These days, both the Vatican and national hierarchies generally take a strong line against the death penalty today. They teach against it generally, and in response to specific cases. In this they are at odds with at least a minority of Catholics, who assert the rightness in principle of the death penalty, and (sometimes) applaud particular executions.
So who's right?
For a long time, the Catholic tradition has seen the death penalty as a legitimate exercise of civil power.
The church inherited this view, of course, from the Jewish culture from which it sprang. But it did not inherit it unthinkingly; theologians from Augustine onwards have reflected on the place of the death penalty within a Christian order. They have proposed various limitations and restrictions, so society was never seen as having an unqualified right to execute. But they accepted the basic proposition that society could, in principle, legitimately execute people in some circumstances.
The death penalty was generally not considered in isolation, but within the broader context of the right of society to use force, and to punish. It was accepted as part of the spectrum of legitimate punishments because it was considered to serve the purposes of punishment, of which there were four:
Of course, not all these purposes were relied upon to the same extent to justify the death penalty.
For instance, it was asserted that rehabilitation could be effected, or at least assisted, by imposing a sentence of execution. But convicts frequently died unrepentant, even defiant, while their execution was still considered to be justified. Consequently individual rehabilitation was never relied upon as the primary or major justification for the death penalty.
Defending Society against the Criminal
Similarly, many people who were executed had in fact murdered the one person they were ever likely to murder, and presented no real continuing threat to society, but their execution was considered also to be justified. Any justification came from what the criminal had done, not from what it was feared that he might do.
When justifying the death penalty, therefore, theologians generally pointed to retribution as the principal end served, and to a lesser extent to deterrence.
Retribution is not revenge, but rather something intended to redress the moral disorder caused by the original offence.
But modern society is generally uncomfortable with the idea of retribution. If the moral order is disturbed by a killing, it's not intuitively obvious that it will be restored by a second killing. In fact, it's all too easy to point to cases where a killing in response feeds the cycle of violence, rather than ending it.
And retribution is too easily confused with revenge, an eye-for-an-eye, a generally bloodthirsty approach to criminal justice. The case is not helped by the fact that some people do confuse retribution and revenge, and offer an essentially vengeance-based argument in support of the death penalty.
Abuse of the Death Penalty
Finally, in tandem with this erosion of the theological justifications for the death penalty, we have seen in modern times an increasing awareness of the real danger that states will abuse the death penalty. This started with the French Revolution, where a state founded on supposedly rational and democratic principles degenerated with frightening rapidity into a bloodthirsty terror of wholesale and indiscriminate executions. For a time we could tell ourselves that this was an aberration, but in the twentieth century the systematic abuse of the death penalty by Nazi and Communist states and its invidious and discriminatory application in the US has led many to conclude that this potential for abuse is an inherent feature of the death penalty, rather than an aberration.
All of this saw an increasing number of Catholic theologians in the twentieth century either questioning the moral basis for the death penalty, or flat-out denying it.
But this development wasn't reflected in magisterial teaching until Pope John Paul's encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, issued in 1995.
Evangelium Vitae is intended as an authoritative and comprehensive exposition of Catholic teaching on life issues, and it addresses not only murder, abortion and euthanasia, but also wider life issues, such as the duty to care for others. You can read it HERE.
Only a small part of it deals with the death penalty, but it is mentioned a few times - in paragraphs 27 and 40, and an extended reference in paragraphs 55 and 56. Here is what it has to say:
27. . . . In the same perspective [evidence of hope in the ultimate victory of Christ over death] there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of "legitimate defence" on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.
40. . . . The commandment regarding the inviolability of human life reverberates at the heart of the "ten words" in the covenant of Sinai (cf. Ex 34:28). In the first place that commandment prohibits murder: "You shall not kill" (Ex 20:13); "do not slay the innocent and righteous" (Ex 23:7). But, as is brought out in Israel's later legislation, it also prohibits all personal injury inflicted on another (cf. Ex 21:12-27). Of course we must recognize that in the Old Testament this sense of the value of life, though already quite marked, does not yet reach the refinement found in the Sermon on the Mount. This is apparent in some aspects of the current penal legislation, which provided for severe forms of corporal punishment and even the death penalty. But the overall message, which the New Testament will bring to perfection, is a forceful appeal for respect for the inviolability of physical life and the integrity of the person. It culminates in the positive commandment which obliges us to be responsible for our neighbour as for ourselves: "You shall love your neighbour as yourself" (Lev 19:18).
55. . . . Moreover, "legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life, the common good of the family or of the State". Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason.
56. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offence". Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person"
Next week I'll take a look at the implications of Evangelium Vitae, and in particular whether it amounts to a reversal of traditional teaching, and where it leaves the question of the death penalty today.
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