Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Poverty and Death for Thee, Not for Me

To follow up on a recent post on the death penalty and Ross Douthat, Justice Antonin Scalia, a Catholic, made a remarkable statement that has garnered attention:

[Scalia] said he found no contradiction between his religious views and his support of the death penalty. "If I thought that Catholic doctrine held the death penalty to be immoral, I would resign," he said. "I could not be a part of a system that imposes it."

Wow. The Catholic Church unquestionably holds the death penalty to be immoral. The site Faith in Public Life has more in "Justice Scalia's Catholic Dissent on the Death Penalty." Lisa Miller at The Washington Post's On Faith blog explains how "Justice Scalia speaks for himself on death penalty, not the Catholic Church," and also hosts an online discussion about the piece. (They provide plenty of links for further reading.) John Amato, who was raised Catholic, also weighs in: "I too do not want a Justice to blindly side with their religious beliefs on matters before them, but don't try to sell us on something you're not afterwards." That really is the, um, crux of the matter. Scalia should be judging cases based on the law and the facts before him, but his statement is bizarre. I continue to be astounded by how people who are overtly religious are so ignorant of their own religion, but Scalia's problem (this time) seems to be less ignorance than denial. As Miller writes:

In a 2002 speech at the University of Chicago, Scalia said “Evangelium Vitae” reversed centuries of Catholic tradition by making capital punishment — his word — “wrong.”

“I do not agree with ‘Evangelium Vitae,’ ” he said, “that the death penalty can only be imposed to protect rather than avenge, and that since it is, in most modern societies, not necessary for the former purpose, it is wrong.”

And so, after consultation with canonical experts, who advised him that the doctrine was nonbinding, Scalia — his words, again — “rejected it.”

To recap: The U.S. bishops oppose capital punishment. So do this pope, the last pope and documents from the Vatican press office. Catholic doctrine isn’t crystal clear, but Scalia himself believes “Evangelium Vitae” fails to support capital punishment. And so, in the tradition of millions of Catholics for thousands of years, he has rejected official teaching in favor of his own view, which he believes (to be presumptuous for a minute) to be more traditional and more moral than the established one.

That’s fine with me. I don’t want a justice sitting on the Supreme Court who submits blindly to religious authority or who holds his religion above the laws of the land. So keep your job, Justice Scalia. Just don’t pretend your church approves of the death penalty. Or that you aren’t like most people of faith, cherry-picking the teachings of your church that suit you best.

Here's Scalia's 2002 remarks. As Miller observes in the chat, "One of Scalia's arguments for the death penalty -- if you read that Chicago speech in full, and also a subsequent piece he wrote in First Things -- is this argument for vengeance. That it is sometimes moral." (We touched on this in my earlier post.) Miller also links "Avery Dulles's analysis of Evangelium Vitae and his gentle refutation of Scalia." Scalia's piece for First Things (a conservative Catholic magazine and website) is here. The many letters in response to Scalia include ones from Dulles and Robert Bork (!), who (no surprise) writes a vengeful supporting both Scalia and capital punishment. (My favorite sentence is Bork thundering: " If the Church does not understand basic economics, it is worse than folly to insist that Catholics must believe what they know to be wrong and which no spiritual authority can make right." I hope to finish a post on Bork in the near future.) Scalia also responds at the end.

Meanwhile, Susan of Texas takes on Ross Douthat's latest piece, an argument that combating wealth inequity is folly. Douthat's central argument is that:

The story of the last three decades, in other words, is not the story of a benevolent government starved of funds by selfish rich people and fanatical Republicans.

Of course it damn well is, but Douthat will lie shameless to deny it.

Douthat's piece is unremarkable. What I find most interesting, besides his blatant dishonesty, is his argument strategy. If you read Douthat's piece, and Susan's dissection of it (plus the comments), you may notice that Douthat uses roughly the same pattern as in his pro-death penalty piece: a few semi-reasonable points to try to draw the reader in, then a strong pivot, after which he piles on the propaganda. He ends with the assertion that his conservative stance is the natural, moderate position.

Douthat is strongly similar to his fellow NYT conservative David Brooks in using this approach. Both are essentially concern trolls, although Douthat is less skillful, more socially conservative, and more whiny. Still, they're both trafficking in an old conservative gambit: "Stop! That obviously good measure could lead to (preposterously unlikely) negative consequences! Wouldn't you prefer to kiss the ass of an aristocrat instead?" Also: "Reasonable centrist moderates pick the conservative position." Poverty and death are clearly where it's at, kids.

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