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November 03, 2005



First off, I'm not studying political philosophy, just political science. Second, I need to understand your point here. Is your point that monarchy is the best system of government? If so, should we institute one here? Who will pick the king? Why is our country so great if we lifted everything BUT the king from England if monarchy is the bees knees? Are you saying that we should have a monarchy with no elected representation? After all, if the monarch sits on God's throne (which is what I thought the Pope did), how can anyone tell him what's what?

If you want to say that a monarch is good because it is a method of instituting a societal and political hierarchy, then fine, I can deal with that and even give you the point that yes, a monarchy can indeed perform a hierarchical function and can be seen as doing this better than an elected body. BUT, just as a monarch can conserve tradition, it can also quickly destroy it. Think of what has happened to our (and the rest of Europe's) conserving institutions over the past fifty years.

What is lunacy is the whistful nostalgia and hope for a Restoration. We all wax nostalgic once and a while, and there is nothing wrong with our being nostalgic for impossible things. But at a certain point the nostalgia becomes a pose. That is when it is silly. I'm all for anachronism and eccentricities, Lord knows that is true, but it cannot become defining. We must focus on today's struggle and keep our longings for White Russia away outside of it. When he went to Washington Mr. Smith said that lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for, but c'mon.

If you want to paint me as a child of the Enlightenment and Reformation, that is fine. I will take it (in the case of the Reformation, gladly and with the Enlightenment slightly less so). However, you must ask youself if you actually are against the Enlightenmnet or if you just quibble with some of its progeny. At a certain point the premodernists look something like the postmodernists. Sure, call me a Whig for believing that history moves forward and that one cannot return to what has passed. One can agree that the present isn't superior to the past just for the fact of its being the present as a Whig/Progressive would do, but that does not lead one to say that we must return to the past as it was for the future to be better. While we can stand athwart history yelling stop, we must also look to the future when doing so because that is where we live our lives.

Andrew Cusack

Well no good traditionalist really wants to turn back the clock. The point of being a traditionalist (or a 'conservative' if you will; I find the term is often counterproductive) is that you want progress to be within the frameworks of tradition. (Remember when G.K. Chesterton said that the Catholic Church puts up walls, but within those walls is a playground? Well I'd venture to say the same thing about tradition.) We want to reconnect with the past so that we have a firm footing for the future. Traditionalists do not believe that Protestant and Enlightenment thinking are firm foundation on which to build, as they eventually (though it may take centuries, e.g. the Anglican communion), turn to complete rot.

As for monarchy, I think the Westminster system of government the overwhelming power of the Crown exerted through a delaying and protracting upper chamber and a representative lower chamber is the ideal form of government. Should the U.S. become a monarchy? Hmmm... our King got rid of us in 1783 unfortunately, and we know have a long and capable political tradition of our own which draws significantly on the Westminster system.

However, that system has been chipped away slowly but again and again. Witness the illegal Civil War, direct election of Senators, the usurpation of power by the Federal government and the unwillingness of states to defend their own constitutional powers. If these trends continue, then I'd prefer we scrap it and go for regional unions of the current states and maybe some of them will be monarchies. I would be perfectly willing to see New York have a hereditary Governor (or even King/Queen) if a suitable family would be up for it. Or for New York to join with, for example, the original 13 colonies under a common monarch again. Both would be intriguing options. However, given that we already have a long(ish) American tradition, it would seem more logical to restore the balance that previously existed in our own political makeup than to attempt other scenarios.

As for kings, Archbishop John Healy of Tuam circa 1900 was quoted as saying:

"The character of Kings is sacred; their persons are inviolable; they are the anointed of the Lord, if not with sacred oil, at least by virtue of their office. Their power is broad---based upon the Will of God, and not on the shifting sands of the people's will...They will be spoken of with becoming reverence, instead of being in public estimation fitting butts for all foul tongues. It becomes a sacrilege to violate their persons, and every indignity offered to them in word or act, becomes an indignity offered to God Himself. It is this view of Kingly rule that alone can keep alive in a scoffing and licentious age the spirit of ancient loyalty, that spirit begotten of faith, combining in itself obedience, reverence, and love for the majesty of kings which was at once a bond of social union, an incentive to noble daring, and a salt to purify the heart from its grosser tendencies, preserving it from all that is mean, selfish, and contemptible."

See Charles Coulombe's 'Religious Basis of Monarchy', as well as his other articles:


Mrs. P,
No real quarrel with your post, but don't you find it a tad ironic to be quoting a king who rejected his mother's Catholic faith, refused to grant equal rights to Catholics, and continued Queen Elizabeth's custom of torturing "papists"?

Steve M.

Mrs. P, you certainly have found quite a stone, in your statement from James I. A Catholic monarch should understand himself to be very much accountable to God and His Church, certainly not "accountable to none." (I do not purport to be able to say very much about what a monarch who is not Catholic can be expected to say.) But it may be that if we had the King's entire statement before us, we would know that he made that point eventually.
Misspent, when you say "one cannot return to what has passed", I do not know what you mean, exactly. Spain restored a monarch, and is the better for it, although it is still in a most unhappy state. I am put in mind of the exchange in "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader," where (if I recall correctly), the local authority is exasperated by a demand from a suddenly returned monarch. "But that would be putting the clock back," gasped the governor. "Have you no idea of progress, of development." "I have seen them both in an egg," said [Prince] Caspian. "We call it Going bad in Narnia." I loved reading that to each of my children, knowing that Lewis had his character, the governor, using an argument my children would hear for the rest of their lives. In the "Dawn Treader" discussion, this highly flexible line of clock/calender argument is being used in an attempt to justify mainatining the slave trade.


I'm not necessarily disagreeing with the argument, but I did have a query: As to Archbishop Healy's rather idealistic quote, how does the image he paints square with the attitudes in existing monarchies? Take Great Britain, for instance--can anyone really say that the Royal House of Windsor has any legal or political effect over its empire, or that the people treat the royals with reverence? Denmark? Belgium? The Netherlands? Spain? Who is to say that establishing regional monarchies among the United States is going to be anymore successful or "godly" than the existing monarchies? Although it is indeed an intriguing option, it would require no less than the destruction of the U.S. Constitution, including abolition of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause (if, as Abp. Healy says, we are to view kingly reign as directly given by God Himself and treat it as such).

Mrs. Peperium

Christine, yes it is very ironic. But a blind pig can find an acorn once in a while.

Here's James I speech;


The stone above came from First Things.

Mrs. Peperium

Misspent, I've been rethinking the death penalty lately. Our government is drawn largely from a divine right form of government. England's to be exact. We rejected our King. (my family had a hand in it so heap all the blame you would like on me) If we rejected our King, divinely chosen by God, then did that mean we broke with God? By rejecting His choice isn't that somehow a rejection of him? Rejection in a similiar way to when France put Louis XIV to death? Also, add on top of this England's break with Rome before we broke with God and everything in America gets slightly more trickier.

As for what all of this has to do with the death penalty, the Christian argument for the death penalty comes from the Old Testement, from the days of divine kings. Those kings were allowed by God to spill blood to avenge blood that had been killed. (James I understood that as late as 1609) If we have no king deciding the fate of murderers then what leg does the Christian argument for the death penalty stand upon? Is there a Christian defense for a State-ordered death? I need to read JPII on this.

I realise this is slightly off topic but then again not. Because somehow this feeds into your question of what I think of the Enlightenment. At this point I can't answer that - there's too much revolving around in my head. But that probably doesn't surprise you.

BTW, I do hate the argument 'we can't go back' even if it's right.


I guess I'd better comment here at some point, as a subject of a monarch, hadn't I?

Well I will, but first I must cook myself something for dinner.


Mrs. P,
JPII's position on the death penalty, in a nutshell, is that capital punishment is only justified when no other means exist for keeping the populace safe. He questioned the continuing validity of capital punishment in modern society, as there are ways today to protect society from evildoers (like life imprisonment, which was not necessarily a possibility for serious criminals back, say, during the Middle Ages).

I myself used to be pro-capital punishment. Since converting to the Catholic faith, I'm reconsidering my views on this, and haven't yet come to a firm conclusion.

Andrew Cusack

Regarding capital punishment, I think it should be legal but rarely, if ever used. The number of executions in the United States these days is outrageous. I would think that while murder ought to be a capital offense, the only offense I would be comfortable signing a death warrant for was treason, especially in a time of war. Treasonous activity often risks the lives of hundreds, thousands, if not millions of others. I remember reading about the hundreds (don't think it was in the thousands but might have been) of anti-Soviet and anti-Communist operatives who were killed behind the Iron Curtain because of the treachery of Kim Philby, for example.

There are some pretty ridiculous and flat out wrong arguments for the death penalty, such as revenge, the cost of life imprisonment (shall we kill people to balance the books?), and other such nonsense. The only real argument for capital punishment is that the crime committed is so heinous that the ultimate punishment possible is necessary for justice to be done. We must have justice (find the guilty as guilty) but it must be tempered by mercy (commute death sentences to life imprisonment, in most circumstances).

Unfortunately one comes across cases in which the family of the murdered claims they will not find rest until the murderer is executed. Firstly, there is no way they can no they will be at rest after the guilty party is executed. Secondly, vengeance killing is just plain wrong. Thirdly, our concept of punishment should be based on justice, not on the emotions of any particular group or individual. Family members who thirst for vengeance need help; certainly our prayers and perhaps even counselling.

Back to monarchy, the trouble is that today I can't think of a single European country which has a good, traditional, Christian monarchy. Even in Spain the King officially gives his assent to laws which are effectively smacks in the face of God. For some reason, monarchs today think they're doing their job when they're acting as a rubber stamp, which is precisely what they ought not to be. If monarchs are just going to rubber-stamp anything any parliament passes, then they are effectively useless and you may as well have a republic.


Ok, my tuppence worth...

Monarchy is a potentially valuable constitutional form in embedding hierarchy, as Misspent says. As such, it stands very much against the tides of modernity. The thing to consider about the US is quite how it embodies modernity more perhaps than any other nation.

Christine: re "Take Great Britain, for instance--can anyone really say that the Royal House of Windsor has any legal or political effect over its empire, or that the people treat the royals with reverence?"

First, the British Monarch has rather sweeping powers, including the right of veto over all legislation and the right to declare war. That power is reserved for exceptional moments, but is there nonetheless. Second, you shouldn't be so sure that we don't revere the monarchy - yes, there's a strong tradition of lampooning them as people, but that doesn't mean there's no respect there.

Death penalty: Mrs P, you are on to something there - the logical implication of political equality (which monarchy stands against) is the end of state authority. That is a natural result of modern thinking - the individualist conception running from the Reformation on.

I must though point out that it while JPII might've been functionally against the death penalty, it is surely consistent (as indeed is monarchy) with the political teaching of Romans 13, and is certainly supportable within Thomist thought.

And as an outsider, one of the most worrying trends in American conservatism is the declining support for the death penalty.


Andrew: if you apply mercy as a general principle, is it still mercy? Surely an act of mercy should be exceptional, for exceptional reasons? (Otherwise, I agree wholeheartedly that the death penalty is only justifiable, but is justifiable, as just retribution.)

Re monarchy - I don't think the pre-Reformation model of Catholic monarchy could work anymore. It worked then because the Church had a position of unrivalled knowledge (and therefore power), because it was before the revolution of science and method. But that revolution has now happened, and the Church's power to stand over monarchy is greatly limited - to try to do so would only end up compromising its spiritual authority too often.

Re Misspent's point earlier about Whiggery - to believe history goes only forward is not Whiggery; to believe history goes only forward to a better place is, and is wrong for all of that. Progress is an illusion, but that doesn't make regress any more likely either.


And it came to pass, when Samuel was old, that he made his sons judges over Israel... And his sons walked not in his ways, but turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgment. Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel unto Ramah, And said unto him, Behold, thou art old, and thy sons walk not in thy ways: now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed unto the LORD. And the LORD said unto Samuel, Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me, that I should not reign over them. According to all the works which they have done since the day that I brought them up out of Egypt even unto this day, wherewith they have forsaken me, and served other gods, so do they also unto thee. Now therefore hearken unto their voice: howbeit yet protest solemnly unto them, and shew them the manner of the king that shall reign over them. And Samuel told all the words of the LORD unto the people that asked of him a king. And he said, This will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you: He will take your sons, and appoint them for himself, for his chariots, and to be his horsemen; and some shall run before his chariots. And he will appoint him captains over thousands, and captains over fifties; and will set them to ear his ground, and to reap his harvest, and to make his instruments of war, and instruments of his chariots. And he will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers. And he will take your fields, and your vineyards, and your oliveyards, even the best of them, and give them to his servants. And he will take the tenth of your seed, and of your vineyards, and give to his officers, and to his servants. And he will take your menservants, and your maidservants, and your goodliest young men, and your asses, and put them to his work. He will take the tenth of your sheep: and ye shall be his servants. And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day. Nevertheless the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay; but we will have a king over us; That we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles. And Samuel heard all the words of the people, and he rehearsed them in the ears of the LORD. And the LORD said to Samuel, Hearken unto their voice, and make them a king.

-I Samuel 8

Charles A. Coulombe

Well, I should first make a point about the Old Testament quote. While it applied to the children of Israel, it certainly does not apply to the rest of us, as witness Pius VI's endorsement of Monarchy as the "best form of government" in "Pourquoi Notre Voix." Even if it did, our current form of rule via Judiciary, a judiciary which would banish the name of God as well as His Commandments from the courthouses shows how much further away from Samuel we are then any Christian Monarchy could be (actually, given that all Monarchies require some sort of Divine sanction --- no matter how bizarre, the argument could be made that even the Emperor of Japan or the King of Saudi Arabia would be closer to the Bible, given that they do not arrogate to themselves the right to reform the moral law, as they see it; of course, this line of argument gets stranger yet, when we reflect that General MacArthur legalised abortion in Japan as part of his 1948 reform of their legal system --- I'll drop it).

At any rate, there can be no doubt that our republican system is in an advanced state of moral decay, nor that the European Monarchies have followed the same trail in more or less conscious imitation of us. One cannot blame them; as a nation invented by professional politicians, we have always constituted a summum bonum for members of that tribe overseas.


Andrew- as far as I know, the only royal family with substantial power and (I believe) a religious identity is that of Liechtenstein, which will also carry the Jacobite claims after the current generation passes. Apparently there is a "Prince of Liechtenstein Catholic Student Leaders Fellowship", which may indicate a degree of continuing faith within the princely family.

I'll try to contribute to the substantive conversation a little later.


Quick stuff as I just got back from class and need a fix myself a stiff drink and watch some tv.

re: turning back the clock. It is one thing to turn back to clock to the recent past, i.e. when there are those that are still alive that remember or participated in it, or the tradition is still strong in the populace. Going back four hundred years would require the rethinking of the entire scientific revolution, and overturning of the global norms of international and domestic politics.

re: the death penalty. Mrs. P., I'm afraid your questioning isn't about the Christian position on the death penalty, it is entirely the Catholic position on the deat penalty you are searching for.

re: traditionalists. I think there needs to be an adjective in front of that to be more accurate. one can agree with the reformation and the enlightenment (parts of it) and still be a traditionalist. to be an american traditionalist would require both. i would say that i am a traditionalist of the american camp, believing that our problems stem not from our not having a monarch, aristocracy, or catholic state under the pope, but from our losing touch with our distinctly american traditions of civil society. after all, one can say that the medieval society collapsed because it ended up in rot and that the liberal society rose from its ashes. let us not forget about the sins of the roman church the led to the reformation.

all in all, I'd rather live in a fallen world where we have the choice to live a christian life than in a world where it is imposed on us without that choice.


Oh, and one should not confuse scholar with graduate student. they are not the same. I am a living testament to this.


While I have little to add to the hierarchical arguement at this point, I'd like to suggest that Monarchy actually better expresses the one positive insight of the American founding (for the record, I'm a Canadian), which was the wisdom of a division of powers.

America benefits from an institutional division of powers. Monarchy (deriving its authority from tradition, history & natural right), when combined with some element of democracy (which derives authority from the people as a whole), retains an institutional division of powers, while adding a division in the source of power. This seems to me to be a more effectual check on the illegitimate exercise of power: it is, in fact the addition of a completely different power to the constitution of a nation and not a mere division of a single power.

Of course, we'll be still better off if we through an aristocracy into the mix (deriving authority through ancient and particular connexion to the land).

Andrew Cusack

Re: Misspent on 'turning back the clock', again it's not supposed to be about turning back the clock. Secondly, it wasn't four hundred years ago we had kings who actually had power over their goverments. Witness Karl I/IV of Austria-Hungary. His eldest son Otto is still alive (and I assume others are), indeed only just retired from a career in the European Parliament. Certainly within living memory, not even a century ago yet.


The word of the Lord to the prophet Samuel has every bit as much meaning today as it did three thousand years ago, or thereabouts. It certainly has more of a claim on our attention than any statement by Pius VI, especially a statement presented here as a piece of evidence that what God told Samuel is irrelevant to the question of monarchy. Clearly, it's quite relevant. Why, that's exactly what it's about. I grant, of course, that the context is different, but it should also be clear that there is nothing necessarily inherent in monarchy that makes it divinely privileged as a form of government. After the Fall, everything is compromised. What popes may say doesn't change that.

Of course, I'm not a Catholic. But even if I were, I wouldn't buy this argument.


Re Reformation, Enlightenment, and Turning Back the Clock:

I'm in SOME (but not total) sympathy with Misspent here. Certainly, I think he's right that it's a bit of a contortion to be both fundamentally American and aganst the Reformation and the Enlightenment. America is a Protestant country by background, and one founded on deeply modern principles.

Now, not being an American, I'm not quite so constrained (although England wouldn't be England without some aspects of the Reformation). But I'd go further, and say that it is far too easy to damn the Reformation and the Enlightenment (you can't have the second without the first) as we sit here living on its fruits. Without modernity, the prosperity we now know - the security from death and poverty - would not exist. The Internet? No chance.

Now, life might be better in other ways - we might not live in a world so morally and emotionally retarded, so drained of the high. This is all true. But how many of us would really make that trade, if offered? I like to think I'd be interested, but...

But that isn't to say that we can't appreciate that the Reformation and the Enlightenment both had their limits. They did - and we are now getting know the consequences of going past them. The issue we should be facing here is not how to turn the clock back but forward, forward to what comes after - finding some settlement and some traction, to recover the high, to widen the horizon of human possibilities outside of quantification and commodification, without losing the benefits of that low but solid ground we have now.

Mrs. Peperium

Good morning.

Welcome newcomers Mr. Coluombe and Gabriel. (Gabriel, I think you may have visited us once before.) Mr. Coluombe, easy on the Latin. I'm a former Protestant who went to art school. My mom was a brilliant Latin student who bought the line French was more important for me to learn. Who knew monarchies would set off such a flurry of discussion?

Blimpish, yes, you are absolutely correct to say we can't reject all of the Englightenment or even, (hold on fellow papists) the Reformation. I never meant to suggest that I did. I do like modern technology and do not long for the horse and carriage or goat dung bandages in lieu of good old antibiotics.

Misspent, I am not looking for a Catholic understanding of the death penalty. I am looking for a Christian one. Death is something that affects all Christians. So does murder, treason... I will come back to this.

QQ, just because God did not intend for us to have kings does not mean they do/did not rule by divine right. He was the one who gave us kings. Yes, he pointed out that because they existed it would now be harder for us to hear him. Which is very true.

The Queen of England is a divinely-annointed Queen. Her annointing is supposed to give her special recourse to God for direction on how to rule over her country. Blimpish points out how she alone can decides someones death or if the country goes to war. Her annointment is like a sacrament in that it will give her the wisdom and guidance she will need to make such important decisions. No tinhorn dictator can make such a claim. He rules by brute force and fear.

Now, if the Queen of England chooses not to make good use of her annointment, then there is little the people can do if the aristocracy does not live up to their role and hold her accountable. I believe the Magna Carta came about by the aristocracy doing exactly that and forcing the king to sign. Yes, it was signed under durress but that doesn't take away from the fact it was it was signed and future kings and queens had to obey it to a certain degree. As the Bible clearly points out, under bad kings the people suffered but under the good kings they prospered.

Now back to the death penalty. Recently I read an article by J. Bottum entitled 'Christians and the Death Penalty in the July/Aug First Things. in fact this is the source for the James I quote. Bottum is a man of high intellect and the piece is thoroughly thought provoking. Referencing Connecticut recently executing a man for murder, he asks how is it that a secular state can exact a higher form of justice (death)?

I will excerpt some of the article but the entire piece is well worth reading and available on line.

Mrs. Peperium

I was wrong. it is the Aug/Sept issue. It is a very long article. Here is the begining of Bottum's argument;

"One hears so many bad, thoughtless, and even dangerous objections to the death penalty in the United States. That it is unconstitutionally “cruel and unusual,” for instance, though the Constitution itself mentions capital crimes. Or that the large number of prisoners removed from death row in recent years by commutation and technical legal appeal somehow prove that hundreds of innocent convicts are on the edge of state-sanctioned death. Or that opponents of abortion are hypocrites if they don’t simultaneously reject the execution of criminals. Why, I always wonder, does this never seem to cut in the opposite direction: If the issues are genuinely linked, then what about the people who oppose capital punishment while supporting legalized abortion? Aren’t they equally hypocritical, and for exactly the same reason?

"At the same time, one regularly hears another set of bad arguments for the death penalty. That it is required to teach human beings the wrongness of killing, for instance, though countries that have abolished capital punishment show no mass conversion to murder. Or that the cost of executing prisoners is significantly less than the cost of imprisoning them, though the expense of actually carrying out a death sentence in today’s legal climate is enormous.

"But the worst of these, for a Christian, is the argument from justice—the argument made implicitly every time we tell the story of an executed murderer. One could quarrel here about Christian pacifism and its relation to the death penalty, the hard-edged claim that the task of a believer is to stand as a sheep among the wolves or the softly sentimental notion that mercy is somehow nicer than strict justice. The question I have in mind, however, is about the status of justice in political theory.

"Christians may decline to accept responsibility for government, but governing must still go on. And that governing will inevitably find itself caught in the clash between justice and mercy. Christ’s teaching forgives the sinner even while it condemns the sin, and human justice and human mercy may perhaps find a unity in us as individuals if we turn the other cheek as we are taught. But at the level of any actual government—at the level of positive law, with its officers and magistrates—justice and mercy are necessarily in conflict. If judges show mercy, in any meaningful sense of the word, they do so at the explicit cost of justice; they are being unjust by failing to exact the penalty that justice requires.

"So what kind of justice—high, low, divine, poetic—can a Christian expect in a modern nation-state? More to the point, what kind of justice can a Christian allow modern democracies to claim for themselves?

Don't worry Blimpish, I'm not becoming a pacifist. Mr. Bottum, like Mr. Cusack, reserves the death penalty for certain crimes like several European countries still do;

"By the right of self-determination, a legitimate state has a strong duty to defend itself, and in certain extreme circumstances the state’s very existence, the entire structure of law and civil society, may possibly require the death of criminals. Thus, executions for treason and desertion in battle remain exceptions in the law of most of the European countries that have otherwise abolished the death penalty.

"Then, too, a state has a responsibility to enforce positive law and exact punishment. This is true even in the case of victimless crimes, and it is perhaps particularly true in the case of crimes with victims. All political theories note that ancient legal systems began with the outlawing of private revenge, but the state does not thereby become a sort of hired agent or substitute avenger. That is what a theory of civil harms is for, and such torts are addressed not in criminal but civil courts, where the plaintiff, not the government, collects the monetary damages. Genuine crimes, in a modern setting, are instead committed against society and its laws—just as, in medieval England, all crimes were crimes against the king. In strict legal theory, the victims are incidental; the entire body politic is injured by a crime, and the social disorder of that crime is what a government’s criminal-justice system must address."

Now, here Bottum brings JPII into his argument;

“There is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that the death penalty be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely,” John Paul II wrote in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae. “The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” And the result of viewing the problem in this way is that the death penalty should be “very rare and practically non-existent.”

"In Romans 13, St. Paul insists that “the authorities that exist have been established by God,” and these authorities “bear the sword,” for “rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.” This is the biblical text most commonly cited to allow or even require Christian support for the death penalty. But as one who had seen Roman tax-farming in operation and knew the Romans had carried out the execution of Jesus, Paul certainly had no illusions that the reigning authority of Rome was anointed or godly. The “sword” he mentions is a metaphor for police powers that does not necessarily imply approval of the death penalty. And we have a way to read Romans 13, as pertaining only to ordinary social justice, with John Paul II’s insistence that “the primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.”

"Already in 1992 the Catechism suggested current Catholic thought on the death penalty was not what strong proponents of capital punishment wish it to be. Then in 1996 further changes were made to the Catechism to bring it in line with Evangelium Vitae. It was at a press conference announcing these changes that Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, used the phrase “a development of doctrine” to describe how the death penalty was being perceived in Rome.


"The “development” is less clear than it may seem. Through the Middle Ages, Christian philosophers and theologians developed a set of careful distinctions concerning courts and penalties, and one of their central aims was to limit the punishments that might be imposed by otherwise unconstrained rulers. But something odd happened during the Enlightenment. Voltaire came across the anti-death-penalty arguments of an Italian criminologist named Cesare Beccaria and promptly used them, with enormous success, as yet another weapon in his war against Christianity. The traditional Christian teachings, which had typically functioned to restrict the severity of criminal sentences, were suddenly declared to have been teachings in favor of torture and the death penalty.

"So successful was the attack that many commentators today still accept Voltaire’s terms. Whether they defend or reject the death penalty, they all seem to believe the patristic and medieval writers accepted capital punishment not merely as necessary at the time but as required by justice at all times. The current position of the Catechism thus appears a radical change from earlier positions—as it may be, from the positions of some theological figures, but not as many as the historical commentaries on capital punishment would lead us to suppose.

"Regardless, John Paul II’s analysis in Evangelium Vitae points toward two key elements of the way a Christian might view contemporary political theory and the place of the death penalty.

"The first is his emphasis upon the inherent dignity of the person, particularly in a modern world that seems intent on compromising this dignity. Circumstances alone dictate when capital punishment is necessary for a government’s self-defense and preservation of the social order. But in a culture that seems to have embraced death with widespread abortion and euthanasia, the correct prudential judgment would be never to impose the death penalty.

"Obviously the penal goal of rehabilitating the criminal is destroyed by capital punishment. But the other medicinal goals of social justice—educating the public and redressing the disorders caused by the crime—can be lost as well when the culture is in an especially disordered social situation. To make a show of the value of life with the death penalty, in a nation flirting with death, only teaches the public that yet more life is valueless and yet more life can be destroyed. This is the truth lurking behind the otherwise unfair complaint of hypocrisy in opposing abortion while allowing capital punishment. The distinction between the innocent killed by abortion and the guilty killed by execution is not likely to persuade many people in a culture that cannot bring itself to rescind its license of murder in the womb.

"But John Paul II’s deeper point is his second. Many of his encyclicals are meditations upon a single biblical text. And so, in one sense, Evangelium Vitae is nothing but a reading of the passages about Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis, as seen through the lens of the New Testament revelation and applied to the modern world. “By his death,” John Paul II writes, “Jesus sheds light on the meaning of life and the death of every human being.” 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.

"Political theory might read this to mean that only private vengeance is being prohibited: The murderer cannot be condemned, because until Cain builds the first city, there are no authorized public magistrates to judge and punish him. But Evangelium Vitae is after something else. The biblical story emphasizes the reality of the blood-debt and the universe thrown out of balance by murder—and nonetheless adds a prohibition against claiming repayment for that debt.

"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 repaying 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.

"To leave the argument against the death penalty in the hands of those who no longer much believe this Christian story is dangerous. The people who think there is no such thing as a blood-debt are always surprised to see crowds outside penitentiaries where executions are about to take place, chanting for the execution. But those crowds appear at executions in the United States for a reason—because blood really does cry out from the ground. “He didn’t suffer as much” as his victims, one bereaved parent objected at Michael Ross’ death. Without the Christian revelation to restrain it, the sense of a blood-debt that must be paid will only grow."

And Bottum's final paragraphs;

"The divine right of kings was a short-lived political theory, swept under by rival theories in early modern times. A new understanding of the limited sovereignty of government emerged, and one of the primary causes was the gradually developing awareness that Christianity had thoroughly demythologized the state. But that is not, by itself, a stable condition. Without constant pressure from the New Testament’s revelation of Christ’s death and resurrection, the state always threatens to rise back up as an idol. And one sign of a government’s overreaching is its claim of power to balance the books of the universe—to repay blood with blood.

"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."


I agree with Blimpish to a large degree. If it weren't for the Enlightenment and the Reformation the alternahistory-me would be a poor fisherman or some such thing in the Baltic or a beatupon Scotch-Irishman in England somewhere. I can't say I'd trade all this for that.

Mrs. Peperium

Blimpish, when you say we cannot reject the entirety of the Reformation because we are sitting on its fruits, what exactly do you mean?

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