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"Practical" Absolutes???? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sherry   
Tuesday, 09 January 2007 07:38

As secular apostles, lay Catholics have primary responsibility for the application of the faith to human institutions and cultures. It is part and parcel of our call to find ourselves wrestling with extremely complicated questions about how to apply Church teaching in real-world situations.

How do you discern the good – especially the common good - in this particular situation with these people? What freedom, what authority, what power do I have to shape the outcome? What actions should you take, can you take, to foster all that is truly human and brings glory to God in this situation? These perplexing questions become even more so when the Church’s teaching, such as those regarding sanctity of human life, seems to be developing before our eyes in response to changes in technology and political systems.

John Allen’s January 5 column “Church Opposition to Execution “Practically Absolute” about the Church’s evolving stand regarding the death penalty was a reflection on this development. (You can read the whole piece at

Allen argues that the Vatican’s opposition to the execution of Saddam Hussein is a “milestone in the evolution of yet another category in Catholic teaching: Positions which are not absolute in principle, but which are increasingly absolute in practice. Opposition to war, unless undertaken in clear self-defense or with the warrant of the international community, and the use of capital punishment are the leading cases in point.”

Allen states that the Church now seems to have two different categories of moral teaching:

1) “ontic” or “inherent” absolutes. This would include abortion, euthanasia, and stem cell destruction – acts which are always and everywhere evil regardless of the circumstance.

2) “practical” absolutes: - acts which could be justified in theory under certain limited circumstances but which under present conditions cannot be justified.

Cardinal Renato Martino, President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, in a December 30 interview, said:

"Man cannot simply dispose of life, and therefore it should be defended from the moment of conception to natural death," Martino said. "This position thus excludes abortion, experimentation on embryos, euthanasia and the death penalty, which are a negation of the transcendent dignity of the human person created in the image of God."

Allen writes “Note that Martino listed capital punishment on a par with key life issues long understood to admit of no exceptions.”

Obviously, this is controversial because in the past, the Catholic Church not only supported the validity of the death penalty but occasionally carried it out herself (as did all other Christian states, Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic). A famous example is the execution in 1599 of the young Roman woman, Beatrice Cenci, for murdering her sexually abusive father. Cenci’s execution was overseen by Pope Clement VII.

In paragraph 2267, the Catechism of the Catholic church offers the following on capital punishment, reflecting this position:

"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."

Allen notes: “the Catechism also immediately adds what the Italians call a sfumatura, meaning a nuance, which effectively renders the "self-defense" argument null under prevailing circumstances:

“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety, 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 quote at the end is from Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life).

Allen continues: “The fact that neither the death penalty nor war are considered "ontic" evils probably means there will always be room for differing opinions in the church about the extent to which existing circumstances render them justifiable.” For instance, the highly respected American theologian, Cardinal Avery Dulles has publicly stated that he supports a more “traditional” interpretation of both Church teaching and the just war theory that did Pope John Paul II. Meanwhile, the Community of Sant'Egidio, one of the new Catholic lay movements, has called for a global moratorium on capital punishment.

Allen concludes: “Nevertheless, indications from the Vatican and from a wide swath of Catholic officialdom suggest that in practice, it's unlikely there will ever again be a war (defined as the initiation of hostilities without international warrant) or an execution the church does not officially oppose.”

So where does that leave us as lay Catholics, who actually bear the primary responsibility for conducting war, making peace, and for the entire justice system? How do we stay faithful to Christ and his Church in this situation? How do we discern and act for the good? How do we deal with faithful Catholics, who in good conscience, disagree with our judgment regarding the application of the Church’s social teaching in a particular situation? What do you think?

Before we begin, a reminder:

1) This is a very difficult issue and disagreement is natural, but comments impugning the motivations and good will of another poster are not welcome here and will be deleted. Charitable, thoughtful, discussion and/or disagreement that just might possibly shed new light on the issues involved for the rest of us is what we are shooting for.


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