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The death penalty August 27, 2010

Posted by Tantumblogo in Basics, General Catholic, Society.

Bishop Robert Finn, the generally fine bishop of Kansas City, MO, has written an article entitled Divine Mercy and the Death Penalty, to be formally released during the USCCB’s Respect Life month in October.  In it, Bishop Finn lays out the Church’s position, expounded most recently in the encyclical Evangelium Vitae by Pope John Paul II, that the death penalty should not be used in virtually any case:

In January of 1999, Pope John Paul II made a pastoral visit to St. Louis. When he met with Governor Mel Carnahan of Missouri, the Holy Father asked him to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, who was scheduled to be executed in the next weeks. Carnahan granted the Pope’s wish, saying he was moved by the Pope’s appeal for mercy.

The Pope did not request a reevaluation of the merits of the condemned man’s case. Rather, he presented a simple and straightforward petition for mercy. The sentence was changed from death by lethal injection to life imprisonment without parole. The common good of society remained protected from the perpetrator. Justice was not confounded, but a higher purpose was served in putting aside the irreversible remedy of death.

The Church’s stance on capital punishment has always been based on the responsibility to protect society. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the legitimate civil authority is obliged to defend people from a dangerous criminal. At the same time, he cautions, “The execution of the wicked is forbidden wherever . . . the wicked are not clearly distinguished from the good.” (Summa Contra Gentiles V., Book III, c.146). Besides reminding us of well-known cases where innocent people were condemned to die, this should remind us that as Christians we are urged not to see anyone as irredeemably wicked.

An alternative to the death penalty

Prior to his intervention in St. Louis, Pope John Paul had laid out his case for the limitation of the use of the death penalty in his encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) (1995) and in his extraordinary 1997 modification of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). He still allowed for the application of the death penalty as a just choice that authority may make in its responsibility to safeguard society from the unjust aggressor. Yet the revised text goes on to say: “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 nonexistent.’”

The sworn responsibility of authority to secure the common good is not easily laid aside. But here the Church, convinced that society can be protected without executing dangerous criminals, charges us to look to a less violent, less final remedy. The Catechism directs us to a solution that preserves the common good without definitively curtailing the individual good of the perpetrator, offering him the opportunity for redemption. Each man, no matter how sinful and flawed, has a final purpose and call to salvation, one that we ought not too easily or unnecessarily preempt.

The above is the “ought” for laying aside the death penalty: legitimate authority can fulfill its responsibility using lesser but sufficient means for protecting the common good. But we should add that the argument of Divine Mercy, while never violating justice, transcends the human “ought.”

I’m wondering what my readers think of this?  My own views of the death penalty have changed quite a bit to more conform with what the Church has revealed over the last several decades.  At one time, I was a big supporter of the death penalty, and now, I am almost entirely opposed, although I do think the Church, at least in articles like this and even in Evangelium Vitae, does not take into account the feelings of victims families sufficiently.  It may not be the highest virtue, but most victims families claim to receive great peace and closure from seeing the condemned put to death.  These families are possibly deficient in mercy, but, not being in their place, it is difficult for me to say to them that they are wrong to seek this form of justice.  This is the only area where I still struggle with the issue of the death penalty.

One other thought, and a rather odd one, perhaps – the Church as instituted by Christ is impossible without there having been a death penalty to cause Christ’s sufferings and to allow for His Ressurection. 

Is it possible to see in the case of the woman condemned by the pharisees to stoning for adultery a prohibition on death as a form of justice?

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