Catholics who are in dissent from the Church – those who reject Church teaching on contraception, or male priesthood, or whatever — often say that the Church is right about everything else, but regrettably wrong about this one issue.
And those of us who are not in dissent respond incredulously, “How could that be? How could the Church be right about the resurrection, and transubstantiation, and eternal life, but wrong about this one issue? How do you even swallow that idea?”
But it’s just as senseless to say, “I care so deeply about this one important moral issue that I refuse to even acknowledge that there are other important moral issues.” And yet this is exactly what we’re hearing in the wake of the four paper’s joint editorial condemning the death penalty in the U.S. The comboxes are pretty much wall-to-wall reiterations of this argument: “Death penalty for criminals? Who cares? What I care about as a Catholic is ending the slaughter of the innocent unborn!”
This attitude displays a deep and disastrous misunderstanding of the consistency and interconnectedness of Church doctrine. The Church is consistent. Utterly consistent. All of her teachings spring from a unified understanding of what God is like and what human life is for.
So if we are going to pish-tush at some teaching of the Church — like the teaching that the death penalty is only to be used as a last resort when there is no other way of keeping society safe* — calling it “marginal” or “liberal,” or saying that we just can’t get ourselves to care about it? Then we are very close to being in dissent. At very least, we have what I might call a “dissenting mentality”: pretending to submit to the guidance of the Church, but actually only adhering to and defending the doctrines which appeal to us, while ignoring, scorning, or even openly defying the ones which we don’t like.
[the following paragraph added at 11 eastern for clarity:] I’m not talking about people who truly believe that the death penalty is, in some cases, the only way to keep society safe. I believe they are wrong, and that in this country, in this century, there is no compelling reason to execute any prisoner. But who I’m talking about is people who openly reject what the Catechism teaches: who say, “The hell with that. Blood demands blood. Some people are just scum of the earth, and justice demands that we wipe them clean.”
If some doctrine makes us uneasy, and we admit that we don’t like it or understand it? No problem! That’s just being honest, and we all have some catching up to do. So pray, pray, pray, turn it constantly over to God, beg for understanding and the grace to submit, and have passionate arguments with people you respect. That’s fine. God never commands us to be instantly calm and happy about All the Catholic Things.
But for your own soul’s sake, if you have reservations or doubts, don’t be flippant or nasty about them, or, God forbid, proud of them. Belligerently parading around with a “dissenting mentality” is like going to a friend’s house, greeting the host nicely, displaying perfect manners during dinner, — and then going to the bathroom and crapping all over the floor. And then writing a gracious thank-you note for a lovely evening.
Guess what? It’s all one house. If you want to be a good guest, you have to behave yourself in every room.
*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.”68