Is the Death Penalty Wrong?

Author: Fr. William Saunders


Father William Saunders

A few weeks ago you wrote about the "pro-choice argument" and how human life is sacred. Yet, I discovered that the Catechism permits capital punishment. That seems to be a contradiction. What do you think?—A reader in McLean

The Catechism indeed states, "Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty" (#2266). To understand the Church's position in this matter, we have to be clear about the foundational principles governing the teaching.

First, the state has the duty to preserve the common good and to protect its citizens from harm. Therefore, the state may declare and wage a just war against an aggressor outside of the community as well as recognize the individual's legal right of self-defense. A state may also impose just penalties on those individuals who commit crimes and threaten the well- being of society.

Second, justice demands that punishment fit the crime—the penalty must be proportionate to the injury. In this way, punishment provides for proper retribution, deterrence and reform. As a form retribution, punishment restores the order of justice which the criminal violated. For example, if a criminal steals something, restitution must be made, such as the return of the stolen property. The criminal may also be deprived of certain freedoms through, for instance, incarceration or fines. Just retribution heals the injury caused by the crime.

Along this line of thought, punishment ought to deter future crime. If justice is rendered fairly and swiftly, specific punishments for specific crimes ought to prevent further crime by either the criminal himself or others. Punishment should not only protect society from a particular criminal but also deter individuals from committing the same crime in the future.

In the end, the punishment of a criminal should incite his reform. The criminal being punished is hopefully moved to see the error of his ways, to repent and to change his life.

Just punishment strives to balance all three perspectives—retribution, deterrence and reform. Note also that in applying such punishment, the state must insure to the best of its ability that the person receives a fair trial and that only a legitimate authority impose any sentence.

Following this perspective of punishment, capital punishment may be used only for heinous crimes, crimes which shake the foundations of society and which would necessitate such a severe proportionate punishment. For example, the Old Testament laws permitted the use of capital punishment for serious sins: "If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has man been made" (Genesis 9:6) and "Whoever strikes a man a mortal blow must be put to death. When a man kills another after maliciously scheming to do so, you must take him even from my altar and put him to death" (Exodus 21:12, 14). However, capital crimes in the Old Testament included not just premeditated murder, but also kidnapping, cursing or striking of parents, sorcery, sodomy, bestiality and idolatry. These sins were so heinous in the eyes of God and so threatening to the spiritual and physical welfare of the community that justice mandated capital punishment as proper retribution. The capital sentence could inspire reform: The condemned criminal, facing the loss of his life and knowing he will appear before God in judgment, would hopefully repent. The capital sentence could also deter future crime: Removed from society permanently and sent to God for divine justice, the criminal would never inflict injury again. St. Thomas Aquinas affirmed that if the good citizens "are protected and saved by the slaying of the wicked, the latter may bee lawfully put to death." Moreover, the execution of a criminal could also deter others from committing like crimes and inspire their reform.

Please keep in mind the Old Testament does speak of God's divine mercy: "As I live says the Lord God, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man's conversion, that he may live" (Ezekiel 33:11). "That he may live" though may not so much focus on physical life as it does on the spiritual, whereby the repentant sinner would avoid eternal punishment in hell.

Finally, capital punishment may be used to punish "malefactors," i.e. people who freely choose to commit a heinous crime. St. Thomas Aquinas asserted that through sin, a man departs from the order of reason and falls away from the dignity of being an individual made in God's image and likeness. A man who commits a heinous crime, he argued, is even worse than a brute beast and even more harmful. Such a man may be permanently extricated: Just as an infectious or diseased organ would be removed to preserve the health of the entire body, so a person who is dangerous or infectious to the community may be executed rather than corrupt or bring harm to the community.

Such a malefactor must be distinguished from an innocent person. Human life is indeed sacred in all forms and at all times, and we as innocent human beings have a sacred right to life. However, the Church carefully underscores the inviolability of this right for "innocent life": In the "Declaration on Euthanasia" (1980) the Church asserted, "Nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying," and in the "Declaration on Procured Abortion" (1974) the Church asserted: "Divine law and natural reason, therefore, exclude all right to the direct killing of an innocent man." When a person freely commits such a heinous crime and is judged as a threat to society as a whole, that person relinquishes the right to life in this society, this time, this space.

Given this reasoning, the Catholic Church has upheld the right of the state to execute certain criminals. However, while recognizing the traditional teaching of the Church, the United States Catholic Bishop's Conference issued their "Statement on Capital Punishment" (1980) and asserted, " the condition of contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty." The bishops raised several questions: Does the goal of retribution and the restoration of order justify capital punishment even for heinous crimes? Does capital punishment successfully deter future crime? Could not imprisonment, including for life, just as effectively protect society from a criminal, provide a chance for his genuine reform, and deter future crime? Can we insure in our justice system sentences which are fair and not discriminatory? Does not capital punishment constitute a cruel punishment which brings anguish to the criminal and his family? Lastly, the Bishops pleaded that by abolishing capital punishment, society would break "the cycle of violence" and make a positive statement about the sanctity of human life and forgiveness.

The issue of capital punishment is very difficult indeed. We as Catholics do uphold the sanctity of human life. We also realize that at times life regrettably must be taken to establish peace and protect society—we must go to war, defend our own lives, and stop crime. The concerns surrounding capital punishment are real and must be continually addressed to insure justice. Any good Catholic—as a believer and as a citizen—must wrestle with these issues and decide what will best promote justice.

Fr. Saunders is president of Notre Dame Institute and associate pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria.

This article appeared in the February 23, 1995 issue of "The Arlington Catholic Herald." Courtesy of the "Arlington Catholic Herald" diocesan newspaper of the Arlington (VA) diocese. For subscription information, call 1-800-377-0511 or write 200 North Glebe Road, Suite 607 Arlington, VA 22203.