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.
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.
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.