Capital Punishment in the United States is, in practice, always evil

Let’s talk about the death penalty.

I’ll tell you my conclusion up front. While the Catholic Church teaches that, in principle, recourse to the death penalty is morally acceptable, in practice (at least in the modern United States) the use of capital punishment cannot be justified. Therefore, any advocacy for this procedure should be avoided. Essentially, in principle, the death penalty is licit, but it is always evil when we factor in the current circumstances.

I’m throwing my argument out here hoping for thoughtful disagreement, because well, I know I’m speaking contrary to many Catholic minds much greater than my own.

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Attribution: Alexander Gardner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As always, let’s start with what the universal catechism has to say (paragraph 2267):

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 to 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 nonexistent.”

The key phrase is this, “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.” To state this another way, capital punishment is only morally acceptable when used to defend innocent lives from a violent criminal. In the United States today we have the means to lock up unjust aggressors for life, therefore the death penalty can never be morally used.

However, it may not be the case that the catechism gives the entire story here. Catholic thinkers Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette make a compelling (though I’m not fully persuaded yet) argument that in addition to defending innocent lives, the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church holds that a state can also licitly resort to capital punishment in order to execute just retribution of a grave offense. If justice is giving a man what is owed to him, be it a day’s wages for a day’s work for example, then the death penalty is truly what’s owed to the serial killer. They state:

The fact is that it is the irreformable teaching of the Church that capital punishment can in principle be legitimate, not merely to ensure the physical safety of others when an offender poses an immediate danger (a case where even John Paul II was willing to allow for the death penalty), but even for purposes such as securing retributive justice and deterring serious crime.

I’m not going to go into their argument here, I trust that if you question their reasoning you will read their articles yourself. However, I don’t think that the death penalty can still be licit in the US even if Feser and Bessette’s conclusion is correct. My argument is rooted in the very first sentence of the catechism quote above, “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 the state is going to deliberately end the life of a human person then the level of certainty that the accused is actually guilty must be as close to absolute as humanly possible, but I don’t think we are capable of that in the US today. One major factor is the racial bias the US has when it comes to who we execute (see here, here, and here). Our uncertainty concerning the guilt of prisoners on death row can also be demonstrated by the 156 death row inmates who have been exonerated in the US since 1973, not to mention the several cases where there’s evidence of a person’s innocence but they have already been executed.

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Clayton Lockett

Furthermore, the US does not have a great track record when it comes to executing criminals humanely. 3% to 7% of executions are botched, with modern methods having the higher failure rate.  One of these botched executions was performed on Clayton Lockett, whose lethal injection, in 2014, took 45 minutes to end his life. There are several reasons why this is the case, but one major reason is because it’s wardens and lawyers, not doctors or personnel with medical experience, who guess both what drugs to use and a drug’s dosage for a lethal injection.

So even if the state can justly kill a criminal for the sake of retribution, there should be an indefinite moratorium on capital punishment unless we can be morally certain that a person is guilty, that there was no racial bias in their trial and sentencing, and that we can guarantee them a humane death. Barring that, I would dare to say that, from a Catholic perspective, capital punishment in the United States today is, in practice, always evil.

Why Catholics do not have to vote for Trump

Paul Fahey – July 31, 2016

There’s an article going around by a student at Christendom College, Colleen McCrum, titled 10 Reasons Catholics Should Vote for Trump. In his public endorsement of Donald Trump, Catholic apologist Steve Ray quotes the entirety of McCrum’s article.

To be entirely honest, it’s really unfortunate to see good Catholic and pro-life leaders like Steve Ray publicly endorsing a pro-choice, pro-torture, pro-war crime, pro-deportation of millions of non-violent people back to extreme poverty and violence, strip club owner for president. Vote for Trump if your conscience tells you to, and form your conscience by following your bishops and reading Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. But please, please, don’t undermine the Catholic and pro-life political witness by publicly endorsing Donald Trump.

All that said, I wanted to directly respond to those 10 reasons why some think that Catholics should vote for Trump. The original post is in regular font and my responses are in bold:

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1.) He’s not Hillary Clinton.

We know exactly who she is, what she is, what she stands for, and can pretty well guess what she will do to our country. We can’t risk her getting into office.

If you can’t vote for Trump, vote against Hillary. The only realistic way to do this is by voting for Trump, since he is the only candidate that has a chance against her.

This argument presumes that the Catholic/pro-life vote is already owed to Trump and that not voting for him will be a vote for Hillary. This is false. My vote and your vote are our own. This argument also flies in the face of the US Bishops who clearly say that voting for a third party, or abstaining from voting, are acceptable positions when all major party candidates support intrinsic evils. Paragraph 36 of their document states:

When all candidates hold a position that promotes an intrinsically evil act, the
conscientious voter faces a dilemma. The voter may decide to take the extraordinary step of not voting for any candidate or, after careful deliberation, may decide to vote for the candidate deemed less likely to advance such a morally flawed position and more likely to pursue other authentic human goods.

*Shortly after I initially posted this article I came across a very lucid blog post by Brandon Craig dismantling the argument that not voting for Trump is giving a vote to Hillary. It’s titled, “No, a Vote for a Third Party (or Abstaining from Voting) Is not the Same as a Vote for Hillary” and is a great read.

2.) He might pass and protect pro-life laws.

While we know for sure that Hillary will push the corrupt Planned Parenthood down our throats every chance she gets, and she will keep abortion-providing Obamacare in place, Trump is a bit of an unknown with the potential for being pro-life. That is, he claims to be pro-life, and it’s worth the leap of faith on this one. He has said, “Public funding of abortion providers is an insult to people of conscience at the least and an affront to good governance at best.”

He might, if it is advantageous for him on that day. Or he might not. We can’t know because he has given no real demonstration of an actual commitment to unborn lives, just cheap lip service (poor and confusing lip service at that). Here are four reasons to seriously doubt that Trump is in any way pro-life:

1. He says he’s anti-abortion. However, in the spirit of Reagan’s quote, “Trust but verify” and Jesus’ saying “You can know a tree by its fruit,” I have not seen any actually verifiable fruit of his anti-abortion stance. None. He has only said that he was anti-abortion when it was politically advantageous for him to do so.

2. He’s only called himself pro-life since he started running for president. Before that he supported abortion and donated money to pro-choice candidates (including Hillary Clinton), praising them as great leaders and individuals.

3. Back in April he changed his mind on abortion literally three times in less than a week, his last position being that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land and that he has no interest in changing it. He said, “At this moment the laws are set. And I think we have to leave it that way…

4. He dehumanizes women, the disabled, immigrants, Muslims, etc. on a regular basis. So I have little reason to think that he values human life that doesn’t immediately benefit him.

3.) Voting for an imperfect man is not a sin.

I have taken philosophy and theology classes since 8th grade. I mention that to lend myself some credibility, not to imply expertise in the subjects. But I studied them enough to know that neither Aquinas nor Aristotle ever said that the ruling sovereign has to be a saint. I understand that lending someone your vote is a big deal, and it is preferable to have a candidate you really believe in. Many people do really believe in Trump, and so this might not be an issue for you. But if you have reservations, I would ask you to consider that:

Imperfect? Pope Francis is imperfect. President Lincoln is imperfect. Paul Ryan is imperfect. Donald Trump is pro-choice, pro-torture, pro-war crime, and pro-deportation of millions of non-violent immigrants back to the poverty and violence they fled from. He is morally corrupt. Calling Trump imperfect is disingenuous, and voting for a candidate because of their support of intrinsic evil is formal cooperation in evil and, yes, that is a sin. Our bishops explain in paragraph 34:

A Catholic cannot vote for a candidate who favors a policy promoting an
intrinsically evil act, such as abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, deliberately subjecting
workers or the poor to subhuman living conditions, redefining marriage in ways that violate its essential meaning, or racist behavior, if the voter’s intent is to support that position. In such cases, a Catholic would be guilty of formal cooperation in grave evil. At the same time, a voter should not use a candidate’s opposition to an intrinsic evil to justify indifference or
inattentiveness to other important moral issues involving human life and dignity.


4.) Voting for a third-party in this presidential election= a vote for Hillary Clinton.

Recent polls have shown Trump ahead by a couple points. He has a chance in this election, so every vote counts.

I’m sympathetic to the ideals of third-party candidates, Libertarians, and Independents. It’s a democracy, anyone should be able to win. We have a rigged system right now, which only allows Republicans or Democrats to realistically win. However, the way to further these other parties is in local elections, and ongoing campaigns. Fuel the fire during the off-season, not during the presidential race! Be realists, not idealists. We have to work with what we have.

This is the same argument as #1.


5.) There will likely be several Supreme Court spots opening up.

The president is in charge of appointing the Supreme Court justices. With Hilary, we know the type of person she would nominate. With Trump, we might have a chance of getting better people in.

There is a vacant seat right now. There have been rumors about Justice Thomas retiring this year. Ginsburg is already 83, and Kennedy will be turning 80. Breyer is 77. The record age for a Supreme Court Justice was 90; the average being closer to 80. We’ll probably be looking at a few new Justices this term and the next.

The Supreme Court argument is the best argument that I’ve heard about why a pro-life voter should support Trump, but it’s far from a perfect argument. Fr. Joseph Faulkner shared a comprehensive counter argument on his Facebook page earlier this month. Here it is:

1) Presidents do not pick justices alone. The Senate is a serious bulwark against extreme justices. Therefore the single worst thing to do is to nominate Donald Trump who is toxic to the down-ballot and risk losing control of the Senate. Wise people said that back in January but nobody listened. Now that they are stuck with him, the best thing for a Republican Congressman in a close race to do is distance himself from him.

2) if Hillary becomes president and gets an “extra” Supreme Court pick up to fill in Scalia’s seat, that’s also entirely on the GOP. Knowing that HRC had a real chance to win in 2016 it was imprudent to leave that unfilled when Obama offered a relatively moderate option. And this GOP intransigence adds to the national perception that Republicans won’t play fair. More danger for those Congress seats in November.

3) As has been said elsewhere and before, it would be better for a conservative Senate to have a clear opponent on SC picks in Clinton than to have to figure out how to oppose a moderately unconservative pick by their own party member. What’s worse: HRC putting up 4 radical pro-aborts you can fight or Trump giving you 2 soft conservatives and 2 non-conservatives that you can’t oppose?

4) I have seen nothing to make me think Trump won’t pick whoever he feels like on that given day. I do not believe he has principles on this. He changed his position on abortion 5 times in 3 days this spring. I do not believe that he will go from the “list” that he has shared. Some people have objected to this: “No, he has to; otherwise we will vote him out.” Really? You’re really going to vote him out if he’s the sitting president and there’s another Hillary or the next Obama waiting in 2020? Bull. He owns you if you make him incumbent— and for the exact same reasons he has you pinned now.

5) If Solon were alive today he’d say “Call no president happy until he and his SCOTUS picks are deceased”, meaning every president is just waiting for his Supreme Court picks to fail him. Republicans have had the White House the majority of the last 65 years and have had a disproportionately high number of SC nominations, and yet GOP courts gave us Roe v. Wade and have never removed it. Their fallen justices have ranged from full traitors (Souter) to “not total surprises” (Day-O’Conner, Kennedy, et al.) to “good but still faulty” (Roberts, et al.). Point is: even the best Presidents making their best picks have, at worst, been horribly betrayed and, at best, still been disappointed that things couldn’t change under them. If Reagan got Kennedy and H.W. got Souter, what will even Trump’s very best pick turn into?

Summary: put not your trust in princes. Or presidents abd justices. Hillary may not be as capable of the evils you fear (if Congressmen are savvy or at least lucky) and Trump is almost certainly not going to deliver the good you hope for.


6.) Ben Carson endorsed him.

As Carson said, “It’s not about Mr. Trump. This is about America.” Carson is a Christian and a man of character, and a week after dropping out of the race, he took the time to vouch for the character of Trump. He said, “Some people have gotten the impression that Donald Trump is this person who is not malleable, who does not have the ability to listen, and to take information in and make wise decisions. And that’s not true. He’s much more cerebral than that.”

Because Ben Carson should be a greater influence on Catholics than our own bishops? Note also that the context in which Carson said that Trump was “cerebral,” he also said:

There’s two Donald Trumps. There’s the Donald Trump that you see on television and who gets out in front of big audiences, and there’s the Donald Trump behind the scenes…They’re not the same person. One’s very much an entertainer, and one is actually a thinking individual.

So Trump’s private self is dramatically different than his public self? And we should see this as a virtue or somehow an endorsement of his character? Usually two-faced people are despised and called “hypocrites.”

7.) In the interest of our religious freedoms.

The government is slowly stripping our country of religious freedom. Across the United States, crosses are being labeled as gang symbols, Catholic business owners are being pressured to provide abortion access to their employees, and believing in the beauty of marriage is becoming equivalent to hating gay people. In the past 8 years, under Obama, our country has already changed.

We can’t risk another 8 under a similar president.

So we will just assume that Trump will be an improvement over Obama or Hillary? Again, where are the verifiable fruits of this claim? 

8.) He is a successful business man.

Our economy could use some expertise in that area. I know he’s  had some bumps in the road, but there is a possibility he could bring good ideas to our economy.

So is the convicted pedophile Jeffrey Epstein, but that doesn’t mean we should feel morally obligated to make him the president of the United States.

Speaking of Epstein, in 2002 Trump said, “I’ve known Jeff for 15 years. Terrific guy. He’s a lot of fun to be with. It is even said that he likes beautiful women as much as I do, and many of them are on the younger side. No doubt about it, Jeffrey enjoys his social life.” Maybe that should give us some pause.

9.) He hurt my feelings; I’m still voting for him.

Many of the objections I hear, and made myself (earlier on in the race), against Trump include: he’s cocky,  he’s racist, he’s sexist, he’s a joke, he’s not smart enough. The majority of these claims come from statements he has made, not actions.

And all of his pro-life claims (to my knowledge, and please correct me if I’m wrong) “come from statements he has made, not actions.”


10.) He’s not Hillary Clinton.

As you may be able to tell, my motivation for writing this is mainly that I know some Catholics are having a hard time deciding whether or not to vote for him. He is not my ideal candidate by any stretch of the imagination. However, I think he’s decent in many ways, and ultimately better than his opposition. For me, that is enough, and I hope you will end up deciding that as well.

Obviously this is also the same argument as #1. However, I wanted to add that the common thread through these arguments is an intense fear of Hillary Clinton.

Some of this fear is rational. Hillary (and the Democratic Party) is pushing a radical pro-abortion agenda. I use the terms “radical” and “pro-abortion” intentionally. They want to totally oppose the Hyde Amendment (the law that prevents taxpayer money from being spent on abortions), which has had bipartisan support for years. Hillary also supports late term abortions, a position that’s not only out of touch with younger voters, but with the general population as well. Her position is even radical when compared with “liberal Europe’s” abortion laws which overwhelmingly ban abortions after 20 weeks.

However, some of this fear is irrational and apocalyptic. I had a Trump supporter recently tell me:

You and others on this thread who either vote for hillary or refuse to vote at all or vote for 3rd party candidates that have no chance, you and they will be responsible for the slaughter that will continue and increase beyond comprehension under hillary. Not only here but throughout the world. You will be responsible for the murder of your children and of your loved ones and if you don’t think that couldn’t happen just look around, muslims hate Catholics worse than LGBT.This election is not a joke, it is the survival of a nation, and of a people.

If I vote third party and not for Trump, will I really be responsible for the slaughter of multitudes, including the murder of my children and loved ones? This kind of sentiment is irrational and apocalyptic fear mongering, and it is utterly despicable when used to manipulate people to vote for “your candidate.”

Please do not ever feel morally obligated to vote for a candidate who supports intrinsic evils. Please do not let people bully or scare you into voting against your conscience. Please stop telling Christians and pro-lifers that they have to vote for Donald Trump.

Voting with the Heart and Mind of the Church – Part 2

Paul Fahey – July 25, 2016

In Part One of this series on voting with the mind and heart of the Church, I talked about the unique role that Catholics have in politics, using the USCCB’s document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship as my guide. Specifically, Catholics are called to be salt, light, and leaven in all areas of human culture, including the political arena. Thus, political participation is not only a good and noble thing, but it is also a moral obligation. However, as Christ warns, “…if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matthew 5:13). In other words, how are Catholic voters distinct from secular voters? How do we vote as Catholics and not as pagans? How do we bring light to the political arena and not simply acquiesce to the darkness?

The short answer is that we make Christ’s political priorities our own. We all have our own political preferences, issues close to our hearts, policies that may directly affect our life, families, or livelihood – and that’s great! However, as Catholics we are called to be docile before the teachings of Christ and to make the Church’s priorities our own. Only in this way, as the bishops say, will we “help transform the party to which we belong” and “not let the party transform us.”

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The Church’s priorities are rooted first and foremost in the immeasurable dignity of every human person made in the image of God. Several things follow from this fundamental principle, and I want to highlight a couple of them. First, the Church is concerned with particular issues and not political parties. All of the major political parties in the US support policies that fundamentally violate human dignity. The embrace of any major party’s entire platform would be irresponsible and immoral for a Catholic.

Second, rooted in the principle of universal human dignity, the Church teaches that there are actions so opposed to human life that they can never be morally justified. These actions are called  “intrinsic evils,” sometimes referred to as “non-negotiable issues,” and I want to spend most of my time talking about them. The USCCB explains:


There are some things we must never do, as individuals or as a society, because they
are always incompatible with love of God and neighbor. Such actions are so deeply flawed that they are always opposed to the authentic good of persons. These are called “intrinsically evil” actions. They must always be rejected and opposed and must never be supported or condoned.

An intrinsically evil action can never be justified regardless of the circumstances. Note that this is different than a “regular” evil action. For example, killing a human being is evil, but not intrinsically evil. If a gunman stormed into a public building and started shooting at innocent people, a person could legitimately shoot and kill this gunman in order to defend their own life and the lives of others in the room. Thus, because there are circumstances in which killing another person is licit, killing itself is not intrinsically evil. However, intentionally killing an innocent person (i.e. murder) is an intrinsic evil.

The bishops go on to list some relevant examples of intrinsic evils that Catholics can never support or condone (note that this list is not exhaustive as there are other intrinsic evils that the USCCB does not mention):


A prime example [of an intrinsic evil] is the intentional taking of innocent human life, as in abortion and euthanasia. In our nation, “abortion and euthanasia have become preeminent threats to human dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental human good and the condition for all others” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 5).

…Similarly, human cloning, destructive research on human embryos, and other acts that directly violate the sanctity and dignity of human life are also intrinsically evil. These must always be opposed. Other direct assaults on innocent human life, such as genocide, torture, and the targeting of noncombatants in acts of terror or war, can never be justified. Nor can violations of human dignity, such as acts of racism, treating workers as mere means to an end, deliberately subjecting workers to subhuman living conditions, treating the poor as disposable, or redefining marriage to deny its essential meaning, ever be justified.

With this list of intrinsic evils in mind the USCCB warns against two “temptations” that the faithful must avoid. The first temptation is thinking that there is no distinction, no difference in moral weight between issues. The bishops clearly state, “The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.”

However, the bishops then warn us against the second temptation, which is to focus on just one issue and to ignore or dismiss the rest. The bishops go on to list care for the environment, racism, unjust discrimination, unjust war, torture, lack of basic resource, lack of health care, pornography, the redefinition of marriage, religious liberty, and unjust immigration policies all as issues of grave concern for Catholics. The USCCB states:

These are not optional concerns which can be dismissed. Catholics are urged to seriously consider Church teaching on these issues. Although choices about how best to respond to these and other compelling threats to human life and dignity are matters for principled debate and decision, this does not make them optional concerns or permit Catholics to dismiss or ignore Church teaching on these important issues.

Then to emphasize their point, the US bishops quote a fantastic document by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith titled Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life. This document says:

It must be noted also that a well-formed Christian conscience does not permit one to vote for a political program or an individual law which contradicts the fundamental contents of faith and morals. The Christian faith is an integral unity, and thus it is incoherent to isolate some particular element to the detriment of the whole of Catholic doctrine. A political commitment to a single isolated aspect of the Church’s social doctrine does not exhaust one’s responsibility toward the common good.

With all of this in mind, two conclusions quickly become apparent. First, all major political parties actively champion intrinsic evils. Second, all of the major candidates running for president also actively champion intrinsic evils. So what options do Catholics have this presidential election? How can we participate in this election and not violate our conscience by condoning intrinsic evils and supporting policies that violate human dignity? Don’t despair, there are options. And that is what I will discuss in part three.

Voting with the Heart and Mind of the Church – Part 1

Paul Fahey – July 18, 2016

You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father. – Matthew 5:14-16.

If you haven’t noticed, it’s a presidential election year. Are you looking forward to November? Are you tired of all the political conversations or does discussing politics get you excited? Are you feeling hopeless, frustrated, or angry at how this election is going? Do you look at the candidates before us and want to move to Canada, eh?

Today begins the Republican National Convention where they will, barring a miracle, nominate Donald Trump to be the Republican candidate for president. Likewise the Democratic National Convention will be following shortly thereafter and we will see Hillary Clinton as their presidential candidate. In light of that, I wanted to take some time to write a few posts about how we as Catholics are called and empowered to act. Specifically, I want to explain some of the foundational principles that guide a Catholic understanding of politics and then use those principles to lay out the options that we as faithful Catholics will have come November.

Before I dive in, though, I want to touch on two things. First, we all have deeply held political, economic, and moral priorities. So before you start reading this, I want to assure that my goal is to present to you what the Catholic Church teaches and not simply my own thoughts and opinions. My primary source is the wonderful USCCB (United States Council of Catholic Bishops) document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” If you’re interested in politics, frustrated with this election, or totally confused about what to do come November, then this document is for you. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Second, I urge you to approach what the Church teaches with an open mind and heart. We are called to be docile in the face of the teaching of Christ and His Church. We are called to make Christ’s priorities greater than our own. It’s good to feel challenged by the Church’s teaching because the Church is a mother who instructs us and always urges us to more fully mature into images of Jesus Christ.

So what is a Catholic’s role in politics? Our bishops say, “In the Catholic Tradition, responsible citizenship is a virtue, and participation in political life is a moral obligation…The obligation to participate in political life is rooted in our baptismal commitment to follow Jesus Christ and to bear Christian witness in all we do.” Let’s unpack that.

Jesus calls all of His followers to be light for a darkened world. Because of the grace given to us through the Sacraments and in having a personal relationship with Christ, Catholics are specially equipped to be bearers of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty in all areas of our culture, which includes politics. Also, because of the centuries of rich teaching from the Catholic Church regarding human nature, ethics, and social justice, Catholic are uniquely qualified voices of reason in the political arena. Therefore Catholics have a “moral obligation” to participate, at least at a minimal level, in the political system that they find themselves in. So here in the US, where we have a representative government, voting is that minimal participation.

However, just showing up and voting isn’t good enough. If we don’t act any differently from anyone else, then how are we lights in the darkness? We do a service to our country when we vote, but only when we vote as Catholics. The US Bishops say:

“Unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype. The Church calls for a different kind of political engagement: one shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good, and the protection of the weak and the vulnerable…As citizens, we should be guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group. When necessary, our participation should help transform the party to which we belong; we should not let the party transform us in such a way that we neglect or deny fundamental moral truths or approve intrinsically evil acts. We are called to bring together our principles and our political choices, our values and our votes, to help build a civilization of truth and love.”

So how do we do this? How do we vote as Catholics and not like everyone else? How can we participate in politics so that our political party and our society are transformed for the better rather than us being transformed for the worse? That is what I will discuss in Part Two.

How Do We End a Culture War?

In June 1996 the Ku Klux Klan held a rally in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hundreds of locals were present in protest of the event, and rightly so. The KKK has, since its inception, been a force of racism and bigotry. One protestor present that day was 18 year-old Keshia Thomas.

During the protest someone announced over a megaphone that there was “a Klansman in the crowd” The man was quickly knocked to the ground and kicked and hit with placard sticks.

As people shouted, “Kill the Nazi,” Keshia Thomas, fearing that mob mentality had taken over, decided to act. Thomas threw herself on top of the man she had come to protest, protecting him from the blows.

When asked about her actions, Thomas said, “Someone had to step out of the pack and say, ‘this isn’t right’… I knew what it was like to be hurt. The many times that that happened, I wish someone would have stood up for me… violence is violence – nobody deserves to be hurt, especially not for an idea.”

This photograph was named one of Life magazine’s “Pictures of the Year” for 1996

Now, contrast Keshia Thomas’ story to that of Bahar Mustafa, the diversity officer at Goldsmith’s University whose job it is to promote good relations and practices towards different minority groups. Mustafa’s job is currently under scrutiny after she tweeted “kill all white men”. She sought to justify her actions by arguing that this phrase and others that she’s used are a way to “reclaim” power for minorities and women. Mustafa seems to believe that such sayings are appropriate weapons against racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry, perhaps made all the more potent for their shock value and aggressiveness.

I offer these stories as examples of some of the ways we have come to confront the specter of racism. The first is a story of love, the second, of cultural warfare. I don’t know if Keshia Thomas is Christian but it certainly would come as no surprise because her actions exhibit precisely what all Christians are called to do. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us clear instructions on how to deal with our enemies saying, “But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” He continues, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Keshia Thomas had the opportunity to hurt someone she thought hated her, or even to stand by and watch as others did it but instead she protected him. She responded to hate with love and gave mercy for bigotry. In a political sphere entrenched in a culture war this is not the kind of response that most American politics, conservative or progressive, demands of us, but it is what Jesus demands of us and as Christians that’s something we should take far more seriously.

Mustafa said only BME (black and minority ethnic} women and non-binary people were allowed to attend an anti-racism event.

Mustafa’s confrontation of course represents another extreme. Like Thomas, Mustafa protests the evils of bigotry but hers is a justice without mercy in which hate is traded for hate and bigotry returned in response to bigotry. In contrast to the love Jesus demands we show our enemies, these tactics are meant to silence, shame and destroy. They are weapons of war that hurt the innocent and the guilty alike. Mustafa’s statement “kill all white men” is reminiscent of the Massacre of Beziers. In 1209, after the city had been taken by Christian crusaders there was the question of what to do with the enemy as the innocent of the city were mingled among them. One abbot allegedly said “kill them all and let God sort them out” which is precisely what happened. Mustafa’s flippant tweet shares the same sentiment that abbot expressed 800 years ago.

The metaphor of war in describing our cultural encounters is evident everywhere. Opponents on hot-topic issues like abortion and homosexuality are often portrayed as being at war with one another and one need merely turn on the TV to witness a constant barrage of angry epithets from both sides. Divisive language meant to garner support from one side and dehumanize the other are frequently employed: categorizations like “makers” and “takers” for example. Accusations of racism , sexism, freeloading, and even communist conspiracy abound. Any advantage that can be obtained to help your side or hurt theirs will be used. Like destroying a small business owner’s livelihood when they refuse to bake you a cake. In the culture wars there are only two kinds of people. There are the good guys and then there’s everyone else.

While the rhetoric of war may be an effective tactic in ginning up support for one’s cause, when it comes to overcoming bigotry and establishing ourselves as a peaceful and tolerant society such weapons are ultimately self-defeating. To realize such a society means giving up the win-at-all-costs, scorched-earth mentality; it means seeing our opponents, not as enemies to destroy, but as humans in need of love. The culture wars and a tolerant society are incompatible because to achieve such a society means being willing to sometimes back down from a fight, even lose, rather than demonize and scapegoat the enemy. It means turning the other cheek and walking a mile in another person’s shoes

Ultimately, we may not be meant to win the culture war but we are called to end it. Such a tremendous task can only be accomplished by an equally radical commitment to love as Jesus taught us. The division and hurt present in our nation today will not be healed by epithets or witty remarks but by genuine encounters with our “enemies” in which we say, “you are loved.”

Capital Punishment – Blinded by Vengeance

Last week, I read a chilling article from The Atlantic titled The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett. The author, Jeffrey Stern, in one of the best written I’ve ever read (on any topic), shares just how corrupt and unethical capital punishment is in this country. Corruption and ineptitude that led to prisoners being administered inadequate and untested cocktails of drugs by unqualified personnel, culminating in the torturous executions of multiple inmates.

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In a post-holocaust world, Conservative politicians want to execute people in gas chambers.

The Supreme Court is currently ruling on a case involving the botched executions of three inmates in Oklahoma, including Clayton Lockett. Undeterred from their blood lust, Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma passed a law in April allowing for execution by gas chamber just in case the Supreme Court rules that lethal injections are unconstitutional. That’s right, in a post-holocaust world, Conservative politicians want to execute people in gas chambers. It should cause us serious alarm when the champions of capital punishment tend to be “pro-life” Christian Conservatives with 76% of Republicans favoring the death penalty for convicted murderers.

There is no adequate justification or defense of the death penalty in the United States today – especially if one is calling themselves a Christian. The reasons are numerous, not only in variety but in kind – ethical, theological, and economic arguments for the abolition of capital punishment are legion.

Pragmatically, it’s a fact that death row inmates cost states more than those serving life sentences, in some cases three times as much. Additionally, there’s no evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime. Furthermore, we are killing hundreds of innocent people because 4% of those on death row are likely innocent, this fact alone should be enough for to stop us from implementing the irrevocable punishment. And if these facts are convincing enough then we must consider that 3-7% of executions are botched with inmates screaming in agony as their given unreliable drugs prescribed, not by a doctor, but by the prison’s warden or attorney.

The sheer evil and stupidity of capital punishment is even more evident for Catholics living in the United States. Quoting Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Catechism states that while the teaching of the Church does not outright prohibit the death penalty, but only if there are no other means to protect innocent people from violent criminals. The Catechism continues:

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means…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 nonexistent” (CCC 2267).

In other words, the only way that a Catholic in the US can licitly support capital punishment, no matter how heinous the crime, is if it can be proved that there are no other means to protect society from the convicted criminal. Otherwise one would be contradicting the Catechism, St. John Paul II, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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The death penalty, like abortion, is an issue where Catholics, along with other reasonable people, are blinded by self-interest.

The death penalty, like abortion, is an issue  where Catholics, along with other reasonable  people, are blinded by self-interest. In the case of  abortion we can’t see past the inconvenience of  having a baby and the restriction that pregnancy  puts on our sexual preferences and practices.  Likewise, we are blinded to the evil of capital  punishment by our desire for vengeance and the  “need” to see bad men suffer. Like the prophet  Jonah who lamented over God sparing the city of  Nineveh, we have such a desire to see the wicked  suffer that we make viewing areas for executions.

So, when confronted with a convicted murderer and terrorist like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, do we fall blindly into lockstep with the jury and all who wish to see Nineveh burn for it’s crimes? Or do we look on this man with the eyes of Christ?

Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”(Matthew 25:34-36)

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We are commanded to look at the incarcerated and see the face of Christ.

Our Lord explicitly identifies himself with the terrorist, thief, murderer, rapist – thus we are commanded to look at the incarcerated and see the face of Christ. How does a Christian respond to the evil of the Boston Marathon bombings? I think the Jesuit priest, Fr. James Martin, said it well in a recent Facebook post:

You don’t have to feel much pity for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I don’t. But that doesn’t mean that his life is not sacred. And the more I live as a Christian, the more I am convinced of this truth: every human life is utterly sacred.

Tonight let us pray for the victims of the Boston bombings, both living and dead; for those who mourn the dead and comfort those who were so terribly injured; and also, difficult as it may be, but as Jesus commands us when he asks us explicitly to pray for our enemies, for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

 

Linked sources and further reading:

  • The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett
    – http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/06/execution-clayton-lockett/392069/
  • Lethal injection case exposes U.S. top court’s death penalty divide
    – http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/29/us-usa-court-deathpenalty-idUSKBN0NK1EP20150429
  • The Trouble with Oklahoma’s New Execution Technique
    – http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/04/oklahoma-death-penalty-gas-chamber-117156.html#.VVzh2vlVhHx
  • Americans’ Support for Death Penalty Stable
    – http://www.gallup.com/poll/178790/americans-support-death-penalty-stable.aspx
  • The slow death of the death penalty
    – http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21601270-america-falling-out-love-needle-slow-death-death-penalty
  • 1 In 25 Death Sentence Prisoners Is Likely Innocent, Study Finds
    – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/28/death-sentence-prisoners-_n_5229094.html
  • 7 Things You Should Know About The Death Penalty, Even If You Support It
    – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/15/death-penalty-boston-bomber_n_7294748.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000013
  • Evangelium vitae
    – http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church
    – http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm
  • Having the wrong debate about the boston marathon bomber
    – http://www.catholicvote.org/having-the-wrong-debate-about-the-boston-marathon-bomber/
  • Death penalty / Capital punishment
    – http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/death-penalty-capital-punishment/
  • Fr. James Martin’s Facebook Page
    – https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin
  • Killing Capital Punishment
    – https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/death-penalty-public-support-firing-squad/
  • Dzokhar Tsarnaev Gets the Death Penalty
    – http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/05/dzokhar-tsarnaev-death-penalty/393446/?utm_source=SFFB
  • There’s still no evidence that executions deter criminals
    – http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/04/30/theres-still-no-evidence-that-executions-deter-criminals/

 

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and the Director of Religious Education in small town USA. He’s studied just enough Theology to get him into trouble. Click here to see his other posts for The Porch.

Has Science Conquered Philosophy?

There seems to be a consensus among certain academics that science is grounded in mathematics and that math is the “purest” of all disciplines, reliant on no other field than itself. There is math and there is applied math; it encompasses every other scientific discipline. This comic from XKCD sums it up nicely:

From this assumption it becomes easy to see how the dichotomy of religion versus science becomes so easily accepted by both sides of the debate. Anything that does not have mathematics as its foundation must therefore be unscientific. Religion and philosophy might make for nice personal beliefs that make us feel good about ourselves but they aren’t objective and they can’t tell us anything about the world that science couldn’t already explain.

Famed physicist Stephen Hawking elaborates:

Most of us don’t worry about these questions most of the time. But almost all of us must sometimes wonder: Why are we here? Where do we come from? Traditionally, these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophers have not kept up with modern developments in science. Particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.

In fact, I argue the contrary. Science, including the science of mathematics, ultimately find their foundation in philosophy. Disciplines like logic and epistemology provide the basic building blocks upon which the scientific method and mathematical proofs are built.

Albert Einstein is a perfect example of how philosophy informs science. Einstein would often spend time simply thinking through problems, reflecting not merely on its empirical aspects but on concepts and the meaning behind the empirical evidence. As an article by PBS entitled Why Physics Needs Philosophy notes: “Einstein arrived at the theory of relativity by reflecting on conceptual problems rather than on empirical ones.” In other words, philosophy played a key role in developing the theory of relativity.

An excerpt from an interview with physicist George Ellis further elaborates:

Horgan: Krauss, Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson have been bashing philosophy as a waste of time. Do you agree?

Ellis: If they really believe this they should stop indulging in low-grade philosophy in their own writings. You cannot do physics or cosmology without an assumed philosophical basis. You can choose not to think about that basis: it will still be there as an unexamined foundation of what you do. The fact you are unwilling to examine the philosophical foundations of what you do does not mean those foundations are not there; it just means they are unexamined.

Actually philosophical speculations have led to a great deal of good science. Einstein’s musings on Mach’s principle played a key role in developing general relativity. Einstein’s debate with Bohr and the EPR paper have led to a great of deal of good physics testing the foundations of quantum physics. My own examination of the Copernican principle in cosmology has led to exploration of some great observational tests of spatial homogeneity that have turned an untested philosophical assumption into a testable – and indeed tested – scientific hypothesis. That’ s good science.

Physicist and quantum gravity expert Carlo Rovelli argues that this philosophical superficiality has actively harmed scientific advancement.

Theoretical physics has not done great in the last decades. Why? Well, one of the reasons, I think, is that it got trapped in a wrong philosophy: the idea that you can make progress by guessing new theory and disregarding the qualitative content of previous theories.  This is the physics of the “why not?”  Why not studying this theory, or the other? Why not another dimension, another field, another universe?    Science has never advanced in this manner in the past.  Science does not advance by guessing. It advances by new data or by a deep investigation of the content and the apparent contradictions of previous empirically successful theories.  Quite remarkably, the best piece of physics done by the three people you mention is Hawking’s black-hole radiation, which is exactly this.  But most of current theoretical physics is not of this sort.  Why?  Largely because of the philosophical superficiality of the current bunch of scientists.

The “why not?” philosophy is readily observable today. The article Quantum Physics and the Abuse of Reason illustrates the rabbit hole many physicists have gone down based on their interpretation of a single experiment. The double slit experiment shows light behaving both like a wave and a particle, which is strange in itself, but weirder still the light’s behavior seems to change under observation. Unobserved the light behaves both like a wave and a particle but under observation the wave-function collapses. There are many theories attempting to explain this phenomenon. Some people believe that the double-slit experiment proves that the universe is not an external reality but that it is our conscious observation that determines the universe. Others believe in a “many-worlds” theory that states that “the wave-function never actually collapses, it only appears to collapse, because reality itself splits into two channels. Our consciousness only resides in one of these worlds at a time, so that’s why we can’t perceive or interact with these alternate realities. Because quantum events happen constantly, you end up with a practically infinite number of real universes, each with only a micro-change between the others.”

Some are willing to throw out classical mechanics based on an experiment we don’t fully understand. Other scientists are abandoning the idea of “falsifiability.” The concept refers to whether something is falsifiable or testable. For example, a universal generalization like “all roses are red” can’t be proven by any number of confirming observations but it can be falsified by observing a single rose of another color; it is therefore falsifiable. Falsifiability has long been the demarcation between science and non-science where the practice of declaring an unfalsifiable theory to be scientifically true is considered pseudoscience. We cannot declare true what is untestable. However, according to physicist Sean Carroll falsifiability is a philosophical concept with no place in modern physics. String theory is unfalsifiable in practice, at least for now, but Carroll believes that that shouldn’t deter us from accepting it as a legitimate theory on the same level or even preferable to testable alternatives. Why not?

Ellis explains why not:

This is a major step backwards to before the evidence-based scientific revolution initiated by Galileo and Newton.  The basic idea is that our speculative theories, extrapolating into the unknown and into untestable areas from well-tested areas of physics, are so good they have to be true. History proves that is the path to delusion: just because you have a good theory does not prove it is true. The other defence is that there is no other game in town. But there may not be any such game.

Scientists should strongly resist such an attack on the very foundations of its own success. Luckily it is a very small subset of scientists who are making this proposal.

To physicists like Ellis and Rovelli philosophy is far from dead and is in no danger of being outpaced by science. To the contrary, good science depends on good philosophy. Any attempt to push philosophy out of the realm of science will only be met with scientific disaster. A scientific community stripped of all philosophical tendency would be a stale, stagnant beast, resistant to truly novel ideas while accepting the latest fad theories with utter gullibility. Now that would be a shame.