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R. R. Reno Meets W. H. Willimon

28 April 2008

In a fascinating article on capital punishment, R. R. Reno writes:

Yet recognizing that capital punishment is morally permitted does not rule out a practical judgment that it ought to be set aside. In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul II’s encyclical on the Christian commitment to life, the late pope affirmed the formal legitimacy of capital punishment but argued against its use. The death penalty is materially just, he wrote, only “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” In other words, there is a prudential judgment to be made. Capital punishment is like going to war. The state can use lethal violence only to defend the cause of justice—and only if no other realistic options are available…

…So how should we think about the need to “defend society”? At the most obvious level, John Paul wanted to draw attention to the fact that modern industrial societies have vast resources. This gives us options. These days we can build expensive super-max prisons rather than gallows. We have the luxury of punishing without killing, and, by John Paul’s reckoning, the gospel of Christ teaches us that we should embrace this luxury.

R. R. Reno, “The State Without an Executioner,” First Things, April 28, 2008.

In 2002, Bishop Willimon wrote an article in Christian Century titled, “The Sin of Smugness.”  He wrote his lament in the wake of the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan and in the run-up to our invasion of Iraq, wondering where all the chest-beating bravado had come from, morally speaking.  If we were not persuaded of the virtue of nonviolence, he asked, did we not at least have an ounce of public regret at the direction we were being forced (!) to turn?

(I thought then, as I think now, that Willimon was being a bit unfair to President Bush.  There is not a shred of doubt in my mind that Bush deeply regrets – and weeps over – the injustice that even a just war imposes on innocent people.  Willimon seems to mistake public resoluteness, which is essential to credible foreign policy, for cold hard-heartedness, and to that extent, he sets up an emotional straw man.)

The apostle Paul once observed that “all things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable.”  Reno and Willimon remind us, sturdily, that Paul’s observation extends to many dimensions and many scales of life.  We may be justified in doing a thing, but that does not require that we do it.


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