The Death Penalty — Part I of 3

I have decided to put my nerdy obsession with Catholic Social Teaching to good use and do a series of posts on social issues and the Church’s teaching on each.

First issue: the Death Penalty. This post is the first of three on the topic, and will present the Church’s teaching on capital punishment, or, in other words, the moral argument against it. The second post will focus on legal issues surrounding the death penalty (including the stories of those wrongfully imprisoned or executed). The third post will be stories from people who have had a loved on murdered, and opposed the death penalty for their loved ones’ killer.

On the sacredness of all human life: “Human life is sacred because from the beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end.” (2258) In another place, “The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person…and to the holiness of the Creator. The law forbidding it is universally valid: it obliges each and everyone, always and everywhere.”(2261)

Ok, so it’s always and everywhere wrong for any person to kill any other innocent person. Obviously this encompasses a myriad of issues, including euthanasia, abortion, all other forms of murder, and any unjust killing in war. So how do we deal with someone who breaks the moral law and murders someone? The Catechism says: “In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, ‘You shall not kill,’ and adds it to the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance.”(2262)

Whatever our response is going to be to people who commit murder, anger, hatred and vengeance had better not be part of it. The placement of the next section is very important for understanding the development in Church teaching on capital punishment. In the Catechism, discussion of the death penalty is placed in context of legitimate defense, not under the requirements of justice. What is legitimate defense?

“The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor…the one is intended, the other is not.” (2263)

In other words, if a person, acting in self-defense, kills another, they have not violated the moral prohibition against killing. Legitimate defense is not only a right, but is a responsibility that must be taken up by society for the promotion of the common good. “The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel unjust aggressors against the civil community.” (2265) Hence the legitimate existence of prisons and the just war theory (which are topics for another post).

The next paragraph in the Catechism goes on to talk about the death penalty specifically, in the context of legitimate defense. “Assuming the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.“(2267)

This presents some excellent points for consideration when looking at the US death penalty system. “Assuming the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been determined…” is a big IF. Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated, over 100 people have been exonerated from death rows around the country. I will be dedicating a specific post to this particular aspect of capital punishment. Moving along…

The Catechism then continues its treatment of capital punishment by saying: “If however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect safety from the unjust aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”(2267) Basically, if you live in a society that has a prison made of anything stronger than a grass-hut, and if you live in a place that has the possibility of removing criminals from society while keeping them alive, then that is what ought to be done.

And finally, the Catechism closes it’s treatment of the death penalty by saying, “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 definitively 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 non-existent.”(226)

To sum up, the Church’s teaching regarding capital punishment is that it is not morally wrong in certain circumstances, but that the only circumstances that merit it’s use are those in which there is no other way to keep society safe from the unjust aggressor.

Or, as Pope John Paul II said, “The use of the death penalty in our society is both cruel and unnecessary.”


5 thoughts on “The Death Penalty — Part I of 3

  1. Oh, I’m so excited that you’re putting your “nerdy obsession with Catholic Social Teaching to good use”!

    I was all for the death penalty for the longest time. It wasn’t until I became Catholic and I (a) realized the importance of a truly consistent life ethic and (b) heard about prisoners who truly had repented and changed that I began to rethink it. Mostly (a) though.

    I’m always so impressed with those Christians who are able to actually forgive killers (as you said you’d discuss in part 3). Those, to me, are the true Christians, not the ones who cite “eye for an eye.” Under those guidelines, am I a true Christian? (Maybe “true” isn’t the best word.) I’ve never experienced that kind of violent loss, so I can’t say for sure, but I can only pray that God would give me His strength and grace in that situation.

  2. In 2265 we have “Legitimate defense can be not only be a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.”

    To repeat: “the common good” “requires” that an unjust aggressor be rendered “unable” to cause harm.”

    With individual murderers such requirement is only met with the death penalty. Only dead murderers are incapable of causing harm – a rational truism.

    In 2266: “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.”

    The requirement is that the “common good” “requires” an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.” Again,with individual murderers such requirement is only met with the death penalty.

    2266 continues: “Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense.”

    Biblically, we know the death penalty is proportionate to murder.

    2266 continues: “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.”

    Expiation, though a gift from God, must be seized by the guilty party. It is arguable, as per Aquinas and Augustine, that the death penalty is better apt to provide that correction and is, therefore, more in tune with the eternal aspects of the wrongdoers salvation. (See also, paragraph, numbered 3, within Reference (1), below)

    From 2267: “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

    That is, most certainly, not the traditional teaching of the Church. Such teachings include , among others, that when committing murder, the offending party has forfeit their right to live. (Reference 1)

    In addition, there is a major conflict between 1) “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” and 2) the “common good” “requires” an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm.”

    (1) states that use of the death penalty is just “if it is the only ‘possible’ way of defending human lives against the unjust aggressor”

    but

    (2) “requires” the death penalty as it is the only method of rendering an unjust aggressor unable to cause harm.

    (1) deals with “possibilities” (2) with “requirements”.

    In addition to the fact that “the only possible way” has virtually no support, requirements rule over possibilities.

    This obvious conflict shouldn’t exist within the Catechism and shows how poorly considered this topic was.

    To make more of a mess, 2267 continues: “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 definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself–the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are rare, if not practically non-existent.’ (NT: John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56)

    More of the “possibilities” nonsense, connected to the “possibilities” addressed in (1), above.

    It is such a poorly considered prudential judgement as to negate its “prudential” moniker. All jails, all prisons, all cities, all states, all countries have widely varying degrees of prison security. Even in the US murderers escape, murder in prison and are given such leeway as to murder, again, because of mercy, leniency and irresponsibility to murderers, who are released to causes catastrophic losses to the innocent when they are harmed and murdered by these repeat offenders.

  3. Thanks for such a well-worded and long reply. It seems as though you’ve given this a lot of thought, and have come to the conclusion that the prudential judgment of the Church is wrong. You are certainly free to disagree with it. But I’m not particularly interested in posting the opinions of those who disagree with the Church’s teaching (because there are so many who do!), but in presenting it as it is written and taught today.

    As for your objections, that prisoners can escape and murder again, or can kill in prison; the prisoners who do those kind of things once incarcerated are rarely death row prisoners. Why? Because they are in solitary confinement 23 hours per day, and have such limited human interaction, that their chances of escape or opportunity to kill again are practically null.

    Thus life without possibility of parole is an appropriate response to those who are convicted of murder, isolating them from society at large and from other inmates whom they may harm as well.

    On a moral level, it is permissible for people to believe that the death penalty is appropriate in theory, but, if you stick around to read the next installments in this series, you will see that the current application of the death penalty in the US is so flawed and capricious, as to be rendered unjust and not fixable. It may be acceptable to support capital punishment in theory, but once aware of the system’s major failings, it becomes impossible to justify in practice.

    Thanks for your comment; I hope you’ll read the rest of what I post!

  4. spilisz08:

    Thank you.

    My point was that IF you accept the catechism as true, you have real problems, inclusive of the 2 conflicst which I identified, as well as the biblical, theological and traditional teachings of the Church, which conflict wiith the Catechisms

    “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

    This is not, remotely, the traditional teaching of the Church. I am not sure it was ever found in any teaching of the Church. Even if it was, it is overwhelmed by other teachings.

    Just begin with this:

    To repeat: “the common good” “requires” that an unjust aggressor be rendered “unable” to cause harm.”

    “Requires” and “unable” are words both clear in their definitions. If the Caetechism is well thought out and goes through repeated review and amendements before its release, which it does, then the Church meant what it said.

    In context, both the require and unable are conditions which can only be met with execution. Yet, this becomes in conflict with 2267.

  5. Then there is this: “without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself”.

    The Church is, hereby, stating that the death penalty is “taking away from him (the executed party) the possibility of redeeming himself”.

    The death penalty is God invoked. The Catechism is stating that this God invoked sanction takes away the possibility of redemption. Think about that. There is nothing to defend such a claim, in such a context.

    All of our sins have us die “early”. Is there a case, whereby God has erased the possibility of our redemption, solely because of our earthly and “early” deaths? I suggest that such an interpretation is, in context, flatly, against God’s message and cannot stand.

    The universal blessing that God gives us is that we all have the same opportunity of redeeming ourselves “before we die”. The death penalty does not take that away anymore than does a car wreck, cancer, old age or any other “early” death, meaning all deaths, because of our sins. We all die “early” because of our sins.

    Therefore, the Catechism, wrongly finds that all “early” deaths negate the possibility of our redemption. Such is an absurd claim, if not worse.

    In God’s perfection, we suffer an “early” death, because of our sins. The Catechism wrongly tells that our “early” deaths takes away the possibility of our redemption. It can’t and does not.

    Furthermore, a unique benefit of the death penalty is that the offender knows the day of their death and therefore has a huge advantage over the rest of us and, most certainly over the innocent murder victim.

    “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer: (p. 116). Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey. A Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College, Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992

    St. Thomas Aquinas: “The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.” Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.
    ———————————-

    I am not sure that a prudential judgement has ever been placed in a Catechism, before, and, if not, the reason is clear and that mistake should not be repeated.

    Absent from the discussion is the harm to “innocent” murder victims and potential murder victims and the effects on their earthly and eternal lives.

    Again, the only way to, humanly, make a criminal “incapable of doing harm” is to execute them.

    Rationally, factually, there is no other way.

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