As readers of CV, and of the larger Catholic blogosphere know, there has been a robust debate going on recently among Catholics about the morality of capital punishment. I would like to say more about that when I get the chance. For now, however, I would like to point out what I think is a problem or a danger in the way some opponents of capital punishment frame their position.
Some of the opponents downplay the idea that death can be a deserved or just punishment for certain heinous crimes. I don’t necessarily mean that this is done consciously or deliberately, but instead that it is a kind of by-product of their arguments. Many dismiss the question of the justice of the punishment in a given case by emphasizing that Christians should be more about extending mercy even to terrible wrongdoers. Or they omit it as much as possible and focus on the idea that capital punishment has to be justified for its contribution to protecting society, for which, they contend, it is no longer necessary due to our ability to lock people up for life.
This is an understandable way to approach the argument from that point of view. After all, if you are trying to convince people that we should not impose capital punishment, it does not exactly help your position to admit up front that some people deserve to get it. I would say, however, that we need to keep in view the idea that death can be a deserved, just punishment for some crimes, even if we nevertheless argue that the death penalty should not be used these days for other reasons. These positions are not contradictory. Punishment is meted out both to do justice to offenders and for the good of society. It is possible that death is a just penalty for some crimes, but at the same time that the common good is not served by imposing it (perhaps, as opponents argue, that it is not good for us to kill people when it is not necessary to protect society).
So, here are three reasons to remember that people can deserve to be executed, even if we think that the common good will be better served if we do not do so.
First: We should take care that our arguments do not repudiate the Church’s traditional teaching. In other words, the words of Pope Benedict, we should seek a hermeneutic of continuity and not one of disruption. The Church’s traditional teaching on the question of capital punishment, which is acknowledged in the most recent catechism, seems to hold that it is not necessarily wrong to execute an offender. This would in turn seem to imply that this punishment can be just or proper. This would be even more clear in earlier statements of the Church’s teaching on this question. And, for that matter, the view that certain acts can justly be punished with death is put forward in the Bible. So, in order to avoid sowing confusion by appearing to simply throw overboard the Church’s traditional teaching and the Bible, even opponents of capital punishment should admit that it can be justly deserved as a result of certain offenses.
Second: Knowledge that a certain crime is so heinous that one could without injustice be killed for having done it can be important to the offender’s sense of the gravity of his own sin, and hence to his ability to repent for it properly. One purpose of legal punishment is the education and correction of the offender. The punishment is meant to bring home to him the idea that he has done wrong, with a view to getting him to repent of it. If a person, say, kidnaps, rapes, and murders a little child, it is doubtful that the full gravity of his sin can be communicated to him by locking him in prison for life. The Patheos Catholic editorial against capital punishment replies to those who insist that death is a just punishment by emphasizing the things a person is denied who is imprisoned for life.
Let us consider a life lived in captivity, where, — because of one’s actions — one’s choices are forever limited; where simple human freedoms no longer exist for you. You cannot decide to take a walk at midnight, or plan a menu and entertain guests, or try a new restaurant, or rustle up some scrambled eggs, or go fishing, or sleep in, or lay on the grass with a good book, or dandle a baby, or watch a parade, or travel to Rome, or rearrange furniture, or retire to someplace quiet. The loss of simple human options like these is the loss of much of the richness of life; to most of us, it would feel like deserved but heavy justice, indeed.
The editorial is certainly correct that such a life would be lacking in many ways, but I would suggest that a person who thinks of such denials as the just retribution for raping and killing a child is pretty seriously deluded about the gravity of his crime. If he remains under such a delusion, how can he begin to adequately repent for what he has done? It seems to me that it would be much better for the soul of this person to understand that he deserves to be executed but that he is not going to be because he is being shown mercy.
Third: It is important that we remember that death can be a deserved punishment precisely in order to limit the use of killing in order to defend society. Again, the opponents of capital punishment often keep the question of deserving it out of view and instead emphasize whether or not it is necessary to defend society. If we think only in those terms long enough, we might over time get the vague idea that it is permissible to kill people in order to defend society. That is a dangerous and mistaken notion. The Catholic view of capital punishment acknowledges both points: execution is justifiable, when it is justifiable, both because the offender has deserved it and because it is necessary to defend society. If we lose sight of the question of just deserts, and conditions deteriorate in our society to a point where capital punishment is reintroduced, people might be under the impression that it is permissible to kill even innocent people in order to defend society. This would be very wrong, and we ought not to risk contributing it by presenting only part of the argument just to get a temporary advantage in the present debate.