|The childish definition of vengeance as understood by today's liberals.|
According to many anti-capital punishment enthusiasts today, revenge is one of the primary motives to reject capital punishment. Revenge is usually childishly equated with Charles Bronson in a Death Wish Movie or some other Hollywood fantasy. Is there is distinction between revenge and vengeance? Why do the two terms seem to be used interchangeably? Is all form of revenge or vengeance always immoral? Are they always an offense to human dignity?
To answer this question we must define the terms. If revenge is defined as an individual carrying out his form of vigilante justice, then yes we could say that it is immoral. However, if we look at the term revenge in its traditional sense, along with the term vengeance, we see that it can have a positive and negative connotation depending on its application. For Catholics it is important to be grounded in a sensible theological framework such as Thomism. Below I have taken a passage of the Summa to demonstrate how the Church's most enlightened theologian viewed vengeance in the context of punishment.
Vengeance consists in the infliction of a penal evil on one who has sinned. Accordingly, in the matter of vengeance, we must consider the mind of the avenger. For if his intention is directed chiefly to the evil of the person on whom he takes vengeance and rests there, then his vengeance is altogether unlawful: because to take pleasure in another's evil belongs to hatred, which is contrary to the charity whereby we are bound to love all men. Nor is it an excuse that he intends the evil of one who has unjustly inflicted evil on him, as neither is a man excused for hating one that hates him: for a man may not sin against another just because the latter has already sinned against him, since this is to be overcome by evil, which was forbidden by the Apostle, who says (Romans 12:21): "Be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil by good."
If, however, the avenger's intention be directed chiefly to some good, to be obtained by means of the punishment of the person who has sinned (for instance that the sinner may amend, or at least that he may be restrained and others be not disturbed, that justice may be upheld, and God honored), then vengeance may be lawful, provided other due circumstances be observed. (Summa Theologiae II-II.108.1)
If we understand these terms properly, then we can clearly see that any legitimate form of punishment involves vengeance to some degree in its lawful sense. If a person is imprisoned it is a vengeful act carried out by a legitimate government to punish a wrongdoer. This would include any kind of imprisonment, fines or anything which causes the criminal to suffer. If we understand this then no Catholic can reject Capital Punishment based on the idea that it is immoral revenge or vengeance. The punishment is not being carried out in the form of vigilante justice, and thus is not sinful if carried out by a legitimate authority. Pius XII wrote in the Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1955, pp 81-2 the following which upholds the perennial idea of the vengeful purpose of punishment. He says it will never be outdated and always will have a lasting value. Contrast this to what we hear today.
Medicinal and Vengeful Penalties
In our speech of 3 October 1953 at the VI International Congress of Criminal Law, and also on this occasion, we detected the fact that many, perhaps the majority of civil jurists reject that penalty; we added, however, to considerations and arguments adducted in evidence was given perhaps greater importance and strength than they actually have. We also noted that the Church in theory and in practice has maintained the double species of penalties (medicinal and vengeful) and that this is more in line with the sources of the revelation and the Traditional doctrine teaches about the coercive power of legitimate human authority. The assertion given is incorrect which says that we can say that these sources only contain ideas which are conditioned by historical circumstances and therefore they cannot be given a general and always lasting value.
Father John Hardon S.J. also referred to this passage in his defense of Capital Punishment. I recommend reading his entire article.
The Church holds that there are two reasons for inflicting punishment, namely "medicinal" and "vindictive." The medicinal purpose is to prevent the criminal from repeating his crime, and to protect society from his criminal behavior. The vindictive is to expiate for the wrongdoing perpetrated by the criminal. Thus reparation is made to an offended God, and the disorder caused by the crime is expiated.
Equally important is the Pope's insistence that capital punishment is morally defensible in every age and culture of Christianity. Why? Because the Church's teaching on "the coercive power of legitimate human authority" is based on "the sources of revelation and traditional doctrine." It is wrong, therefore "to say that these sources only contain ideas which are conditioned by historical circumstances." On the contrary, they have "a general and abiding validity." ( Acta Apostolicae Sedis, 1955, pp 81-2).
In summary then, no right thinking person can reject Capital Punishment based on the rejection of the principle of vengeance or revenge, if understood properly. If one does so, they must reject every form of punishment. There very nature of punishment contains the principle of vengeance.