The Arguments You Never Hear for Capital Punishment

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It would be understandable if Catholics and the public at large believed that the death penalty’s existence depended solely on its effectiveness in protecting society as a kind of self-defense measure. The Washington Post reported this on August 2, 2018:

The church’s updated teaching describes capital punishment as “inadmissible” and an attack on the “dignity of the person.” Previously, the church allowed for the death penalty in very rare cases, only as a means of “defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

On the same date, NPR reported on the updated teaching of the Catechism by quoting the document:

The Vatican catechism also cited “a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.” It also notes that “more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”

The revised language of the Catechism is indeed the root of this understanding:

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. (CCC 2267, Revised)

However, there’s reason to doubt whether the merits of the death penalty rest solely on society’s need for purely physical protection. A closer look at the Catechism and the writings of Aquinas suggest that the actual justification for capital punishment is more nuanced than might meet the eye. As I set out arguments for capital punishment, I will also draw on the thoughts of a Franciscan priest, expressed in a talk I attended this Lent.

Redressing of Disorder

Rarely considered in discussion of the death penalty is the “redressing of disorder” argument. This viewpoint is put forth in the far less cited paragraph 2266 of the Catechism. I will quote this paragraph in full because of the many fruitful points it makes.

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.

The Franciscan priest, to whom I alluded above, explained the redressing of wrong in almost mathematical terms. He used speeding as an analogy. If you speed on the highway, you have taken legitimate authority away from the government. The government then can rightly take something away from you (money) in order to restore balance. Furthermore, if the guilty party can see the value of this restoration, this process can serve the “medicinal purpose” mentioned in the Catechism. Among other things, it may help the offender to understand justice better than before the violation.

“A little Leaven Corrupteth the whole lump”

With this view in mind, the justification for the death penalty still is the common good but it is not simply the common good in terms of physical protection or self-defense. For certain crimes, the death penalty can serve as a means of remediation and instruction. St. Thomas Aquinas helps to explain this argument:

Now every individual person is compared to the whole community, as part to whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6). (Question 64, Article 2).

Again, the analogy of the highway helps explain this reasoning. As much as most people dislike getting a speeding ticket, a world in which no law and order existed would be far less desirable. Aquinas is saying in very draconian terms that the bad bacteria (influence) sometimes needs to be set right to spare a general infection. This punishment is after all in our interest. It is medicinal in so far as it corrects an injustice, and it is instructive in so far as we reflect on the ultimate reasons for it. In the same way, it is possible to see an argument for the execution of a criminal who poses no threat to society. This execution arguably serves to protect and to instruct both the criminal and the society at large.

Human Dignity

The Franciscan priest offered human dignity as another argument for capital punishment. This argument views capital punishment as acknowledging and honoring humans as free and rational agents, who can and must own their actions with all their consequences. In contrast, a world without capital punishment denies these very things. This view of human dignity is in contradiction to the Pope Francis’s pronouncement that capital punishment is lacking in any dignity: “it must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity. It is per se contrary to the Gospel” (speech October 2017). It also seems to contradict St. John Paul II who wrote “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil” (Pope John Paul II Papal Mass, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999). Nonetheless, I believe the argument from human dignity in favor of the death penalty deserves more attention, if only because God respects our dignity by allowing us to choose hell.

Again, the highway example is helpful. Imagine a world in which there were absolutely no consequences for reckless driving, a world in which there were absolutely no expectations that drivers would be responsible. Such a world would so underestimate human potential that it would deny human freedom and agency.

Conclusion

In this post, I’ve laid out two reasons to support the death penalty that seem in my assessment to be too rarely discussed. These reasons are first the redressing of disorder introduced by crime. A corollary to this argument I believe is the case for restorative effects that seem to result from this redressing both in terms of the criminal and of the body of the state at large. The second is human dignity from other than the usual perspective. While many have argued that capital punishment deprives the criminal of dignity, there is reason to judge that it actually protects human dignity. It honors the criminal’s human dignity by acknowledging his free and rational agency in the crime and in his acceptance of the consequences that may legitimately result from his exercise of human freedom. Again, punishment accepted by the guilty “assumes the value of expiation” (CC 2266). After all, sometimes the worst punishment is no punishment at all.

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18 thoughts on “The Arguments You Never Hear for Capital Punishment”

  1. I have been a long time supporter of the death penalty. The bottom line for me is whether it is justice, and yes many murders require capital punishment to bring about justice. But in the last year I have after thirty years reversed course, and not from the standard arguments put out by the Church. What has changed my mind is the argument of human dignity, and not that of the criminal, who fully deserves societal retribution (to bring about order, as you eloquently put it) but the human dignity of the executioner and we in turn the state acting as executioner. Executing someone diminishes our dignity. It really does. As much as I want to, I can’t over come that argument.

    1. Manny,
      What if you came home and a large muscular man was attacking your wife? Would your dignity suffer by slitting his carotid artery for your wife’s sake…since you and her are going to lose if you try hand to hand combat with that type. God removed Saul from the Kingship for not killing Agag as he was told to do. The prophet Samuel then hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
      I Samuel 15:33
      “ 33 But Samuel said, “Agag, you have snatched children from their mothers’ arms and killed them. Now your mother will be without children.” Then Samuel chopped Agag to pieces at the place of worship in Gilgal.”

    2. I think that you were right before you changed your mind. The Bible’s stand on the death penalty for murder is found back in Genesis 9:6 where it says: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.” God said this to Noah roughly 1500 years before the Mosaic Law. This sounds like the death penalty is required because of the dignity of the human person. How can you have an execution without an executioner with his dignity remaining intact after the execution?

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  3. Once again, bending Catholic teaching as far as possible, squinting at it so that you see what you want to see, to justify Republican/ Conservative/White American prejudices.

    The Church has spoken on this. “Living the Truth the Church teaches.” Except when it conflicts with Republican positions.

    1. The Church has not spoken as in ‘intrinsically evil’ but the much lesser ‘inadmissible.’

      There is no way, although several Catholic professors have twisted themselves into pretzels in trying to square the twenty centuries of the Church not knowing the truth on a life and death issue. Until now with this pontificate that is unable, and with good reason, to declare infallibly on this moral issue.

      This has nothing to do with Republicans or conservatives.

  4. Greg Chrysostom

    Betty, I’m very, very sorry for your loss. Obviously. it’s difficult to lose anyone we love. To lose them in such violent manner is….just unimaginable. My prayers are with your friend for the repose of her soul if it’s needed and with you for healing.

    A couple things to consider:

    1) As Annette noted, occasionally innocent individuals are convicted of crimes they didn’t commit. Who among us is willing to sacrifice innocent people’s lives for the sake of overall justice? Not here to argue, just to encourage you to consider that it’s precisely because of the imperfections of our justice system that we should probably pause and rethink executing everyone who has ALLEGEDLY committed a capital crime. Though it’s probably safe to say that MOST of the alleged are guilty, there have been plenty of documented cases of uncovered innocence after the fact. And how terrible would that feel – to have a love one brutally murdered, then find out that someone else was murdered in response, rather than that the actual guilty party was brought to justice?

    2) I have no doubt that the imminent threat of execution compels some folks to snap out of their denial and have literal come-to-Jesus moments. But that doesn’t succeed with everyone. And spending year after year after year couped up in a pen with not a whole lot to do tends to compel a lot of reflection also.

    Peace be with you.

    1. Greg,
      Your logic would make the Holy Spirit foolish in inspiring Rom.13:3-4 during the Roman Empire and within the Roman Empire. That empire killed Christ unjustly and killed James unjustly with the same sword in Acts 12:2. So by your logic that tragic mistakes invalidate a process, it follows that the Holy Spirit was incorrect and foolish by inspiring Paul to write Rom.13:3-4 within that empire which was to perdure for centuries. Keep in mind that Vatican II in Dei Verbum, chapter 3, section 11 states: “ Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation.”…which means Rom.13:3-4 is asserted by the Holy Spirit:

      Rom.13:3-4…usccb site translation: “ 3
      For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil.b Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it,
      4
      for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer.”

  5. Oddly no one is a big fan of the Holy Spirit inspiring Rom.13:3-4…usccb site translation: “ 3
    For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil.b Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it,
    4
    for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer.”

    Sword/inflict wrath/evil doer…is not about double parking your chariot at that time though as a synecdoche, the phrase includes such things along with the death penalty. We are at the bizarre place in history of having the largest Catholic population,Brazil…having c.55,000 murder victims a year with their lack of a death penalty and China having 11,000 murders a year with a death penalty executed within 2 years…with both countries ( unlike Europe and New England ) having a high percent of poor people from whom most physical fights or murders issue. China has 7 times Brazil’s population and has 20% of Brazil’s murders. Catholic, non death penalty northern Latin America
    ( for secular reasons) , is the most murderous region on earth and death penalty dominant East Asia is the safest place from criminal murder. Simply google homicide by country…wiki. It gives the UN figures in great detail. The 95% contraception Catholics must have all said to themselves…see…that is explicit by the Holy Spirit and they changed it…toldja. Gays who resent Romans chapter one probably said similar. The death penalty view of these last three Popes was a disaster in more ways than intellectual though. China could reduce Brazil’s murder toll by 50K a year if it were given the justice task on murder only for a decade. Peter Aiello though is correct….China uses the death penalty for too many offenses but has been reducing that number in recent years. Three Popes changed the meaning of deterrence to mean just deterring the one murderer you caught. Catholic Guatemala only convicts 4% of murderers. Non death penalty and rare conviction…a gangster’s paradise like other non death countries from Mexico to Brazil.

    1. Bill, there is no reply option above, underneath your response to my other post, so I’m responding to you here. Hopefully you won’t have any issues responding to my response here if you feel the need…?

      Romans 13:3-4, of course, is very valid. But so is Ezekiel 33:11, “Answer them: As I live—oracle of the Lord God—I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways!” (And 18:23) If you read Romans 13:3-4 in the context of the entirety of the faith, it’s clear that God is not blood-thirsty.

      There is a difference between something being sanctioned and something being blessed. God and the Church have never “blessed” the death penalty, as if it were something to strive for. They have only tolerated it until recently as a sort of lesser of two evils.

      Does it deter capital crimes? For some, yes. Obviously not for others. We’ve had capital punishment in this country for a long time now and continue to see countless people murdered every year anyway. And the morality or wisdom of a thing is not necessarily determined by its effects. Killing everyone with a communicable disease would do amazing things for public health…

      HOWEVER… Catch my drift?

      Peace be with you.

    2. Greg,
      There is nothing regretful whatsoever in the wording of Rom.13:4. “ the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evil doer”. The Vatican executioner, Giovanni Bugatti, from 1796 to 1865 executed c.516 people in that period…google “ Vatican executioner wiki”. The phrase has nothing to do with Ezekiel 33 in which God desires not the immediate death and damnation of anyone on earth in mortal sin via crime or non crime mortal sins…gluttony, adultery, murder, sloth….ie anyone who does not have the appointment with Giovanni in those days of the Church ruling the entire center of Italy.
      The US has such long appeals for those on death row….10 to 20 (CA.) that the process can’t be evaluated by the US as a standard. God in His first death penalties to the Jews, wanted the witnesses e.g. to a parent abuse to stone the offender first….Deut.17:7..” the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but he shall not be executed on the testimony of a lone witness. 7The hands of the witnesses shall be the first in putting him to death, and after that, the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you.” An imperfect system by God’s order…two humans could conspire to falsely witness. Every process has faults.
      But China compared to Catholic non death penalty northern Latin America is simply amazing…11,000 murders a year in China to Brazil’s 50-60K a year with 14% of China’s population. And no one in our high levels of Hierarchy is even aware of the stats.

  6. Greg Chrysostom

    “[Jesus] said to them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so’.” (Matthew 19:8)

    The Church does not want us asking “When do we GET to kill?” but rather, “When do we absolutely have to?” Notice God’s response to the very first murder in human history. When Abel expressed his fear that when others saw him after he killed Cain, they would kill HIM, God essentially responds, “No. I will not allow that.”

    Capital punishment is currently lacking in any dignity because it compels man to remain in a place where God, from the beginning, never intended him to be – that of executioner.

    An “eye for an eye” was meant to stem the tie of violence by putting a cap on how strongly one could retaliate. It was never intended to encourage further violence.

    When it can be established with certainty that the one being executed is actually guilty of the crime in question, indeed, the death penalty, is justice. BUT…

    “If justice is in itself suitable for ‘arbitration’ between people concerning the reciprocal distribution of objective goods in an equitable manner, love and only love (including that kindly love we call ‘mercy’) is capable of restoring man to himself”[1226]. Human relationships cannot be governed solely according to the measure of justice.” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 582)

    This is why Jesus allowed the woman caught in adultery to live, even though the Law clearly prescribed death for this penalty. (Worth noting is the fact that the woman most likely knew this and committed the infraction anyway.)

    If we want to redress the wrong, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Life in prison is no “walk in the park.” And what’s another few decades roaming the Earth in light of eternal damnation (should the offender go unrepentant)?

    1. Thank you Greg and Paul. I believe Greg makes a very compelling argument. “Vengeance is mine” says the Lord.

  7. life imprisonment should be enough of a deterrent.
    Sometimes innocents have been falsely accused and later executed.
    The death penalty is too costly.
    The death penalty is cruel and unnecessary.
    What’s necessary is support for the family. Terrible early childhood development causes many deviant and sociopathic behaviors in adulthood.

    1. Life imprisonment is not that much of a deterrent obviously. Additionally, most of the people on ‘death row’ are basically in life imprisonment since more convicted death row individuals die from natural causes than from execution.

      As far as wrongful conviction and execution, that has been overplayed by the media and is not anywhere near as common as publicized. The lengthy ‘death row’ stays are made up primarily of numerous appeals and even then, there is usually a time-delay between the last rejected appeal and actual execution.

      There is absolutely no way that the death penalty is any more costly than life imprisonment. Food, housing, etc for life imprisonment. If anything the death penalty cuts off some of the expenditure by ending the life imprisonment.

      Life imprisonment can also be interpreted as cruel since many life imprisoned convicts are kept in solitary for significant portions of their incarcerated lives for their own protection as well as for the prison inmate’s safety. A quick execution by lethal injection is touted as the humane way to end the suffering of the aged and infirm according to many in this day and age. Definitely lethal injection or even electrocution are far more humane than any abortion that the majority of the population believe is ok.

      The death penalty allows closure for the victim’s family. The heinous death of their loved one (and most death penalty cases require an added component to a ‘regular’ murder to classify it as heinous and ‘worthy’ of capital punishment). Prison workers deserve safety as well and lifers (those with life sentences) often have nothing to lose and injure other inmates or prison workers. After all, you can only imprison someone for their lifetime, once they have that sentence, there is very little you can do beyond that to ‘punish’ them for misbehavior.

      The death penalty is not the typical punishment for any crime these days. I worked as a Forensic Biologist and my co-worker was a prison guard at one of our state penitentiaries with both lifers and death row. In all the cases that I worked (and as a forensic biologist 90% of my cases were felonies) only a handful were actually capital cases. Even those that were capital cases often never made it to court because they were pled down prior to a jury trial. My co-worker told me stories of convicts with life sentences basically spending much of their time threatening and even physically harming guards because there was little further punishment they could be given. They were the most dangerous inmates for this reason. However, those on death row knew that if they continued their defiance they would end up in the execution chamber sooner because further appeals would be denied based on poor behavior.

      I don’t advocate for the death penalty by any means, but I think removing it from the toolbox is ignorant and falsely optimistic. Of the hundreds horrific cases that I worked (over 200 cases all together per year), I think I only testified at one capital case and even then the case was downgraded to life I think.

  8. Nearly 40 years ago a friend of mine was abducted by a cult of men, tortured, raped, and killed. They did this to numerous women. Two of the men were executed while the third was just recently released to an undisclosed location, only needing to register as a sex offender. I believe the men who were executed, seeing their end date, had time for reflection of their life and redemption. Not so sure of the one just released. With an imperfect justice system, the death penalty may be better for the criminals eternal soul as well as our safety. Thanks for you article.

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