The Catholic University of America

October 24, 2011

'The Better Angels of Our Nature'

WASHINGTON (CNS) – Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard, recently published a book entitled “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” which argues that the age that we live in is less violent than any other period in history.

Archeological studies of pre-state societies suggest that as many as 15 percent of the population met violent deaths. (They seem to confirm Hobbes’ claim that life in the state of nature was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.) Murder rates in Europe today are 10 to 50 times lower than they were in the Middle Ages.

Pinker attributes this “civilizing process” to a number of causes – the increasing power of the state, the growth of commerce, improvements in the status of women and even progress in our moral reasoning.

Whether we actually do get better at moral reasoning is a very complicated question. It may be that we reach different conclusions when we apply the same principles in different social situations.

Take the issue of capital punishment. The church has long taught that the state can take a criminal’s life if that is the only way to defend human life. Some of the early church fathers tolerated and even approved of the practice.

Augustine mentions capital punishment as an exception to the commandment against killing. Aquinas argues for the execution of men dangerous to the community “in order to preserve the common good.”

In recent years, though, the Catholic Church has been increasingly insistent in its condemnation of executions. In his 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae,” Blessed Pope John Paul II noted the growing demand, both in the church and in civil society, that we restrict or abolish the death penalty.

The catechism, quoting Blessed John Paul, notes the traditional teaching about the state’s authority to defend human life. It then goes on to say that, in the modern world, “as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for … (securely incarcerating the criminal) without definitively 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.’”

I have been thinking about Pinker and the pope the last few weeks, when our attention has been fixed on two prominent death penalty cases. One involved Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist convicted of the brutal 1998 Texas dragging murder of a black man named James Byrd. Brewer was executed by lethal injection on Sept. 21. The day before his execution, Brewer reportedly said, “I have no regrets. No, I’d do it all over again.”
The other was Troy Davis, convicted of shooting a police officer in Georgia. Unlike Brewer, Davis maintained his innocence and became a focal point for the anti-death penalty movement. His case drew pleas for clemency from Pope Benedict XVI, among others. He was executed the same day as Brewer.

Was it right to execute Brewer and Davis?

The church’s clear contemporary teaching is that Texas and Georgia should do so only if it was necessary to protect their people from further attacks. Given the quality of the state prison systems, it’s hard to make that claim.

Many folks would say that the punishments were justified because Brewer and Davis were bad men who, as they say in the South, needed killing.

Let us assume the truth of the evidence against Davis, as we might do after 20 years of legal review. He was, on that account, a bad man; or at least a man who did some very bad things. He was convicted of shooting another man and was executed.

Davis was in the act of pistol-whipping a homeless man when he was approached by the doomed officer.
As for Brewer, he was a cruel, sadistic racist who tortured and eventually beheaded his victim. Sometimes society simply demands revenge for crimes that are genuinely heinous, twisted and evil.

This is, however, an urge that the church calls on us to resist, no matter how difficult that may be.
The reason isn’t just that we might make a mistake, though we might. (We have executed almost 5,000 people since 1930; 46 just last year. Sooner or later the system is bound to slip up.)

The reason is that human life is sacred because it results from the creative action of God. It is not our place to destroy it, though that might satisfy our desire for revenge.

It is right to punish criminals to redress the harm that they have caused. But the better understanding of the Gospel is that we should stop short of killing.

If Pinker is right, it’s nice to know that we are moving in that direction. Though as last month’s cases show, we are not there yet.

More Columns by John Garvey