Joshua Treviño is mad at me.
In a recent post, I made the argument that the Red State co-founder’s statements about the death penalty during a Bloggingheads diavlog were light on facts. Ostensibly, he was the voice of opposition to the death penalty in the discussion … but his opposition was tepid at best and, to my mind, misleading at worst. In particular, I charged that Treviño put forward the position that the system was working properly — based on his own understanding of the last-minute stay granted to Duane Buck by the U.S. Supreme Court, which he admitted was very minimal — without actually examing the case or the death penalty more generally.
I actually hoped to have a conversation about this with Treviño, maybe even on Bloggingheads, and so I sent him a link to the post via Twitter (where he is quite active). Rather than looking at my argument and attempting a reply, Treviño picked up on a small, secondary point that I made and ran that into the ground. Here’s that small point:
Treviño goes on to claim that his opposition is a result of a “modified Catholic position,” which he then explains by saying that Catholics think the use of the death penalty is a legitimate power of the state but that the state doesn’t do a very good job of it and so it’s problematic (which is, in fact, his position about everything the state does). Of course, this isn’t the Catholic position on the death penalty … unless the Pope doesn’t speak for Catholics when he calls for the commutation of death sentences and the worldwide abolition of the death penalty.
Treviño was shocked at my lack of understanding of the Catholic position and repeatedly insisted that I needed to read John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae, wherein the death penalty is discussed. Having looked over the encyclical briefly, and having looked at a few dozen commentaries on it, it seems to me that I’ve actually stated the Catholic position pretty accurately, though (perhaps?) Treviño can maintain that he’s done so as well. That said, with regard to the spirit of the Pope’s position, I maintain that I’m in the right and that Treviño is simply putting too much weight on the absolute letter of the encyclical instead of what we all know to have been the Pope’s position.
In particular, here is §56:
The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”. Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, 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.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person”.
And here is paragraph 2267 of that new Catechism of the Catholic Church:
Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
In other words, Treviño seems to be right when he says that John Paul II didn’t call for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty … but I’m also right when I argue that the Pope nonetheless called for the abolition of the death penalty in every particular instance.
This manner of arguing about the Catholic position on the death penalty — and what I take to be a devastating blind spot amongst Christians more generally — isn’t anything new. Indeed, as I was writing up this lengthy blog post, I saw that Andrew Sullivan linked to an indictment of Justice Antonin Scalia on pretty much exactly this point in the Washington Post.
But here’s my favorite part of the Treviño saga: When I attempted to steer the conversation back to my main point — about the ways in which the system isn’t working and my hope that Bloggingheads would actually decide to host a substantive, factual discussion of the death penalty — Treviño launched into a series of ad hominem attacks against me and then abruptly gave up on the conversation.
Here are my favorites:
Basically, Treviño thought he could get me to give up on my questions by insulting me, but I won’t be so easily dissuaded. I continue to think that it would be very interesting to have a conversation with him about why he thinks the system is working rather than allowing him simply to say that it is without any evidence. I continue to think that Bloggingheads generally needs to have more serious conversations about the death penalty. And, finally, I continue to think that Christians could almost immediately put an end to the death penalty in this country if they took seriously any of the myriad statements against it that are routinely made by their leadership.