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January 28, 2014

Confusedly Pro-Life: Is support for the death penalty disqualifying?

This last week’s March for Life recalling 41years of judicially imposed abortion on demand aroused some confused religious commentary about the meaning of pro-life. Most of Christianity has traditionally opposed abortion as uniquely pernicious because it destroys a completely innocent and vulnerable life, in most cases only for convenience. Yet some try to stretch “pro-life” to include their own political preferences in ways that dilute focused opposition to abortion.

One example is Evangelical Left activist Shane Claiborne, a well-intentioned neo-Anabaptist enthusiast popular in some church circles. He recently and admirably urged being “Pro-life from the womb to the tomb.” And he asserted: “The early Christians consistently lament the culture of death and speak out — against abortion, capital punishment, killing in the military… and gladiatorial games,” which, excepting gladiators, he thought “profoundly relevant to the world we live in where death is so prevalent.”

Claiborne of course is a pacifist who opposes all violence, including military action and capital punishment. Whether the Early Church agreed is debatable. But historic Christianity has affirmed both the death penalty and warfare in some cases. Never has orthodox Christianity likened aborting an unborn child to a judicially adjudicated execution of a murderer or to the waging by legitimate authority of a just military action. Even serious Christian ethicists who share opposition to capital punishment would grant its deep moral distinctions from abortion. Defenders of capital punishment and of just war would argue that their positions are in fact pro-life because they punish or inhibit the wanton destroyers of innocent life.

Several days ago an Evangelical blogger, reviewing a new book on religion and capital punishment, commented that the “death penalty resembles abortion” as the “more thought and examination it receives (especially where the gory details are concerned), the less palatable it seems.”  In a common mistake, he surmised that pro-capital punishment arguments rest on Mosaic law, which dictated death for numerous offenses. He asked mockingly: “Do we really want the execution of false prophets?” Traditional Christianity has long understood that the civil punishments of the old Hebrew theocracy are no longer binding. But the divine command to Noah, prior to Mosaic law, that “he who sheds innocent blood so shall his blood be shed” has typically been understood to have universal application.

One of the great interpreters of Christian teaching about capital punishment was the late Catholic theologian Cardinal Avery Dulles. He cited this command to Noah, St. Paul’s assignment of the “sword” to the civil state, theologians like Augustine and Aquinas, and natural law’s understanding of retributive justice to explain why Roman Catholicism has always and still does affirm capital punishment as intrinsic doctrine. Dulles also explained that Pope John Paul II expressed hope that modern wealthy societies would choose incarceration over capital punishment when possible.

In the 1970s and 1980s the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago advocated a “seamless garment” including opposition to abortion, capital punishment, nuclear weapons, and economic injustice. While more artfully designed than most such proposals, critics still faulted his implication that Catholic teaching was as unequivocal on the other issues as it was on abortion. Before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Ratzinger insisted that “not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia.” He explained: “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

Such careful moral distinctions rooted in centuries of Christian ethical discourse are often absent in popular religion. A recent poll of Evangelicals showed that young people, probably unaware of a hierarchy of teachings, were far less likely to support capital punishment. “This parallels a growing trend in the pro-life conversation among Christians to include torture and the death penalty as well as abortion,” the pollster explained. “For many younger Christians, the death penalty is not a political dividing point but a human rights issue.” No doubt. “Rights” emotively interpreted have displaced ethics, theology and careful moral reasoning in much of modern American Christianity.

The elasticizing of “pro-life” was also demonstrated at the March for Life by Evangelical environmentalists, one of whose leaders there emphasized “that the unborn should be protected from toxins and pollution that they are in no way responsible for.” His group targets the impact of toxins on pregnant women and babies. A critic of this approach told the Christian Post that stretching “pro-life” weakens the cause of specifically defending the unborn. He also distinguished “an intentional threat to life,” such as abortion and euthanasia, versus “unintentional threats to health,” such as pollution.

Over extending “pro-life” to entail a long laundry lost of political goals that includes abolishing capital punishment, opposing the military, denouncing “enhanced interrogation,” eliminating nuclear weapons, demanding more environmental regulation, expanding the Welfare State, perpetuating Obamacare, and raising the minimum wage is ultimately to neutralize the term and the movement. Likely some on the Left are fine with that goal. But defending the unborn, one million of whom are legally destroyed annually in America, is sufficiently important to merit its own proprietary terminology and unique movement exclusively focused on the mission at hand.

This article originally appeared on The American Spectator.


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