Saturday, February 13, 2010

Theoretical Reason vs. Practical Reason

Let me take capital punishment as a case in point. To observers who pay no attention to the Church’s rationale, it appears that the Catholic Church is moving toward a pacifist theoretical position. This is not the case. The Church will never condemn capital punishment in principle. It can’t. The Church is judging that in the context of our times, i.e., the terrible bloodshed of the last century and the creeping culture of death, there is more danger in capital punishment's widespread use than in its widespread neglect. The Church might be wrong here, but I’d never know it.

In fact, even though I’m a strong proponent of capital punishment, I also advocate a complete restructuring of the justice system, which in turn requires a restructuring of society. However, we don’t live in Andrew’s world; we live in the real one. What I advocate is not really practical at the present. The Church is responding to the world as it actually is. I would completely fail if I somehow obtained power to implement my social policies—a lot of eggs would be broken. Destruction and misery would result. On the other hand, the Church will inevitably succeed in its mission.

I am willing to submit my theoretical reason to the demands of the Church’s practical reason in the present. And I trust that the Church’s practical reason is guided by her theoretical reason (illuminated by divine Tradition).

I also believe my theoretical reason corresponds very closely to the Church's, but am unwilling to grasp at what hasn't been offered. Instead of the revolutionary path, I wait in submission to the established order of things, while retaining hope for a better day--a day when kings will once again render judgment and justice on the earth.


JackOfClubs said...

I could possibly agree if the Roman Catholic Church did not express its objection in theoretical terms. Pope John Paul II, for instance, said, "A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."

This language is both theoretical and general, not practical. Further, it makes no claim that the death penalty is "dangerous" in the current circumstances but calls it "cruel" and "unnecessary". It may be that the argument you make is being made by the Church, but it is certainly not the only one and, as far as I can tell, not the main one.

Further, I deny that restructuring social policies would necessarily lead to destruction and misery. Perhaps if you tried to do it all at once, but what conservative would advocate such a thing? The conservative rule about social change is that it must be made deliberately, ensuring that each change is both necessary and just. I see no reason why this would have any negative effects, except in the sense that no one ever acts as deliberately or as justly as he ought. But that is equally true for inaction. It is as often as not motivated by fear or indifference, and can be just as bloody (though indirectly) as action.

Don't forget that the biblical argument for the death penalty says nothing about redeeming the criminal but is all about protecting the innocent. "But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities,
then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you." The Pope suggests that in the modern world, "as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent," but I see no evidence that he is correct about this. Practical reason that is based on faulty assumptions and bad evidence is neither practical nor reasonable.

Jeff said...

Fortunately, according to Scripture, the Pope, nor anyone else can bind your conscience.

ioannis said...

"The Church will never condemn capital punishment in principle."

Why not? I do not get it. Where does the New Testament speak in favour of capital punishment?

I am not Catholic but I would like to know the Catholic view that.

Andrew Matthews said...

Jack, I think JPII's thought on capital punishment should be understood as the articulation of one complex argument: Its cruelty combined with its non-necessity.

1) The pope refers to capital punishment as "cruel." The pope is here speaking (in his self-understanding) as head of the Catholic Church on earth. The Holy Father, as chief steward of the Gospel of Life, is especially sensitive to the fact that capital punishment “definitively” denies “criminals the chance to reform.” Capital punishment is cruel in the sense that there are no second chances after it is administered. This is the overriding reason why, in the pope’s judgment, even persons guilty of heinous crimes should not be alienated from the “dignity of life,” whenever possible.

The pope’s disposition is entirely consistent with the mission of our Lord at his first advent, to reconcile and not to condemn.

2) In the second paragraph on the page you link, JPII refers to the "culture of death" in connection with (what he views as) the unnecessary recourse to capital punishment.

In the quotation you cite, the pope calls the death penalty "unnecessary." The quotation clearly indicates that in JPII's judgment, modern society has the means of protecting itself without recourse to the most extreme measure.

What are the means now available to us? Well, you mentioned the pope's approval of advances made in the organization of the penal system. There may be others, for example, modern law enforcement and the surveillance state (Please observe the tongue-in-cheek).

JPII has made a connection in his mind that the same society that kills the unborn, the incapacitated, and the elderly also kills criminals unnecessarily.

The pope’s argumentation does not inexorably move from universal principles to hard and inflexible conclusions. #1 may be a general principle, but it is certainly nor universal. Presumably, the pope can conceive of a culture of life that practices capital punishment out of necessity.

Therefore JPII is making a relative—not general and universal—claim in light of the present circumstance.

Andrew Matthews said...

Jack, you said, “Practical reason that is based on faulty assumptions and bad evidence is neither practical nor reasonable.”

Agreed. Although, for the sake of order, I judge it reasonable to temporarily accede to the pope’s faulty practical reason, until he can be persuaded otherwise. I will only respectfully bring contrary arguments and will always keep in mind that I have not been granted the honor to sit in Peter’s chair.

JPII’s argument is akin to the animal rights argument that in view of modern technology, we should no longer eat meat or wear animal skins. Since we now have the ability to produce synthetic foods and clothing that substitute just as well for animal products, we ought not to cause needless suffering to life.

There is some truth in this argument. (I.e., in general it is best to not kill unnecessarily.) I'm sure you agree we ought to take the 6th commandment very seriously.

However, there are important reasons, other than human survival, for continuing to kill animals. For one, human beings are part of earth's eco-system and have a role in curbing the animal population. This role serves not only our benefit but the planet's as well. For example, when Europeans first came to America, the gigantic buffalo population had so ravaged the Great Plains, the Lewis & Clark expedition’s horses had to survive on tree bark! The Indians had failed to keep the buffalo population in check. The current controlled situation is better for nature, the buffalo, and for us.

Similarly, what does the neglect of retribution do in the natural order of things (in both society and nature)? (Thanks btw for the quotation from Deut. 19.)

What proponents of capital punishment need to do is effectively demonstrate how so-called advances in the penal system actually do not well serve the rehabilitation of criminals and constantly fail to protect the innocent. In fact, the modern system makes things worse.

We need to show how the modern penal system is actually an integral part of the culture of death.

Andrew Matthews said...


Agreed. My conscience is not absolutely bound by the pope's practical judgments.

However, the pope is the successor of Peter, and I am bound to carefully consider what he says and to act in a way that respects his office as Christ's immediate undershepherd.

Andrew Matthews said...


The Catholic Church can never absolutely rule out capital punishment for the reason that such would constitute a contradiction of the original deposit of faith.

Three examples:

1) The Catholic Church will never reverse itself on the existence of Hell. What is Hell, but the ultimate capital punishment?

2) The inspired Scripture says that the king bears the sword of God's wrath in the present age. The civil sword includes the power to execute transgressors of the law.

3) One of the glories of Catholicism is the contribution of Just War Theory. JWT assumes that war is necessary (but can be minimized). And, it assumes the sword-bearing state.

The Catholic Church has no intention of usurping the state's role in the present age.

Grace does not usurp Law. On the contrary, Grace establishes Law.

It is totally undesirable for the Catholic Church to contradict its own tradition and purpose when all that is needed is a practical judgment to effectively curtail the practice.

ioannis said...

Thank you very much for your explanations and the time you took to respond to me, however I can not say that I agree with your interpretations. I can not see, for instance, hell as the capital punishment. But thank you!

Jeff said...


If you accept Apostolic Succession as taught by the RCC then, have you not already allowed the Pope to bind your conscience?

Andrew Matthews said...


(Is this Jeff Cagle, btw?)

The way I see it is: I am either controlled by

a) unexamined presuppositions, private interpretations and groupthink, or

b) an authority that is up-front about its claims with a clear structure of command and obedience.

I find the honesty of the Catholic claims refreshing.

As far as having a "bound conscience", no Church authority has the power to compel me to do something I believe is contrary to the Word of God. On matters indifferent or on which I am unclear, I submit to the judgment of the ecclesiastical authority established by Christ.

When our Lord said to Peter, "I pray that your faith will not fail," and "Feed my sheep," he was making theological statements about that Apostle's function in the body of Christ of great significance.