Keeping the Death Penalty Alive
By Matthew James Bellisario 2010
By Matthew James Bellisario 2010
There are many Catholics today who are trying to redefine Capital Punishment. Many are claiming that it should only be used as a type of last resort action of self defense by the State. Usually the “Vatican II only” Catholics fall into this camp. Instead of reading the new documents with continuity with the past documents the Church has released on the subject, they instead confine themselves to post-Vatican II material. They usually read only a few passages from the new Catechism and then claim to have an adequate understanding of moral theology and how it relates to the Death Penalty.
Since Vatican II the focus of the Death Penalty has been to focus on it as only a means to defend people from future crimes being committed by the guilty party. Therefore many Catholics today see life imprisonment as a permanent substitute for the Death Penalty. For some reason they think that life imprisonment has not been an option for societies up until birth of modern society. The Chateau D’if comes to mind. This narrow minded view of Capital punishment however has serious flaws.
Most Catholics start with the New Catechism for information on the subject, and so we will start with entry 2266.
“Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
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 definitely 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."
It is here that most Catholics end their education on the subject. What I find interesting is that the Catechism addresses Capital Punishment under the topic of “Legitimate Defense.” Although the Death Penalty can certainly be used to stop future crimes that could possibly be committed by a guilty criminal, it must not be confused with the act of “self defense.” Many read the words “legitimate defense” and start drawing wrong conclusions. It is not referring to self defense. In order for an act of self defense to occur, there has to be an immediate threat against someone. So there is no way to classify the Death Penalty as an actual act of self defense. The actual act of killing the person is done not to stop an actual crime in the act of being committed, but for many other reasons which include restoring and maintaining the moral order, preventing future crimes, as well as exacting some sort of retribution for past crimes committed.
Another idiotic category that people try to classify the Death Penalty under is under the principle of Double Effect. This however is not possible since the principle of Double Effect only falls under acts where an intended end was not desired. As we know, the State can intend the death of a guilty person, and it does so by its authority and right. Both self defense and double effect cannot be used in an effort to justify the Death Penalty.
There are several reasons why the State may use the Death Penalty. The first is to restore and keep the moral order. Anytime a heinous crime is committed against an innocent person, it upsets the moral order of society, injures individuals and the state, and it offends God. So the State being the legitimate authority, has the right and obligation to seek to justly restore that order which was displaced by the crime. It does so by punishment, which is always aimed for the common good of society, even when such measures as the Death Penalty are used. There are generally two types of punishment, the first is often called retributive, or vindictive punishment, and the second, medicinal punishment, which include correction and deterrence. The retributive punishment is to expiate the wrongdoing of the criminal and to make reparation for what evil they have done. It also vindicates the rights of the offended as well as making some sort of reparation in relation to the offense to God. This aspect of punishment has been forgotten in modern society and has been downplayed for centuries by many in the Catholic Church. This however is a crucial factor in the State’s ability to keep the moral order. As Fr. Austin Fagothey writes in his masterpiece of moral theology, “Right and Reason” The state exists to maintain justice, and one its chief purposes is the prevention and punishment of crime.” (page 340)
Instead, the focus today has been only on the medicinal side of punishment. One reason for this is John Paul II’s one sided approach to the issue, which has pervaded the Church in recent decades. His personalist views sometimes put him at odds with traditional Thomistic thought on the subject. The medicinal aspect is said to prevent the criminal from committing more crimes, to protect society from future threat, and in some cases to actually rehabilitate the criminal. Of course when the Death Penalty is used it is usually done because there is usually no possibility of societal rehabilitation. Again Fr. Fagothey writes, “By its very nature capital punishment cannot be corrective. But correction, desirable though it be in a punishment, is not absolutely necessary; in the most serious crimes the claims of retribution and deterrence are so imperative that the corrective aspect must be waved, if necessary”
In order to further grasp the importance of the retributive side of punishment we must look to other documents of the Church that precede Vatican II. If we are going to understand Catholic theology, we must synthesize Catholic documents as a whole through the ages, and not only focus one particular age or document.
The old Roman Catechism tells us, “There are some exceptions to the extent of this prohibition to killing. The power of life and death is permitted to certain civil magistrates because theirs is the responsibility under law to punish the guilty and protect the innocent. Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment, such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the state is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent life (The Fifth Commandment, 4).”
This concise explanation neatly ties in the two ends intended regarding the use of Capital Punishment, as well as the State’s legitimate authority to take the life of a guilty person to do so. There is an intended end. Punishing the guilty, and protecting the innocent are cited as being the two primary reasons by the Roman Catechism. It also calls the act, “an execution of justice.” Unfortunately this first reason is forgotten by the Vatican II only crowd. Again, I want to pull from Fr. Fagothey, “Punishment in the strict sense has three functions, one looking to the past and two looking to the future. As looking to the past, punishment is retributive because it pays back the criminal for his crime, gives him his just deserts, reestablishes the equal balance of justice which has been outraged, and reasserts the authority of the lawgiver which the criminal has flouted.” Fr. Fagothey continues on to explain the other two functions which pertain to the future, which are for the purpose of correction and deterrence. Unfortunately, these two are the only two functions commonly recognized by many in the Church today.
Another statement worth looking at was approved by Pope Pius IV which explains retribution as being an avenger for God, which preserves human life and security by repressing the unjust violence of criminals.
“The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.” (Catechism of the Council of Trent Part III)
Pope Pius XII (Address given Sept 14th, 1952) dispelled the myth circling about today referring to a criminal’s “right” to life.
“When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.”
It is often said that we should attempt to keep a violent criminal alive in prison if possible, so that they may have time to repent and convert. Pope John Paul II thought that there were rarely cases that warranted the use of the Death Penalty in today’s societies. He based this on an assumption that keeping the person alive in prison was sufficient to keep society safe from them, that it also allowed them more time to be converted, and finally that it was more in line with their human dignity. I believe that this position however is a tough position to hold. First, does the prison system really afford most individuals to be rehabilitated or to attain a faith conversion, or does it most regularly only continue to foster sin, putting them more at risk of eternal hellfire? Secondly, many forget that the actual impending death of a person may in itself be useful for one’s conversion. Although the person is not rehabilitated among civil or prison society, they can repent and receive eternal life. If one lives 50 years in prison, only to be hardened by the prison system and go to hell, a quick sentence of Capital Punishment may actually be more beneficial to bringing about conversion than rotting in prison with other hardened criminals would offer. As far as human dignity goes, what act actually aligns itself more closely with human dignity? This question needs to be asked for all people involved, not just for the sake of the guilty. The questions that should be asked to determine the overall preservation human dignity for all involved are:
1- What act is going to be more beneficial to the common good of society?
2- What act is going to be more beneficial in restoring and preserving the moral order?
3- What act is going to better protect all other people within that society from future crime?
4- What act is more likely going to bring about the conversion of the guilty soul most effectively, for the sake of his or her salvation as well as others around them?
I believe it is a serious error to only take into consideration the human dignity of the criminal, to the neglect of the human dignity that the rest of society has a right to. It seems to me that #4 on my list gets moved above the rest in todays bishop’s conferences, when it should really be at the bottom of the list, being that guilty lives are not owed the same benefits, quality of life, including the right to life, that innocent lives are owed. If the common good of the innocent of society is better served by the death of the guilty, then human dignity is best recognized and preserved by exacting the death of the guilty.
Saint Thomas says, “Every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part exists naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we see that if the health of the whole human body demands the excision of a member, because it became putrid or infectious to the other members, it would be both praiseworthy and healthful to have it cut away. Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since "a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6). (Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2)
Another reality must be considered as well. We must also consider the safety of the prison guards and other prisoners whose lives are also at risk from violent prisoners as well. This point is also often forgotten. In my opinion, the reality of relatively unchecked prison violence in the system today is not taken into consideration by many in the Church today. If a prisoner brings about the potential physical harm, the loss of other souls or lives in prison, should they be allowed to live among them? Are the safety of those outside of prison, and the prolonging of the life of the guilty, sufficient reasons to abstain from exacting the Death Penalty?
Saint Thomas answers many of the questions and issues I posed above. He says, “The fact that the evil ones, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from malice, it is possible to make a quite probable judgment that they would never come away from evil.”
(Summa contra gentiles, Book III, chapter 146)
Saint Thomas’ thought seems to almost directly oppose the thought of Pope John Paul II and many following his frame of thought on the subject. Thomism was certainly not one of Pope John Paul’s preferred philosophical schools of thought. In fact, since the late 1800s, Thomism has been gradually shunned in favor of more modern schools of thought, which in my opinion make it hard to draw any firm lines in the moral arena. Although I respect Pope John Paul II and the great good he has brought about, I do not think his principles are sound on this particular subject.
I want to look at an example of where I feel the Death Penalty overall served the common good of a society in today’s time. It is the execution of Saddam Hussein. Here we have a convicted mass murderer who had the ability to cause serious civil unrest in his society. Although captured by the U.S., he was brought to his own people to be tried and convicted for his crimes. After he was tried, he was convicted and sentenced to hang. Although one could argue that the way it was done was not very professional, it was none the less a just punishment for his crimes committed against humanity. Who can forget the genocidal acts of Hussein where he tried to exterminate all the Kurds in Northern Iraq? In that one incident alone close to 200,000 people were brutally murdered, some by poison gas. Just retribution could in reality be no less than the loss of his own life.
It can be argued that the common good was best served by executing Saddam Hussein. First, as we know, he was an Iraqi prisoner, and their prisons are nowhere near the level of U.S. prisons. Sure Iraq could have tried to pass him off for another country to imprison, but is that another societies responsibility? Should another society have to bear the burden of housing another’s heinous villain? It was the duty of the Iraqi State, or what was left of it, to exact a form of punishment that would have the least chance of causing future civil unrest, the best chance to restore the moral order, and the most fitting to exact some form of just punishment for the mass murder committed. If a man who murdered thousands of people could get away with only a life long prison sentence, how many people would have revolted or been damaged by the lack of retribution? How many lives would have been subject to more civil unrest? Although some liberals at the time argued that his execution would cause more unrest, they were proven wrong soon after he had been executed. There was no significant overall rise in civil unrest due to his execution. We also have to consider the possibility that there would have been a great risk to allowing the Hussein regime to continue in some fashion by letting him live. Would the country be able to move forward without his execution? I believe that after looking at all of the factors concerning just punishment, which include retribution, deterrence of future crime, and the restoration of the moral order, that the common good of society was best served in this instance by the State exacting the Death Penalty.
Finally, I would like to look at a less critical reason in favor of the execution of violent criminals, which should at least be mentioned, yet not to be used as an argument in and of itself, but rather weighed in among the other more critical reasons. Should society as whole have to spend an inordinate amount of money and resources to keep violent criminals locked up in a prison for life term sentences? In many cases, the prisons have to construct special cell blocks to keep such dangerous criminals isolated from the rest of the prison population for the very reasons I mentioned earlier, and even then the guards are still at risk. How much money and resources should the innocent have to pay to safely incarcerate these guilty violent criminals? Although many argue that it is more expensive to execute criminals today, that is only because of the system we have to go through to actually exact the punishment, not from the punishment itself. Although as I stated previously, I do not think this should be the primary reason to execute people, as if saving money justifies killing off all the prisoners, but we must ask, if we have a violent criminal who is deserving of the death penalty because it is a just and proportionate punishment fit to his crime, would it not be more just and more conducive to the common good of society to go ahead and execute him? This is something controversial, but I think it is certainly worth debating.
In closing, I think it is certainly worth critically examining the current mind of the many bishops in the Church today who are seeking to completely abolish the Death Penalty. I do not believe it is tenable to argue for a non-existent, utopian prison system that can successfully keep violent criminals from harming others. I think it is also difficult to argue that the common good of society will benefit from this abolishment. I think that when necessary, according to all of the principles of just punishment that I have outlined in this article, the Death Penalty is certainly worth keeping alive.
Read my article on the Seamless Garment for more on this subject.