In a previous post, two of the most common arguments for abolishing the death penalty, were examined and put to rest. In the midst of this presentation, I promised to return to the topic because the arguments themselves are predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding of the reasoning behind the Church’s position, a position she has held from her beginnings. When asked where the Church stands on Capital Punishment, most would put forward the “self-defense” defense, a position based upon John Paul II’s explanation in Evangelium Vitae and later included in the Catechism:
“If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely 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.’” (CCC 2267)
In summary, provided that the threat to society from the person can be neutralized, then the death penalty should not be used. Given greater and greater security measures, we should expect that the death penalty will eventually be done away with. Or so the argument goes. This may come as a surprise to many, but “self-defense” has never been the primary reason why the Church has allowed recourse to the death penalty. And if it was, this would represent a novelty (i.e. a change in something belonging to the Tradition of the Church). Instead the Church has taught from the beginning that the death penalty was a valid means of punishment.
“From the beginning?”
Within the classical tradition, punishment has three distinct purposes. The primary end is the re-establishment of justice. When a crime is committed, the order of justice is upset and is only restored when a proportionate punishment is given to the offender. This is why the punishment must always be carried out according to the judgment of a competent authority. The other two purposes serve only secondary roles. First, the punishment must be ordered to the correction of the offender himself, that is, it is medicinal in some way to the person who committed the injustice. Finally, it must serve a social purpose, primarily as a deterrent and isolation of the offender.
We can examine Capital Punishment in light of these three ends to see if it can be applied. It bears mentioning that this is a different question as to whether it should be applied in a given situation. This is a question that only the competent authority whose role it is to promote and protect the common good. We are interested here only in the question of why in principle the death penalty is not immoral. That being said, we can examine the primary end, namely the re-establishment of justice. Does the punishment fit the crime?
Almost on an intuitional level we must admit that there are some crimes that are so heinous that the only fitting punishment is death. If this sounds like vengeance then that is because it is. Vengeance corresponds to the innate desire for justice that is written into human nature and it is a good thing when it is exercised according to justice. This is why punishment should always be carried out by the competent authority. If “all authority comes from above” (Romans 13:1) and “vengeance is mine, says the Lord” (Dt 32:35) then it is the competent authority that carries out the punishments of the Lord.
Even if you are willing to concede this, you might answer “no, there is no crime for which the fitting punishment is death.” The problem with this position is first that it contradicts Sacred Scripture. In the midst of His covenant making with Noah, the Lord says “Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed. For in the image of God have human beings been made” (Gn 9:6). This is the principle of proportionality. A principle that even Our Lord did not abrogate in the Sermon on the Mount in which He addresses His individual followers to avoid unjust anger and vengeance while at the same time commanding them to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.” There should be no vigilante justice, only those for whom the competence rests (c.f, Romans 13:1-4). Our Lord teaches how we should respond as victims to violence, not as punishers. It is with this awareness that the Church has always taught that society may have recourse to the death penalty as a punishment; from St. Paul to Augustine to Aquinas to Pope Innocent III to Pope Pius IX to Pope Pius XII to Benedict XVI.
The second problem is more one of common sense. To say that a mass murderer deserves the same punishment (life imprisonment) as say a rapist is to ultimately destroy the principle of proportionality. That a mass murderer gets only life imprisonment would suggest that a rapist who, “at least didn’t kill someone” should get less. This leads to a sort of arbitrariness in punishment, including excess or even no punishment at all. We cannot eliminate per se Capital Punishment as a proportional punishment.
Although it is not immediately obvious, Capital Punishment also serves the second purpose of punishment. It serves a medicinal as well. St. Thomas says that the death penalty leads to either repentance or puts an end to their sin, both of which are good for the person. Death is not the worst thing that can happen to us—hell is. Repentance obviously leads the person away from hell, but keeping a person from sinning even more keeps them from further punishment in hell
Finally, how the death penalty serves a deterrent. This also needs to further explanation. Many people take this to be an empirical claim and think that the number of murders is no less in places where there is recourse to the death penalty. But the claim is more about the law as a great moral teacher. As a deterrent the death penalty is not a part of someone’s calculation, but represents an overall hatred of murder. Most people would not commit and murder and one of the reasons why they have such distaste for it is the horror of the death penalty. Rather than being an affront against human dignity, it actually shows the great worth of human life. Recall the reason that God gave Noah as to why he should use capital punishment—“in the image of God have human beings been made” (Gn 9:6).
It was mentioned above that the “self-defense” defense would represent a novelty in the Church’s teaching and would be a break with unbreakable Tradition. “Still”, one might say, “the Catechism says what it says.” That is true, except that the paragraph must be read from within its proper context. The teaching on the death penalty is presented from within the context of punishment, that is, as Capital Punishment.
“The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.” (CCC 2266)
This is merely a summary of the principles of what we said above. What follows then in the next paragraph is meant to be an application of those principles based on the Holy Father’s prudential judgment. He thinks that given the current state of the penal system, the ends of punishment—proportionality, expiation and deterrence— can be met with something like life imprisonment, rendering the only issue being whether or not society can be protected from further violence by the perpetrator. As proof that this is a merely prudential application we need only look to the comments of the future Pope Benedict XVI when he said “While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia” (Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith). It is both permissible to have recourse to capital punishment and to disagree with how it is applied. The principle is set but how it is applied, like many things related to the moral teachings of the Church, is debatable. Put another way, that it can be used as punishment is not debatable, when it should be used is. As an aside, I should mention as well that, despite taking a lot of flak for it, Edward Feser offers an excellent explanation of why this is an imprudential judgment in his new book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty.
In conclusion, the Church has repeatedly affirmed the validity of the death penalty as a moral option for punishing violent offenders. Despite a move towards a more merciful approach, this particular doctrine will not and cannot change. The death penalty should always be on the table.