The Death Penalty Ten Years Later. . .(In Which She Rants, vol 9).

Ten years ago, Pope John Paul the Great published Evanglium Vitae, his encyclical on the value of life and the dignity of the human person. His teaching on the death penalty in that encyclical led to an updating of the Catechism of the Catholic Church the following year. I accept his teaching, but he did not make a lengthy explanation of his reasoning.
I believe he did this deliberately, to inspire theologians and others to bring their talents to bear on the subject, and also to inspire a thorough-going re-thinking of our penal system altogether. For example, if the main purpose of incarceration is to protect society and rehabilitate the criminal, it's obvious that the inmates-run-the-asylum/Man-In-Full -style prisons we currently run are inhumane, unjust, and in need of massive reform. The Pope insists that a person is always a subject, never an object, and so it ill-befits a civilized society to take the attitude that "whatever happens to those animals in there, they deserve it." But I don't want to belabor this point here.
My rant is because an unfortunate side-effect of the Pope's teaching is that for ten years we have been subjected to the most shallow, insulting and unworthy op-eds and letters to the editor against the death penalty that could possibly be conceived. Forgive me, because I know these items were written by faithful and well-meaning people, but whenever I've come across a death-penalty column in various Catholic press organs, I've come away with a feeling of embarrassment for the author --because invariably he or she will emphatically address the matter while simultaneously revealing complete lack of understanding of the issues at stake. And to the extent that these folks are taken to be speaking for the Church, I feel ashamed for the Church, too.
The argument is always the same. Anyone who supports the death penalty is caught up in a sinful desire for vengeance --no better than the cackling grannies knitting their way though the public beheadings of the French Revolution. Wrong. And not very charitable, either.
Never ever do these people grapple with the fact that Church teaching itself continues to assert the right of the state to use the death penalty in some cases; or with the fact that law has consequences, and for thousands of years political philosophy has seen the death penalty as an important means precisely of defending the value of life (my old professor, Walter Berns, has written the seminal defense of the death penalty in his book For Capital Punishment, and if I were the editor of a Catholic news organ, I would make anyone writing against the death penalty read that book first and then try to make his case); or with the question of justice. Law aims at justice, surely. You can't make blind assertions about capital punishment without addressing the question of how justice is satisfied by giving a mass murderer a prison term instead of execution. When these questions aren't addressed, the net effect is to undermine Church teaching by making it look foolish. In other words, I say to everyone who's written about it so far: thanks, but no thanks. It would be better for the Church if you kept your mouth shut until you've thought about it a little more deeply.
For once I get to end my rant on a positive note, however. In "Christians and the Death Penalty," Jody Bottum at First Things makes the second (the first was by Prof. Steven Long, who argues that the teaching against the death penalty isn't absolute, but a prudential matter applicable to today's moral climate. See it summarized in this book.) serious published effort I have seen to articulate the Church's moral opposition to the death penalty. In a nutshell, he says it's incompatible with democracy, and the same turn that prevents the state from establishing religion prevents it from taking life. I am still thinking about whether his argument would persuade Walter Berns, but he's definitely on to something. And at least it's a morally serious argument --one that engages the great political philosophers instead of calling them names.