Ethical Problems with Evangelium Vitae?


#1

It seems to me that the late Pope John Paul II made a significant ethical mistake in Evangelium Vitae. As most Catholics are aware, the Catholic Church has always recognized the authority of the state to administer capital punishment.

In Evangelium Vitae, however, the late Pope John Paul II suggested that the circumstances that would warrent the death penalty are rare, if not non-existent.

Here is the problem. I have many relatives who work at correctional institutions. Based on their stories and studies done by various penal organizations, the general consensus is that it is impossible to guarantee the safety of the prison guards or the other prisoners. The instances where guards or prisoners are attacked and killed by other prisoners can be minimized, but it cannot be eliminated.

If the Catholic Church changes its position on the death penalty and says that society can no longer execute convicted felons, then the corollary of that position is that society must provide prison guards to watch these people and protect society from them. But since it is impossible to completely protect prison guards and other prisoners, this obligatory requirement that society guard murderers rather than execute them will inevitably mean that society is ordered to allow some innocent people (i.e., prison guards) to be placed in positions where they run the risk of being murdered. Moreover, Evangelium Vitae seems to assume that society can be adequately protected by prisons without any consideration of the fact that many prisoners have outside accomplices that they can influence or order to commit murders. I fail to see the justification for the use of the word “non-existent” in Evangelium Vitae, and I noticed that the encyclical provided no support for that statement.

This position seems highly unethical to me. If a convicted murderer commits or causes another murder while in prison, it seems to me that the murderer should be put to death. An ethical position that the murderer should be preserved and more innocent people should be put at risk seems like no ethic at all.

Was Evangelium Vitae poorly written, poorly thought out, or am I missing something? What are your thoughts?


#2

[quote=SFH]IWas Evangelium Vitae poorly written, poorly thought out, or am I missing something? What are your thoughts?
[/quote]

You’re missing something. The criteria for the administration of capital punishment according to Catholic doctrine hasn’t changed. Basically, if capital punishment is the surest means of protecting society from further harm, then capital punishment is permissible. What has changed in the developed world today are methods of incarceration that would have been impossible in the past. IOW, technology has changed how often capital punishment is the surest means of protecting society from further harm.

The actual decision about whether capital punishment is warranted remains the prudential judgment of the state, which, of course, assumes the decision makers act prudently.

– Mark L. Chance.


#3

[quote=mlchance]You’re missing something. The criteria for the administration of capital punishment according to Catholic doctrine hasn’t changed. Basically, if capital punishment is the surest means of protecting society from further harm, then capital punishment is permissible. What has changed in the developed world today are methods of incarceration that would have been impossible in the past. IOW, technology has changed how often capital punishment is the surest means of protecting society from further harm.

The actual decision about whether capital punishment is warranted remains the prudential judgment of the state, which, of course, assumes the decision makers act prudently.

– Mark L. Chance.
[/quote]

You wouldn’t happen to have any information on how much safer prisons are today than in times past would you? I heard of a study a few years back that found fewer murders were committed in prisons during the 1800s than we have today (on a proportionate basis). Technology seems to have made prisons less secure places to place threats to society than more secure places.

If I’m missing something, that isn’t it.


#4

Part of your problem may be that you are making a significant jump from this (the Pope’s words)…

[quote=SFH] In Evangelium Vitae, however, the late Pope John Paul II suggested that the circumstances that would warrent the death penalty are rare, if not non-existent.
[/quote]

…To this (your words):

[quote=SFH] If the Catholic Church changes its position on the death penalty and says that society can no longer execute convicted felons,
[/quote]

The statement in the previous post:

The actual decision about whether capital punishment is warranted remains the prudential judgment of the state, which, of course, assumes the decision makers act prudently.

Is right out of the new Catechism and accurately conveys the Church’s stance on this issue.


#5

[quote=SFH]You wouldn’t happen to have any information on how much safer prisons are today than in times past would you? I heard of a study a few years back that found fewer murders were committed in prisons during the 1800s than we have today (on a proportionate basis).
[/quote]

No, I’ve not researched the issue. I think it entirely in keeping with Catholic teaching to execute prisoners who continue to prey on others, whether those others are prisoners or not.

It is important to understand the Church’s teaching on capital punishment isn’t on all-or-nothing affair. It isn’t either “No capital punishment” or “Capital punishment for all”. Instead, each case must be evaluated justly and prudently.

Consider someone like Scott Peterson. He was convicted of killing his wife. Is he honestly a danger to anyone else? I doubt it. Life in prison with no possibility of parole seems sufficient punishment for him. Another convict, one with a proven track record of preying on others? Kill him.

Of course, that’s easy for me to say, since the prudential judgment isn’t mine to make.

– Mark L. Chance.


#6

[quote=SFH]It seems to me that the late Pope John Paul II made a significant ethical mistake in Evangelium Vitae. As most Catholics are aware, the Catholic Church has always recognized the authority of the state to administer capital punishment.

In Evangelium Vitae, however, the late Pope John Paul II suggested that the circumstances that would warrent the death penalty are rare, if not non-existent.

Here is the problem. I have many relatives who work at correctional institutions. Based on their stories and studies done by various penal organizations, the general consensus is that it is impossible to guarantee the safety of the prison guards or the other prisoners. The instances where guards or prisoners are attacked and killed by other prisoners can be minimized, but it cannot be eliminated.

If the Catholic Church changes its position on the death penalty and says that society can no longer execute convicted felons, then the corollary of that position is that society must provide prison guards to watch these people and protect society from them. But since it is impossible to completely protect prison guards and other prisoners, this obligatory requirement that society guard murderers rather than execute them will inevitably mean that society is ordered to allow some innocent people (i.e., prison guards) to be placed in positions where they run the risk of being murdered. Moreover, Evangelium Vitae seems to assume that society can be adequately protected by prisons without any consideration of the fact that many prisoners have outside accomplices that they can influence or order to commit murders. I fail to see the justification for the use of the word “non-existent” in Evangelium Vitae, and I noticed that the encyclical provided no support for that statement.

This position seems highly unethical to me. If a convicted murderer commits or causes another murder while in prison, it seems to me that the murderer should be put to death. An ethical position that the murderer should be preserved and more innocent people should be put at risk seems like no ethic at all.

Was Evangelium Vitae poorly written, poorly thought out, or am I missing something? What are your thoughts?
[/quote]

The question also has to asked is how do murderers get the opportunity to murder again? Are our institutions actually locking them away where they have no possible access to others? We do have the ability to do this if necessary. “many prisoners have outside accomplices that they can influence or order to commit murders.” Why do convicted murderers have contact with the outside world, except in a very controlled manner?


#7

[quote=Br. Rich SFO]The question also has to asked is how do murderers get the opportunity to murder again? Are our institutions actually locking them away where they have no possible access to others? We do have the ability to do this if necessary. “many prisoners have outside accomplices that they can influence or order to commit murders.” Why do convicted murderers have contact with the outside world, except in a very controlled manner?
[/quote]

The problem is with human weakness. We will never have perfect prisons untill they are no longer run and managed by humans.

Actually there have been changes. St. Thomas taught that capital punnisment could be used for purely punitive reasons. It is a very recent development that is taught in the CCC.

I agree that the logical line does not follow. However, the issue itself is worth discussion - such as why the position change since the time of Thomas?


#8

[quote=mosher]The problem is with human weakness. We will never have perfect prisons untill they are no longer run and managed by humans.

Actually there have been changes. St. Thomas taught that capital punnisment could be used for purely punitive reasons. It is a very recent development that is taught in the CCC.

I agree that the logical line does not follow. However, the issue itself is worth discussion - such as why the position change since the time of Thomas?
[/quote]

The logical line does follow; I just haven’t provided all the intermediate steps. See nccbuscc.org/sdwp/national/criminal/appeal.htm.

I agree with you that the CCC adopts a new approach to the death penalty. In my opinion, it is very flawed because it presupposes a Utilitarian ethic, which is foreign to Catholic thought, instead of a Natural Law ethic as espoused by the Angelic Doctor (and 2000 years of Catholic tradition).


#9

[quote=SFH]The logical line does follow; I just haven’t provided all the intermediate steps. See nccbuscc.org/sdwp/national/criminal/appeal.htm.

I agree with you that the CCC adopts a new approach to the death penalty. In my opinion, it is very flawed because it presupposes a Utilitarian ethic, which is foreign to Catholic thought, instead of a Natural Law ethic as espoused by the Angelic Doctor (and 2000 years of Catholic tradition).
[/quote]

Fascinating. Especially since capital punishment has been upheld at times in the history of the Church to discourage heresy. I was surprised to learn that, but it is so. I understand now that the Church does not advocate the gas chamber for heretics, but still, it would seem that for 2,000 years capital punishment has been justified in certain times for certain reasons. To suddenly change now and say No can do is a reversal. But not the first reversal of permission either. The first three centuries of Christianity, capital punishment was not allowed for heresy either. Than with Diocletian, why, that changed. Capital punishment IS something the Church has gone back and forth on for 2,000 years.
We are not allowed to be relativistic, so it can’t be a change in times or technology, either.


#10

[quote=mosher]St. Thomas taught that capital punnisment could be used for purely punitive reasons. It is a very recent development that is taught in the CCC.
[/quote]

With all due respect to the Angelic Doctor: St. Thomas Aquinas is not now, never was, nor ever will be the Magesterium. Where he disagrees with Magesterium, he – just like everyone else – is wrong.

– Mark L. Chance.


#11

[quote=mlchance]With all due respect to the Angelic Doctor: St. Thomas Aquinas is not now, never was, nor ever will be the Magesterium. Where he disagrees with Magesterium, he – just like everyone else – is wrong.

– Mark L. Chance.
[/quote]

But the Magesterium has also upheld capital punishment at times. A quick search of heresy penalties will show that. See my post above.


#12

[quote=katewithak]But the Magesterium has also upheld capital punishment at times.
[/quote]

As the Magesterium still does.

– Mark L. Chance.


#13

[quote=katewithak]But the Magesterium has also upheld capital punishment at times. A quick search of heresy penalties will show that. See my post above.
[/quote]

Not only that, but the Catechism of the Council of Trent clearly implies the appropriateness of capital punishment as a punitive measure. And the Catechism of the Council of Trent was issued by the Magisterium as well (nor has it ever been revoked).

I suppose one could argue that Pope John Paul II was merely expressing his personal opinion when he said reasons to apply the death penalty were almost non-existent, and that would maintain the consistency of the Catholic Church on this issue.


#14

[quote=mlchance]With all due respect to the Angelic Doctor: St. Thomas Aquinas is not now, never was, nor ever will be the Magesterium. Where he disagrees with Magesterium, he – just like everyone else – is wrong.

– Mark L. Chance.
[/quote]

Correct, but capital punnishment is not a matter of revelation so it devolves to doctors such as Thomas to treat on the issue. Further, the Magesterium has not ruled on this issue in the way that most feel. As Avery Cardinal Dulles constantly reminds everyone - it is the right of the state to have recourse to the death penalty and this right cannot be abrogated by the Church because it is a natural right.


#15

[quote=SFH]Not only that, but the Catechism of the Council of Trent clearly implies the appropriateness of capital punishment as a punitive measure. And the Catechism of the Council of Trent was issued by the Magisterium as well (nor has it ever been revoked).

I suppose one could argue that Pope John Paul II was merely expressing his personal opinion when he said reasons to apply the death penalty were almost non-existent, and that would maintain the consistency of the Catholic Church on this issue.
[/quote]

My bolding in your quote.
In which case, one would then have to extrapolate that what he meant was that the crimes that required the death penalty are almost non existent. But I believe that the usual take is that we have other means for dealing with the criminal in question, therefore the death penalty is obsolete. The two opinions are not the same.


#16

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.