I like to read, and I don’t like the death penalty. Thus, I like to read things that are about abolishing the death penalty. (I’m so unpredictable.) As I mentioned in my review of the remarkable book Change of Heart, by Jeanne Bishop, I acknowledge that Catholics are allowed to support capital punishment without considering themselves in opposition to the Church. I just don’t think they should.
I will admit, though, that I didn’t have a whole lot of reasons to back up my preference. There’s the famous paragraph 2267 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, of course:
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” (St. John Paul II, Evangelium vitae).
But that’s not enough. And as much as I enjoyed Change of Heart, it’s not written by a Catholic. I thought things might be a little more complex than I’d considered. I was therefore delighted to read the essay adaptation of an address by Cardinal Avery Dulles, simply titled “Catholicism and Capital Punishment.” It was just the foundation I was looking for.
As Cardinal Dulles notes, most of the opposition to the death penalty does not come from a theological angle, so he’s sticking with theology. He cites specific instances in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and even in the modern(-ish, depending on how “modern” you consider Blessed Henry Newman) Church where capital punishment is imposed after particularly heinous crimes. To say that the death penalty is wholly un-Catholic is to deny this history. On the contrary, acknowledging that history leads us to this conclusion:
Summarizing the verdict of Scripture and tradition, we can glean some settled points of doctrine. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death.
He makes three important points here. First and implicit, Christ is the only just judge, since he is free from the flaws, sins, and errors that naturally cloud human judgment. Second, our lack of perfect human justice does not preclude our carrying out any judgment at all. We are not required to just leave it up to God. Third, part of the responsibility of government is to carry out justice. That might mean imposing the death penalty. I don’t particularly like that third point, but I follow his logic. Individual and mob justice are generally bad for society.
From that basis, Cardinal Dulles continues on to address “the absolutist position, that because the right to life is sacred and inviolable, the death penalty is always wrong.” That’s the position I’m tempted towards, but in the face of actual Catholic history and doctrine, I can’t quite dive into it wholeheartedly. I have to stop short of “always.” The cardinal calls the absolutist position little more than an expansion of pacifism. To say that “a new recognition of the dignity and inalienable rights of the human person has dawned” and that “those who recognize the signs of the times will move beyond the outmoded doctrines” that the State may execute is to make things too simple, too neat, and too finite (emphasis mine). I like things neat, so it’s no wonder that I’m tempted in that direction!
Furthermore, it wanders into shaky territory to say that society has “progressed” to the point where we no longer need capital punishment. Cardinal Dulles writes:
Arguments from the progress of ethical consciousness have been used to promote a number of alleged human rights that the Catholic Church consistently rejects in the name of Scripture and tradition. The magisterium appeals to these authorities as grounds for repudiating divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. If the Church feels herself bound by Scripture and tradition in these other areas, it seems inconsistent for Catholics to proclaim a “moral revolution” on the issue of capital punishment.
Again, emphasis mine to highlight that eloquent mic drop. You can’t say that the Church is holding fast against the new “rights” arising in our time and also say that she should “evolve” on the death penalty. That’s inconsistent. I definitely dislike inconsistency.
Consequently to the “evolving ethics” argument, and contrary to what I would have thought, rising opposition to the death penalty in the West has followed the corresponding decline in religious faith. I didn’t see that one coming: as people get less religious, they stop supporting capital punishment. Cardinal Dulles writes, “When death came to be understood as the ultimate evil rather than as a stage on the way to eternal life, utilitarian philosophers… found it easy to dismiss capital punishment as ‘useless annihilation.'” Ouch! In that case, if there is just nothingness after death, we might as well let people go on living. Well, that first part isn’t right, and the second part is defeatist.
Something still didn’t sit right with me, though. Something was still tugging at my heart.
Continuing on, Cardinal Dulles really sticks it to me:
The death penalty is not in itself a violation of the right to life. The real issue for Catholics is to determine the circumstances under which that penalty ought to be applied. It is appropriate, I contend, when it is necessary to achieve the purposes of punishment and when it does not have disproportionate evil effects. I say “necessary” because I am of the opinion that killing should be avoided if the purposes of punishment can be obtained by bloodless means.
I can easily get on board with that last sentence, but it might take some time for me to come around to the first. I understand that “the innocent and the guilty do not have the same rights,” as Cardinal Dulles mentions concerning the rationale of people who are strongly pro-life but also pro-execution. I just don’t know if I’m ready to wave that banner quite yet. I might never be ready.
Cardinal Dulles concludes his address by exploring the four ends of punishment (rehabilitation, defense against the criminal, deterrence, and retribution) in terms of whether the death penalty satisfies them, and the four main objections against use of the death penalty (miscarriage of justice, vindictiveness, a consistent ethic of life, and forgiveness). It’s worth reading the whole thing, but there’s a summary at the end if you’re in a hurry.
I enjoyed this speech-turned-essay more than I thought I would. I found it thought-provoking and enlightening in a way I wasn’t expecting. I don’t think I agree with everything Cardinal Dulles writes, but I was forced to really explore my opinions and put legs to them. That’s the point of dialogue on any topic, I think: not to convert or badger people into changing their minds, but to explore and understand despite disagreement. That’s a good goal for all of us.