I did not always agree, however. Like many conservatives, I was willing to draw a distinction between those persons who are innocent of any wrongdoing and those who have committed capital crimes. Since the Church has explicitly argued that capital punishment is not per se wrong, one must look somewhere for a justification for its application, given that the Church has also explicitly argued that every human person has equal dignity and worth. The only such judgment that I could find, when I was a supporter of capital punishment, was the argument from justice: if a capital criminal is to be executed, it can only be because it is what is due him as a matter of justice. There are actually two principles at work here. The first is the assumption that the physical death of a human being is not the same thing as the spiritual death of a human being--an argument that is not all that bad even if it is stolen from that old pagan Plato. The other is the equally Greek notion that it is wrong not to give someone something that he needs and/or deserves. If you come upon a man suffering from a head wound and needing a transfusion of blood, it would be cruelly wrong not to give him a transfusion if you can do so with no threat to yourself (say, from a blood bank when one is available). So too, if you come upon a person needing an administration of justice, it is in fact wrong to deprive him of that, if it is something that is rightfully his. I call this a "Greek" notion because (guess who?) Plato argued that all true justice is rehabillatory, never punitive or retributive. In fact he argued that justice is the spiritual analogue of medicine: as medicine cures a sick body, the administration of justice cures a sick soul.
But we are not ancient Greeks. Should we adopt, without critical examination, their attitude towards justice? Mike offers an interesting peroration to his post:
What this whole debate shows me is that many Catholics don't adopt Catholicism as their primary template of thought. Especially on matters of political significance, their thinking is formed elsewhere and brought to their Catholicism. That shows they aren't Catholic enough. Of course few of us are; if we were, we'd all be saints, and I'm certainly no saint. But granted I find it harder to behave than to believe, I can and do expect consistency of belief and strive constantly to attain it. I don't understand why more Catholics don't do the same.I would say that he is just about right, but I would perhaps make one emendation. Perhaps it is not because some folks are not "Catholic enough", but because some folks are Catholic in an outmoded way. They are still reading matters of justice through a lens that was inherited by the Schoolmen from the Greeks.
In my view, there is nothing wrong, and plenty good, about Scholasticism and Greek philosophy. But we are not bound to accept all of it de fide. I particularly like Mike's bit about adopting "Catholicism as [one's] primary template of thought." Doing that, I imagine, means transforming one's life in such a way that petty political attitudes must be abandoned in favor of more transcendental attitudes about the dignity and worth of other human persons and a foreswearing of violence and destruction as a method of dealing with human persons whom we dislike. Plato, bless his heart, may have had the right idea in principle, but much real life justice just is about retribution, whether we like to admit it or not. To avoid the danger of misusing the precious gift of just judgment in that way, why not use it more, well, judiciously?