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A critique of the people who attack the death penalty

Wednesday, 8 Aug 2018 The Catechism, before the latest revision Yes, the revised wording is unclear. Whether he is teaching that capital punishment is always and intrinsically evil is a matter of controversy, but taken at face value, the wording of the revision at least seems to say that.

And while it is important to understand the exact magisterial weight of the new text, we also have to deal with the obvious reading: There appear to be at least three major deficiencies in the revision to the Catechism: There are a great many passages in scripture that not only allow, but in some cases even command, the infliction of capital punishment.

To take just two examples, Exodus 21: Either a capital punishment is not, after all, an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person; or b being an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person does not, after all, suffice to make an action inadmissible; or c Scripture taught moral error.

  • For example, in 1210 Pope Innocent III famously required the Waldensian heretics to affirm the legitimacy of capital punishment as a condition of their reconciliation with the Church;
  • Hence to hold that capital punishment is intrinsically evil is to imply that Scripture not only tolerated, but positively commanded, something that is intrinsically evil.

If a certain action against a person is at least in some cases admissible, then the person is not inviolable in that respect. Hence the only option possible is a — in which case the revision to the Catechism is in error.

Catholic critics of capital punishment sometimes respond: The Church abandoned Old Testament teaching on those matters, so why not on capital punishment? First, the Law of Moses never commands slavery or divorce. It merely tolerates them, and puts conditions on how they may be practiced. By contrast, it does positively command capital punishment in some circumstances. Hence to hold that capital punishment is intrinsically evil is to imply that Scripture not only tolerated, but positively commanded, something that is intrinsically evil.

A second problem with this response is that if the Law of Moses really had positively commanded slavery and divorce, that would only exacerbate the problem, not mitigate it. To defend the revision of the Catechism against the charge that it attributes moral error to Scripture, it will hardly do for the defender to attribute further moral errors to Scripture!

The Church never approved that evil practice in the first place, and that is not what Scripture is talking about either. What was in question in the history of Catholic theology were practices like indentured servitude and penal servitude — servitude in payment of a debt or as punishment for a crime, respectively.

Catholic capital punishment opponents who allege a parallel with slavery usually ignore these crucial distinctions.

Which countries still use the death penalty?

Then there is the teaching of previous popes. For example, in 1210 Pope Innocent III famously required the Waldensian heretics to affirm the legitimacy of capital punishment as a condition of their reconciliation with the Church.

In other words, he taught that the legitimacy of capital punishment is a matter of Catholic orthodoxy. Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent.

The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Many further examples could easily be given of past magisterial teaching which, if the revision to the Catechism is correct, would have to be judged to have led the faithful into grave moral error.

The legitimacy in principle of capital punishment is, after all, the consistent teaching of Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the popes, for over two millennia.

Now, part of the problem is that, as I have argued elsewherethe suggestion that the Church has been wrong for two millennia is flatly incompatible with what the Church claims about the reliability of her ordinary Magisterium. The new wording appears to reject traditional teaching about the purposes of punishment. Traditional Catholic teaching holds that retributive justice is a critique of the people who attack the death penalty fundamental purpose even if not the only purpose of the criminal justice system.

Punishment, the Church has taught, fundamentally involves the infliction on an offender of a penalty proportionate to the gravity of his offence. Commenting on this rationale, the revised text says: Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes… Today, however… a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.

The significance of such a change cannot be overstated. The traditional teaching has been consistently reaffirmed by the popes: Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offence. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offence.

When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Moreover, the CDF letter contains a strange set of assertions. But obviously, that cannot be what John Paul II thought. As Joseph Bessette and I show in our book, the late pope did in fact implicitly teach that capital punishment is a proportionate penalty, and merely held that that was not sufficient to justify actually using it in most modern circumstances.

It is not a sufficient reply to this assertion to say that the aforementioned sources contain only thoughts which correspond to the historic circumstances and to the culture of the time, and that a general and abiding validity cannot therefore be attributed to them.

The traditional teaching had a good reason for emphasising retribution and proportionate penalties. If all that matters is rehabilitating and reintegrating people, then we might, in theory, inflict extremely mild punishments or no punishment at all even for the most heinous crimes, if we think this is an efficient way to achieve these ends. A critique of the people who attack the death penalty by the same token, we might inflict extreme penalties for minor crimes, or even on innocent people whose behaviour we want to alter.

Nothing is ruled out, in principle, if we throw out considerations of giving offenders what they deserve. But it muddies the waters considerably. The revision rests in part on empirical assertions that are dubious at best. It is merely an empirical claim that is highly controversial at best — and indeed, in some contexts, manifestly false. Moreover, it concerns matters of social science about which the Church has no special expertise.

The CDF statement and the revision to the Catechism are in this respect strangely Eurocentric in their outlook. Are the lives of potential innocent victims of violent crime in Third World countries of less value than those of wealthy Europeans and Americans?

A second problem is that even in First World countries, the most dangerous offenders sometimes remain a threat to the lives of others even when they are incarcerated for life. For example, they sometimes murder other prisoners and prison guards.

The new Catechism text on the death penalty will damage the Church

Also, drug kingpins and others associated with organized crime sometimes order assassinations, from prison, of victims in the outside world. A third problem is that the CDF letter and revision to the Catechism ignore the issue of the deterrence value of capital punishment. While some social scientists doubt its deterrence value, there are also many social scientists who, on the basis of peer-reviewed empirical studies, are convinced that the death penalty does significantly deter.

The most that the abolitionist can reasonably say is that the matter is controversial. But if capital punishment really does deter some potential murderers, then innocent lives will be lost by abolishing the practice altogether. A fourth problem is that the revision to the Catechism ignores the fact that capital punishment gives prosecutors an invaluable negotiating tool. Violent offenders who would otherwise refuse to reveal accomplices or help solve other crimes are sometimes willing to talk if they can be assured that prosecutors will not seek their execution.

When the death penalty is taken off the books altogether, this bargaining chip is gone — and once again, innocent people will pay the price. In any event, churchmen have no special expertise on these matters. How can anyone justify a radical revision to over two millennia of scriptural and papal teaching on the basis of dubious amateur social science? Subscribe at your app store: