstances and that only God has the right to decide when someone's life should end."
A very nice sentiment, except it is not what the Church reaches. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2266) says:

"2266 Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty. For analogous reasons those holding authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the community in their charge."

While many individual Catholic leaders have, on their own authority, spoken out against the death penalty, the teaching of the Church itself is that use of the death penalty can be legitimate, depending on the circumstances, and Ms. Ristow's statement that it is not, is a case of her disagreeing with Church teaching, and presenting her view as the Churches. While elementary students are likely not capable of understanding the full scope of the Church's teaching on when it is legitimate to impose the death penalty, the use of force under the Just War doctrine and when it is permissible to kill in self defense and at other times these are subjects that high school students should be learning and the lesson needs to come out of the CCC and other Church documents and not from people's opinions.
And, of course the subject is even more complicated than that. A philosopher I know (really, she is a real Doctor of Philosophy, and teaches said subject,) can give a very precise and logical argument on why imposition of the death penalty is never morally defensible, based on the principle that execution for revenge is never moral, and that execution of a captive who no longer has the ability to harm society is also not morally right. These are very compelling arguments, perhaps enough to say that in the modern world, at least in the United States, capital punishment does not meet the requirements of CCC 2266, of execution being necessary to "rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm." But this does not mean that execution is thus wrong in all cases in all places. Indeed this is the stand of the Church, that there are some circumstances where legitimate authority does have the right. and the duty, to impose the death penalty. And this is what a catechist should teach.


Andrew Clarke said...

I take your point about it being a legitimate duty in Christ to protect others and yourself against harm, but I am a Christian who opposes the death penalty on the ground that judicial proceedure has often been found unreliable, and up to half the convicted murderers on one state's death row were found on subsequent investigation to be innocent! For that reason, I believe, life imprisonment but beware of imposing anything that cannot be redressed. Keep the offender from doing future harm but leave room for release if it turns out that they were wrongly convicted. And that HAS happened. It will not be on my conscience that the innocent went to the gas chamber, the gallows, or any other such place. That is my prompting from the God of Jesus Christ in Whom I believe.

TerryC said...

Being opposed to the death penalty is a legitimate Catholic stand. I oppose the death penalty as it is imposed in the United States, for all of the reasons you mention.
However the point is not whether it is alright for a Catholic to oppose the death penalty. The point is that the Church does not teach that the death penalty is at all times and places against Catholic teaching. That was the impression given by the "Master Catechist" in the article. That was a case of a person passing off their own views as the teaching of the Church, the very thing the writer was cautioning against.

Katherine said...


You make an important, nuanced point. I think it is safe to say no doctrine of the Catholic church can be explained in less than a book, let alone a sentence.