Though I will be checking in to read comments and the like, this will be likely be my last post 'till Monday. (Which is why I wanted to have two lengthy ones today). If you're tired of the all the "sex posts" this week, take heart: I've got a different topic in mind, the death penalty.
First Things is a highly influential, superbly edited Catholic monthly. Under the direction of the brilliant (and often biting) Father Richard John Neuhaus, the magazine has been a major player in the "culture wars", giving intellectual and spiritual heft to those who are eager to defend the "culture of life." But First Things has, for all its anti-abortion activism, shied away from taking a firm anti-capital punishment stance.
The great papal encyclical of 1995, Evangelium Vitae, as well as other pronouncements by John Paul II, made it clear that the late pontiff was strongly anti-death penalty, without insisting that all Catholics accept his position. In the words of the encyclical:
On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely...
... the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
While more and more Catholics have moved towards the late pontiff's stance, First Things has continued to take a generally pro-death penalty editorial line. In 2001, Avery Cardinal Dulles, writing in the magazine, said:
The person who does evil may deserve death. According to the biblical accounts, God sometimes administers the penalty himself and sometimes directs others to do so... The State has the right, in principle, to inflict capital punishment in cases where there is no doubt about the gravity of the offense and the guilt of the accused.
In 2002, the very Catholic Antonin Scalia, writing in the same journal, defended the right of Catholics to continue to take a pro-death penalty position. Referring to Evangelium Vitae, Scalia wrote:
So I have given this new position (in Evangelium Vitae) thoughtful and careful consideration—and I disagree. That is not to say I favor the death penalty (I am judicially and judiciously neutral on that point); it is only to say that I do not find the death penalty immoral.
But in this month's issue, we have this magnificent essay by Joseph Bottum, a fine poet and editor of First Things. Entitled "Christians and the Death Penalty", it's a powerful piece built around two stories: that of Connecticut serial killer Michael Ross, put to death in May for murdering several girls in the 1980s, and the biblical tale of Cain and Abel. Bottum writes about the ancient, pre-Christian notion that "blood requires blood", and the common assumption that a murder requires that the murderer's blood be shed.
While Bottum brings a healthy dose of political theory to his anti-death penalty case, he is at his most compelling when he cites the story of Cain. Cain is the first murderer in the human story, and yet he pointedly does not receive the death penalty. God not only does not kill Cain, he forbids other humans to harm him. Bottum writes, building on Genesis 4:10-16:
Life and death in the story of Cain and Abel, however, are curious things. Abel’s blood cries out from the ground, but the Lord refuses to allow anyone to impose the penalty.
If Jesus Christ “sheds light on the meaning of life and the death of every human being,” we can see in that light both how blood demands repayment and how Jesus has forever done the re paying with his death. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II holds to a delicate line. This is not necessarily a full-blown Anselmian theory of atonement, but it is at least a recognition that two 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.
That's good. This consistent-life ethic Anabaptist/Episcopalian says "amen". Bottum begins his final paragraph by listing the young women killed by Michael Ross:
Dzung Ngoc Tu, Tammy Williams, Paula Perrera, Debra Smith Taylor, Robin Stavinsky, Leslie Shelley, April Brunais, Wendy Baribeault: These were real people, girls and young women raped and killed, and their blood cries out from the ground. But high justice for their deaths—the story of the killer killed, the narrative we want to give us closure—is something we cannot permit the State of Connecticut to wield.
Bold emphasis is mine. If Bottum is willing to write such a strongly anti-capital punishment piece -- in his capacity as the editor of this flagship journal of Catholic conservatives -- we just might be growing closer and closer to seeing the ethic of consistent life embraced by those on the so-called religious right. I am very pleased.