Ad Limina Apostolorum (Blog) | St. Augustine's Library
Tuesday, December 20, 2005

'High Justice' and the Death Penalty 

I've been meaning to blog on this issue for some time, though due to my own constraints the article which occasioned it is now approximately two months old. Joseph Bottum's August/September 2005 article in First Things, entitled 'Christians and the Death Penalty', barely even caught my attention, and my first reading was little more than a skimming. Bottum's writing style is not one I find congenial to rational debate: I like him more as a poet than as a columnist. It was only when the next issue featured a virtual flood of vitriolic hate mail against Bottum, which the author admitted was only the tip of the iceberg, that I gave the article a re-reading. The criticisms made of Bottum were so confused and irrational that they made Bottum's argument seem rational by comparison. Only on my second reading did I grasp what Bottum was trying to argue, and his argument was so eminently rational that it jumped off the page.

A bit of background. Pope John Paul, of happy memory, won few friends on the Christian right by the legacy he gave us in Evangelium vitae 56. Here he argued that, since "[t]he primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is to redress the disorder caused by the offence', the state "ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity," cases which, in the Holy Father's opinion, "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

Cardinal Avery Dulles has argued, on several occasions (including one in the same journal), that the primary reason why the Church has always defended the state's right to execute is not a matter of self-defense, but rather of retributive justice. Dulles claims that modern societies have abandoned the death penalty due not to moral progress, but "to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice." The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from Dulles' repeated arguments is that, even if execution is not necessary to protect the citizens of a given society, it may nonetheless be appropriate as a means of executing justice. Some have taken the additional step of claiming that Pope John Paul's condemnation of the death penalty, in focusing exclusively on the state's need for self-defense (which leads to the foregone conclusion that such penalty is not necessary), ignores the more important reason for executing capital criminals, that of retribution. This I shall call the 'justice argument'.

Bottum's article in First Things should be seen, in this humble blogger's opinion, as a full-fledged refutation of the 'justice argument'. Bottum eventually makes this clear when, after mentioning "several sets of bad arguments for the death penalty," notes that "the worst of these, for a Christian, is the argument from justice."

Bottum continues by analyzing the way society generally responds to accounts of crime. Accounts of most crimes (robbery, arson, even rape) tend to elicit demands for what are, more or less, reasonable and restrained punishments. Restitution and varying lengths of imprisonment reflect a certain 'correlation' with the crime committed. The punishment is seen as representing what is necessary to protect society and restrain criminals, and no more. This is what Bottum calls 'normal justice'.

With the crime of murder, however, a completely different attitude emerges, as the cries go up for bloodletting. This reaction of society to the crime of murder is mythologized in the story of Cain and Abel, where Abel's blood "cries out from the ground" for retribution. And Bottum admits that this reaction is, to an extent, justified: "blood really does cry out from the ground." And in response to this cry, society feels the license, no, the responsibility, to "break free from the social aims of normal justice and pursue closure for a story of high, cosmic justice." The restrained, naturally correlated order of 'normal justice' simply will not do: only the execution of the murderer can quiet the cry of the bloodstained ground. And execution is "an entirely different thing [than normal justice] that aims at restoring the universe and matching a deadly crime with a similarly deadly punishment."

The difference with 'normal justice' is clear. As Bottum points out, we don't demand that rapists be raped, or arsonists be burned. But murderers must die. Why? To bring the story to a close. Bottum speaks of the 2005 execution of Michael Ross as a satisfying story:

It has a completeness, a satisfaction, a narrative arc. It gives a feeling of rightness and a sort of balance restored to a universe gone wrong with the taking of innocent life. It aims, as satisfying stories must, at what we used to call poetic justice: the killer killed, the blood-debt repaid with blood, death satisfied with death.

But, as Bottum points out, as real as this story is, it is ultimately a pagan story, and "Jesus turned all our stories inside out. Especially the old, old ones about blood and blood's repayment." That is why John Paul II, of happy memory, began his encyclical Evangelium vitae with a reflection on the story of the first murder. Abel's blood cries out from the ground, but the Lord refuses to allow anyone to impose the penalty:

The biblical story emphasizes the reality of the blood-debt and the universe thrown out of balance by murder - and nonetheless adds a prohibition against claiming repayment for that debt . . . In Evangelium vitae, John Paul II holds to a delicate line . . . . [T]wo elements in the Cain and Abel story are vital for Christians: the genuine truth that spilled blood calls for justice, and the refusal to demand that this blood-debt be paid with yet more blood.

What Bottum is speaking of here is a genuine demarcation in human thought, brought on by the novelty of the New Covenant. The Incarnation of the Eternal One represented the radical relativization of the temporal realm: the True God showed our false gods for what they were. One of these gods was the divinity of kings, which may have translated into the pretended divinity of modern democratic states.

"What kind of justice - high, low, divine, poetic-," asks Bottum, "can a Christian allow modern democracies to claim for themselves?" In the execution of a murderer, or at least an execution carried out for the purpose of retributive justice, the state is attempting to "balance the cosmic books, to stabilize a shaken universe." Few will doubt that states have the rights to defend themselves - in a just war, for example - Bottum even permits that the state's right to self-defense might in some cases require execution. But he will not allow that the state's right of selfe-defense allows for anything more than what we have defined as 'normal justice' - it does not give the state the license to attempt revenge or 'high justice.'

This whole discussion can't help but bring out the Augustinian in me. The institution of the state can never claim to itself eternal prerogatives, which are the exclusive right of the City of God. If the state pretends to do so - and Bottum believes that retributive executions are exactly such a pretension - it becomes an idol, a false god, that must be cast down. For then, in Bottum's words, it is "overreaching its claim to power to balance the books of the universe - to repay blood with blood."

Cardinal Ratzinger in 1996 described the Pope's teaching on the death penalty as a 'development of doctrine'. Part of this development, if Bottum is right, may be a subtle but definitive rejection of the 'argument from justice'.

# posted by Jamie : 1:00 PM


Victor at Right-Wing Film Geek has an incisive reflection on the film 'Brokeback Mountain,' which cuts quite a bit deeper than most of the knee-jerk reactionism currently prevailing on St. Blog's. Worth reading, if you are into reading book-length entries.

# posted by Jamie : 12:58 PM


Friday, December 09, 2005

Address of Pope Paul VI During the Last General Meeting of the Second Vatican Council 

7 December 1965

What then was the council? What has it accomplished? The answer to these questions would be the logical theme of our present meditation. But it would require too much of our attention and time: This final and stupendous hour would not perhaps give us enough tranquility of mind to make such a synthesis. We should like to devote this precious moment to one single thought which bends down our spirits in humility and at the same time raises them up to the summit of our aspirations. And that thought is this: What is the religious value of this council? We refer to it as religious because of its direct relationship with the living God, that relationship which is the raison d'ĂȘtre of the Church, of all that she believes, hopes and loves; of all that she is and does.

Could we speak of having given glory to God, of having sought knowledge and love of him, of having made progress in our effort of contemplating him, in our eagerness for honoring him and in the art of proclaiming him to men who look up to us as to pastors and masters of the life of God? In all sincerity we think the answer is yes. Also because from this basic purpose there developed the guiding principle which was to give direction to the future council. Still fresh in our memory are the words uttered in this basilica by our venerated predecessor, John XXIII, whom we may in truth call the originator of this great synod. In his opening address to the council he had this to say: "The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this: that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine be guarded and taught more effectively. ... The Lord has said: 'Seek first the kingdom of God and his justice.' The word 'first' expresses the direction in which our thoughts and energies must move" ("Discorsi," 1962, p. 583).

His great purpose has now been achieved. To appreciate it properly it is necessary to remember the time in which it was realized: a time which everyone admits is orientated toward the conquest of the kingdom of earth rather than of that of heaven; a time in which forgetfulness of God has become habitual, and seems, quite wrongly, to be prompted by the progress of science; a time in which the fundamental act of the human person, more conscious now of himself and of his liberty, tends to pronounce in favor of his own absolute autonomy, in emancipation from every transcendent law; a time in which secularism seems the legitimate consequence of modern thought and the highest wisdom in the temporal ordering of society; a time, moreover, in which the soul of man has plumbed the depths of irrationality and desolation; a time, finally, which is characterized by upheavals and a hitherto unknown decline even in the great world religions.

Yes, the Church of the council has been concerned, not just with herself and with her relationship of union with God, but with man as he really is today: living man, man all wrapped up in himself, man who makes himself not only the center of his every interest but dares to claim that he is the principle and explanation of all reality. Every perceptible element in man, every one of the countless guises in which he appears, has, in a sense, been displayed in full view of the council Fathers, who, in their turn, are mere men, and yet all of them are pastors and brothers whose position accordingly fills them with solicitude and love. Among these guises we may cite man as the tragic actor of his own plays; man as the superman of yesterday and today, ever frail, unreal, selfish, and savage; man unhappy with himself as he laughs and cries; man the versatile actor ready to perform any part; man the narrow devotee of nothing but scientific reality; man as he is, a creature who thinks and loves and toils and is always waiting for something, the "growing son" (Genesis 49:22); man sacred because of the innocence of his childhood, because of the mystery of his poverty, because of the dedication of his suffering; man as an individual and man in society; man who lives in the glories of the past and dreams of those of the future; man the sinner and man the saint, and so on.

Secular humanism, revealing itself in its horrible anti-clerical reality has, in a certain sense, defied the council. The religion of the God who became man has met the religion (for such it is) of man who makes himself God. And what happened? Was there a clash, a battle, a condemnation? There could have been, but there was none. The old story of the Samaritan has been the model of the spirituality of the council. A feeling of boundless sympathy has permeated the whole of it. The attention of our council has been absorbed by the discovery of human needs (and these needs grow in proportion to the greatness which the son of the earth claims for himself). But we call upon those who term themselves modern humanists, and who have renounced the transcendent value of the highest realities, to give the council credit at least for one quality and to recognize our own new type of humanism: We, too, in fact, we more than any others, honor mankind.

Would not this council, then, which has concentrated principally on man, be destined to propose again to the world of today the ladder leading to freedom and consolation? Would it not be, in short, a simple, new and solemn teaching to love man in order to love God? To love man, we say, not as a means but as the first step toward the final and transcendent goal which is the basis and cause of every love. And so this council can be summed up in its ultimate religious meaning, which is none other than a pressing and friendly invitation to mankind of today to rediscover in fraternal love the God "to turn away from whom is to fall, to turn to whom is to rise again, to remain in whom is to be secure ... to return to whom is to be born again, in whom to dwell is to live" (St. Augustine, Solil. I, 1, 3; PL 32, 870).

Full text from ZENIT.

# posted by Jamie : 10:58 AM


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Flaming Mudroom 

A post at Mark Shea's blog on purgatory has inspired a bit of discussion, with commenters comparing the place of purgation to a hospital and mudfloor, among other things.

Tom from Disputations is in rare form:

[Commenter A:] But I thought that another useful analogy could be that of a hospital, where the soul is cured of its brokenness and its remaining diseases before entering into the glory of Heaven.

[Tom:] Sure. Cured with fire.

Commenter B:] The mud-room of heaven.

[Tom:] Except it's on fire.

I just love Tom when he gets like this. But he's right - as good as the hospital imagery is (and I really do like the original analogy which Shea posted), the tradition has always favored for the 'fire' analogy, perhaps because it bests captures the reality that purgatory is for purgation, i.e. for the paying of the debt of temporal punishment for sins (see Tom's followup).

Tradition favored this image, of course, because St. Paul used it, but also because in the ancient world the image of fire came to mind a lot more readily than hospitals and mudfloors. Augustine loved the fire analogy, although he occasionally seemed to think that the analogy with natural fire was more than an analogy. Origen generally stuck to the biblical imagery of a purifying fire, but occasionally he let himself get away with more exalted language, about purgatory being sort of an 'academy for souls', where the penetrating mysteries underlying spiritual reality are opened up before inquiring souls. A nice balance, that, but it kind of gets away from the whole 'remission of debt' idea. That and it's Gnostic.

# posted by Jamie : 1:39 PM


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Insofar as... 

12 November 2005, Saturday

Dear Father:

Insofar as you are apparently an Augustinian in Rome . . .

I love getting emails like this.

In point of fact, my current residence is in the Commonwealth of Virginia, i.e. Old Dominion. I am, I grant, an Augustinian, and an inveterate one at that, but probably not the kind of Augustinian you're looking for. The only vows I took were about having and holding, and something about making babies.
. . . where St. Augustine of Hippo's relics from Pavia were recently translated for veneration, (and because he is my confirmation saint) . . .
Mine is St. Thomas. But probably not the one you think.
. . . I am writing you, to seek your help, in my obtainin[g] a valid 3rd class relic medal or badge of St. Augustine of Hippo, either from the Augustinians, from the Church in Pavia, the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, or some other Vatican or church source.

I'm happy to help in any way I am able. But you might have more luck speaking to someone who actually lives in Rome.

With my sincere thanks, and apologies, and looking forward to hearing from you soon, I am

Very Truly Yours,

And I yours.

# posted by Jamie : 2:03 PM


Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The 'Sexual Mission' of Christ 

Phil A. Webb at Pontifications reviews and critiques an article entitled 'Women's Ordination and the Church's Order', written by Dr. Ephraim Radner of the Anglican Communion Institute.

Among the fundamental presuppositions of Dr. Radner is the following:

"[I]f we are to address the matter of women's ordination, we must do so within a framework of revealed truth ('what has God told us about this matter?'), and not primarily on the basis of speculations regarding the order of creation ('what does it mean to be a man or a woman?')"

Careful. Pull yourself slowly up from the floor. Dust off your trousers. Return to your seat in a slow, measured manner.

The assumption that the 'order of creation' gets no say in theological debate strikes me as such a horrendous notion that I can't bring myself to believe it could possibly be taken for granted in any community of theological scholars, even the Anglican. (Perhaps it gets some say, but not the 'primary' say. I'll give Radner the benefit of the doubt.) Dr. Radner's reasoning to this point is that ontological demands a priori rule out certain theoretical possibilities (e.g., 'homosexual marriage'), whereas the question of priestesses is not so ruled out, and therefore must be settled by discussions of history and ecclesial tradition.

Such a position might even be reinforced by the most recent papal teaching on the question, in Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, which opts for historical-biblical arguments over properly anthropological-philosophical approaches. This Apostolic Letter refers to the 'constant practice of the Church,' the weight of her 'living teaching authority', and then lays down as its primary argument the precedent of Christ's selection of men as apostles. This, by my reading, was the worst approach that the Letter could possibly have taken in defending Magisterial teaching. (As a preemptive self-defense, I note the obvious: we are obliged to assent to solemn ecclesiastical teaching; we are not obliged to accept that the arguments with which the Magisterium expresses this teaching are the best possible arguments by which it could be expressed.)

The reason is that the argument from Christ's precedent simply invites a tidal wave of criticism, since most modern scholars (good and bad) are no longer in the habit of referring to the historical record of the Bible as theological precedent. Most modern biblical scholars do not even trust the historical record of the Bible as accurate history. Certain uncautious phrases of St. Paul's can even be conjured up to argue that women were chosen as apostles. The Holy Father's assumption that Christ was unaffected by sociological prejudices of his day would be rejected by a majority, perhaps, of modern christology experts (mental note: allowing a solemn teaching to rest upon certain assumptions about the conciousness of Christ, however true, is never a good idea).

John Paul the Great was not, however, writing from a blank slate. He had before him the CDF's document Inter Insigniores, published two years before the commencement of his pontificate. The 1976 document spills the bulk of its ink reviewing ecclesiastical practice, and the precedent of Christ and the apostles (much of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is drawn word for word from Inter Insigniores, choosing, in my opinion, the weaker of the two arguments available to it). But the earlier document does not stop there: it proceeds to a deeper, metaphysical-theological argument, which points to the priest's role of acting in persona Christi, the sign value of the sacrament of holy orders, and the nuptial mystery of the Incarnation:

The Christian priesthood is therefore of a sacramental nature: the priest is a sign, the supernatural effectiveness of which comes from the ordination received, but a sign that must be perceptible and which the faithful must be able to recognize with ease. The whole sacramental economy is in fact based upon natural signs, on symbols imprinted upon the human psychology: "Sacramental signs", says Saint Thomas, "represent what they signify by natural resemblance". The same natural resemblance is required for persons as for things: when Christ's role in the Eucharist is to be expressed sacramentally, there would not be this "natural resemblance" which must exist between Christ and his minister if the role of Christ were not taken by a man: in such a case it would be difficult to see in the minister the image of Christ. For Christ himself was and remains a man.

That is why we can never ignore the fact that Christ is a man. And therefore, unless one is to disregard the importance of this symbolism for the economy of Revelation, it must be admitted that, in actions which demand the character of ordination and in which Christ himself, the author of the Covenant, the Bridegroom and Head of the Church, is represented, exercising his ministry of salvation which is in the highest degree the case of the Eucharist-his role (this is the original sense of the word "persona") must be taken by a man. This does not stem from any personal superiority of the latter in the order of values, but only from a difference of fact on the level of functions and service.

The document does not, regrettably, undertake an explanation of why, in the first place, God became incarnate as man at all. But it is to this question that all this points: what is the 'sign value' of sexual difference? Phil A. Webb goes to Adrienne von Speyr for the answer. I would have gone to her male counterpart: Hans Urs von Balthasar, who is far more lucid on this question.

For Balthasar, the sign-value of feminity is receptivity, responsiveness, vis-a-vis God. The sign-value of masculinity is generativity and self-giving. Both signs have values inasmuch as they reflect the inner life of the Triune God (Balthasar even allows that the Son is 'quasi-feminine' in relation to the Father, since He is receptive to Him, but we won't get into that here. That's an order.) Once such sign values are understood, it makes much more sense why Mary and the Church can only be feminine, and why Christ and the priest can only be masculine.

I would humbly propose that the Magisterium could provide a much more satisfying answer to the question of women's ordination if it moved away from historical questions, and towards a more profound, anthropological-philosophical analysis of the meaning of sexual identity as such. It would also be much more fun to talk about. Balthasar's work may not be the touchstone for such an approach, but he could certainly be a starting point.

# posted by Jamie : 12:57 PM


For that semi-Pelagian clergyman on your Christmas list... 

Diogenes actually got me laughing.

I've always despised those awful trinkets.

# posted by Jamie : 9:03 AM


Monday, December 05, 2005

If you're in the mood for controversy 

Against the Grain is chronicling the St. Blog's fallout over the recent First Thing's article, 'God on the Internet', by Jonathan Last . . .

. . . and the worldwide fallout over the recent Vatican instruction on seminary admissions.

# posted by Jamie : 3:31 PM


Friday, December 02, 2005

The Disappearing Bishops 

This week's National Catholic Reporter ('I read it so you don't have to!') includes two articles criticizing the Bishops' Conference, which are notable in their own way. One is a lead editorial entitled 'The Disappearing Bishops', which bemoans the readily observeable fact that the U.S. bishops' desire to lead the charge into complex and divisive political issues has waned in recent days:

The U.S. bishops, once collectively a voice to be reckoned with in the corridors of U.S. power and in the ornate halls of the Vatican, are withdrawing from the national stage and from any meaningful engagement with Rome.

Bishops once bristled at the prospect of becoming, in their words, branch managers or errand boys. They are now only too willing to take orders and leave the questions to others.

What we witnessed in Washington this month during the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was one of the sadder and maybe one of the final chapters in the devolution of the U.S. bishops as a national body. Rome has been after the bishops for years to diminish the significance of the conference, and they have gradually capitulated, snuffing out the once noteworthy contribution of lay experts and signaling their intent to avoid the burning issues of the day. More deliberately than ever they are turning inward to problems of no interest to the wider world and of little interest to most of the faithful from whom they continue to grow distant.

Another analysis by Washington journalist Joe Feuerherd, entitled "Bishops Scale Back Conference", rings the same tone, this time in reference to the recent annual meeting of the Episcopal Conference:

Approximately 300 U.S. bishops met for four days just blocks from the nation's capital -- and few outside ecclesiastical circles noticed. Which was part of the plan.

Of the 10 items up for debate and vote at the truncated public sessions of the Nov. 14-17 annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, eight dealt with intrachurch issues . . . Just two items addressed broader concerns: a statement reiterating the bishops' opposition to the death penalty and a resolution of support for a day of 'remembrance and prayer for mariners and people of the sea.' Both won hearty endorsement.

The low-key approach to the bishops' gatherings -- limiting their collective statements on hot-button issues with political overtones and restricting public access to their deliberations -- is part of an evolving strategy likely to be even more pronounced in years to come. Numerous bishops have indicated a desire to hold more meetings outside public view. And a strategic planning document drafted by a committee chaired by Pittsburg Bishop Donald Wuerl called for the body to "focus on a more limited range of responsibilities and activities in the future."

I've addressed the bishops' desire to return to so-called 'ad intra' issues in an extended manner before, drawing on Archbishop Timothy Dolan's First Things article this April. Bottom line is that the bishops have seen the more urgent priority of doing their own housecleaning before they develop a political strategy. With plummeting mass attendance, pitiful adult catechetical formation, a vocations crunch, not to mention the sexual abuse crisis, there is more than enough work to do at home. Weighing into convoluted economic and political questions, so fashionable in the eighties, has gone out of fashion. May it remain so. The bishops have not disappeared, nor has their influence waned. They have simply come into their own.

# posted by Jamie : 1:12 PM


The Instruction 

The big news of last week, of course, was the much-anticipated Vatican Instruction concerning the admission of men with homosexual inclinations.

The instantaneous chasms opened up between various episcopates throughout the country over its proper interpretation is hardly news, and in my opinion, the role of the bishop in the admissions process is often overblown. True, bishops are the chief formators for the diocese, and have the ultimate say over who is ordained. But the fact of the matter is that few bishops, either from lack of opportunity or inclination, manage to spend enough time with a particular candidate for ordination such as to provide a sufficient judgment of his character. True, he will pay a couple of seminary visits, but there are more or less formalities: more often than not he will simply trust the assessment of the rector. And as for the decision to admit a man to seminary, that's what vocation directors get paid for.

As a case in point, observe a certain local episcopal ordinary whose alleged openness to ordaining homosexual men has been much trumpeted by the media. What does it really matter, since, as is well-known in local circles, his vocation director has an absolute ban on accepting candidates with homosexual inclinations? The bishop will never even see one of these candidates, so his opinion on the matter really doesn't amount to much.

Ultimately, the concrete process of assessing such men will fall, as the document states, to seminary rectors and other formation personnel. Speaking of which, what may be bigger news than the Instruction itself is its cover letter, which states that those with homosexual inclinations "are not to be appointed as rectors or educators in seminaries." While not in the Instruction itself, and thus lacking formal authority, it's a bombshell that can't help but make itself felt in seminaries worldwide.

The author of said cover letter, however, publicly embarrassed himself in a Vatican Radio interview which intended to clarify this document, in which the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation proposed that seminaries might accept those with transitory inclinations, e.g. those who committed homosexual acts while drunk, while in prison for many years, or as a way to gain favors by pleasing someone else. His point, of course, is that these scenarios arise from temporary circumstances, and not from deep, exclusive inclinations in the person himself. But one might have asked for better examples of the kind of men we're looking for in seminaries.

# posted by Jamie : 12:43 PM


All right, I'm getting back on the ball again, after an excessively long (but much needed) holiday vacation, spent traipsing through the Carolinas, Tennessee and ultimately good ol' Georgia. I had hoped, as usual, to do at least some blogging while I was gone, but I was hamstrung by a series of Law & Order marathons that USA and TNT decided to run all Thanksgiving week.

# posted by Jamie : 12:40 PM


Under the Patronage of
St. Augustine of Hippo

Contact me:

Ad Limina Apostolorum: An ecclesiastical term meaning a pilgrimage to the sepulchres of St. Peter and St. Paul at Rome, i.e., to the Basilica of the Prince of the Apostles and to the Basilica of St. Paul "outside the walls".

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