Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Catholics, Death, and Transformation

Jamie at Ad Limina Apostolorum discusses a controversial article in the August/September First Things by Joseph Bottum. I confess I have a reaction exactly opposite to Jamie's; it's unfortunate that Bottum received hate mail for the article, but I'm not at all surprised, since the article is a shockingly unrestrained and uncharitable attack (although apparently unintentionally so) on a large number of Catholics, treating them as pagan, primitive, and irrational. There is a much more moderate and charitable interpretation of their position, and it begins with a disagreement at the very beginning. Bottum says of the story of poetic justice:

Unfortunately, it is also, in its essence, a pagan story, and Jesus—well, yes, Jesus turned all our stories inside out. Especially the old, old ones about blood and blood’s repayment.

Well, no, someone might well say; Jesus quite plainly did not turn all our stories inside out. Charity does not overturn justice; it transfigures it into a thing of grace. Jesus did not turn the story of poetic justice inside out; he went it one better -- more than one better. Further, a Catholic might say, Bottum's consigning of poetic justice to the pagan is a typically Protestant error, or at least an error Catholics generally associate with Protestants: it takes something natural, and recognizing that there is need for something more, makes the mistake of condemning it outright. Of course, one can question whether it is natural; but Bottum gives no argument that it is not, and much of what he says suggests that he tends to think it is.

Further, governing, says Bottum, inevitably finds itself in a clash of mercy and grace. But, the reply could well be, is this really true? One can argue quite the contrary: in the common good mercy and justice meet. In fact, to an extent they meet all ready: of the three works of spiritual mercy that counteract the disorder of sin, two (correction and support) are clearly associated with just action; the third, pardon, does not countermand these two, but joins with them. As in personal morals, so in civic morals; Bottum's claim that judges showing mercy fail to show justice is absurd on the face of it. In the common good, someone might say, there is none of this mythical clash Bottum wants us to find. It is true that all human governments fall short of perfect attainment of common good, and in that sense, in the failure of adequate governance we can get what seems to be a clash of justice and mercy: but the clash is not real, because it arises through the failure of government to be both merciful and just enough.

Bottum is, of course, right that the key question is what sort of justice a Christian can allow a modern democracy to claim for itself. But the answer, one might say, is straightforwardly obvious: the sort of justice it can allow is that which is conducive to common good. And no one needs to go as far as 'high justice' to allow an execution; one merely has to recognize a crucial need, born of common good. Beyond that, the 'higher demand' is simply the demand of justice itself. And contrary to what people like Bottum seem to think, someone might say, it is possible to see more room for such a crucial need than they do, and those who do are perhaps perfectly reasonable if they say to Bottum: "It is entirely correct that the progress of civilization and justice has reduced the place for the death penalty. We no longer apply such a penalty to many cases that once would have seemed obvious occasions for it, because we have put into place a better way, one that recognizably fulfills the need while taking justice and mercy both to a higher level. You have no right to demand more until you do the same for the cases where you want more. It is not your place to demand more until you set out a genuine way to have more." And it cannot be said that Bottum does much to offer a genuine transfiguration. It is one thing to argue that we need to bring the death penalty to the point of Virtually Never, since this may be made by anyone at any stage, and sets the end; it is another to label Christians as pagans for not being in such a position, when one supplies them with no means to attain it.

Likewise, a Catholic may well agree with Bottum that in a world too inclined to dismiss the inherent dignity of the human person, a world imbued with a 'culture of death', that there must be a strong presumption against the death penalty in any particular case. But it in no way follows from such a presumption that "the correct prudential judgment would be never to impose the death penalty." To say otherwise is to engage in a simplistic conflation -- one much like the simplistic conflation of the strict pacifist who denies to everyone the right to defend themselves or anyone else. Nor is it the case that anyone need agree with Bottum's claim that "Obviously the penal goal of rehabilitating the criminal is destroyed by capital punishment." That this is false has been shown before; criminals have been rehabilitated and accepted the consequence of death. Presumption is not proscription, however Bottum may try to slide between the two.

So someone might argue. There is no doubt that many people have a cruder view than this; but if a person is interested in truth he needs to take into account the strongest opposing positions. I tend to agree with Bottum's basic conclusion; but I find his argument for it to be utterly horrid. It is simplistic, it borders on self-righteous, it is uncharitable, and it ends up being, in the end, just a bunch of finger-wagging scolding, without any real hint of transformation of society. Transformation enters into the picture as something vaguely gestured at and never really addressed. But the focus must be on transformation, because that is where the two sides will ultimately find themselves reconciled to each other, through a mercy and justice exceeding what either side can bring alone.

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