Provocative photograph, isn't it? I hope so — it was mean to be.
For those of us old enough to remember, the image of Nguyễn Văn Lém, formerly of the Viet-Cong, at the receiving end of a field expedient execution at the hands of Saigon's Chief of Police General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan was the iconic anti-war instrument of propaganda to end all instruments of propaganda ... ever.
What the anti-war mob never told us is that Lém's execution happened during the Tet Offensive, martial law was declared and the shooting was in the wake of Lém assassinating a Saigon police deputy commander. Oh, I almost forgot, Lém also just slowly slaughtered the wife and children of said police deputy.
If anyone deserved the business end of General Loan's Smith & Wesson, it was Nguyễn Văn Lém.
But the Pope said ...
It's common knowledge that every Pontiff of the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960's have voiced and continue to voice their ardent opposition to Capital Punishment. To that I politely ask: So what?
Any given pope can have his own personal opinion, and he most certainly can ask us to prayerfully consider any number of issues. Fine, that's one of his responsibilities. But let's be clear — as a faithful Catholic I can honestly state that when it comes to any given pope's exhortation on any given topic, is simply isn't binding under pain of sin.
But the Church is against the death penalty!
When the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (who happen to have no doctrinal or dogmatic authority) released in 2007 a particularly toothless document with the impressive title "Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States" our stouthearted shepherds expressed their collective thumbs down to legal executions.
And with little fanfare (and even less coverage), Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn was quoted as stating, "While the bishops argue against capital punishment, Catholics may disagree without separating themselves from the Church community". Ladies and gents, what we have here is what's better known as political double-speak in the first degree.
As those of us who have actually researched the subject, we know that the official teaching of the Church (2266 and 2267 of the catechism) is that the death penalty is allowable, but only in cases of extreme gravity and should only be used on rare occasions. To cut to the chase, in the totality of crimes committed ranging from jaywalking on one end of the spectrum to sexually torturing a child to death on the other, a legal execution of such a murderer would certainly qualify as a punishment that was utilized in a case of extreme gravity and obviously would be a rarity handed down from the courts.
The Church has also officially declared "If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient ..." That's an awful big if.
With most of us aware that in more than a few Third World nations busting out of prison often relies on no more than a handful of well placed pesos or chickens and not necessarily in that order.
With all that said, allow me to introduce the phrase intrinsically evil into the conversation. I'd like to also point out that unlike abortion or the sin of Sodom, the death penalty has never been defined as intrinsically evil by the Catholic Church. For those who may be unfamiliar with the phrase, intrinsically evil is something that has absolutely no redeeming qualities and is always wrong under any and all circumstances.
Agree or disagree with the teachings of Catholicism, that's irrelevant. That's just the way things are.
Boiling my position down to its essence, the Church also teaches the expiatory value of punishment. Also known as reparation or atonement, the death penalty isn't revenge, it's justice.
After all, when The Good Thief (St. Dismas) refuted Gesmas with, as the Latin Vulgate tells us, "et nos quidem iuste nam digna factis recipimus hic vero nihil mali gessit/And we indeed justly: for we receive the due reward of our deeds. But this man hath done no evil." (Lk 23: 41)
Only when St. Dismas accepted the consequences for his actions, confessed to Christ of his wrongdoings and beg for forgiveness did Jesus ... well, we know what happened after that.
By the way, did anyone else notice Christ never refuted Dismas's statement that his execution was just?