The application of the death penalty is one of those issues where many good Catholics disagree. In the words of then Cardinal Ratzinger, “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” Simply because we are free to disagree, does not mean we shouldn’t pursue the topic and try to arrive at a conclusion. The following are 5 arguments which support the use of the death penalty followed by 5 arguments which oppose it. This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor do I claim they are the best possible arguments, but they are the ones that seem the most convincing to me.
5 Arguments in support of the death penalty
1) The Church has traditionally recognized four goals of punishment: retribution, incapacitation of the criminal, deterrence, and rehabilitation. Retribution may well be the most important one for discussion of the death penalty. Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” Read that last part again, “for God made man in his own image.” Retribution isn’t a matter of petty revenge or a simple matter of balancing some cosmic scales. Murder is such a heinous crime precisely because it defaces the image of God in another person. While forgiveness is something for which every person must strive, there seems to be a Divine command for the state to uphold the true value and dignity of human life precisely by executing those who would deface it.
2) The very first universal catechism of the Catholic Church was released shortly after the Council of Trent and is variously called the “Roman Catechism, “The Catechism of the Council of Trent“, or the “Catechism of Pope St. Pius V”. In it, we find the question of executing criminals directly addressed. It says that the civil authority is the natural avenger of crime and that far from being an act of murder, capital punishment is an act of “paramount obedience” to the 5th Commandment because it defends life and secures it by repressing outrage and violence. This argument seems to point out that not only is there a Divine command, but that part of the reason the death penalty is important, is that it not only protects society from the one member who has committed murder, but it serves to protect society from itself–from its own outrage and personal quests for revenge.
3) Pope St. John Paul II and the Catechism of the Catholic Church talk about it being “very rare, if not practically non-existent” to have a situation in which the death penalty was necessary to fully protect society. I think we can all recall a case in which it would have been necessary. Osama bin Laden. Trying to keep him incarcerated would have encouraged further attacks. The fact of the matter is, however, that talk of the death penalty only being acceptable if it is the only possible way to protect against an aggressor appears to be a serious departure from the previous tradition of the Church from Genesis to Pope Pius XII. We must look at St. John Paul II and the CCC with all due gravity, but must recognize they are not a silver bullet against the death penalty on grounds of authority.
4) Deterrence is the third goal of punishment, and while it seems obvious to most that execution is the greatest deterrent to murder, opponents of the death penalty like to cite statistics relating to crime in America and try to argue that deterrence is not seen. In truth, there were about 15,000 murders last year and only 39 executions. Our implementation is so sporadic, that it admittedly eliminates much of the deterrent factor. One major exception, however, is found when it comes to protecting the lives of our police. We have all heard of countless cases in which a criminal refrained from firing on police because in the few cases where it is used, the death penalty is often reserved for cop-killers. The death penalty saves the lives of police.
5) The final goal of punishment is rehabilitation. On the surface, this goal would seem to be better achieved by life without parole. However, it isn’t as if murderers are really going to be integrated back into society, so what we are really talking about is reconciliation with God. St. Thomas Aquinas argues that if a criminal will not repent in the face of certain death, there is no reason to assume he would repent if he lived to the natural end of his life. The fact is that knowing the time of one’s own death is a great motivation for repentance. I know if I found out I was going to die, getting to confession would be my only priority. Imperfect contrition is still contrition. Facing a literal “deadline” forces a person to re-evaluate their life.
5 Arguments in opposition to the death penalty
1) The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph #2267, says that while the Church does not completely forbid the death penalty, it can only be used in cases where it is the only means of protecting society against the aggressor. The Catechism goes on to say that in today’s world, such cases “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent”. A maximum security prison has no problem protecting society from a murderer. Nearly every single country across the globe that has a majority Catholic population has abolished the death penalty.
2) The Culture of Life is under profound attack. In terms of pure practicality, a position which appears to uphold the killing of some people, while opposing the killing of others, dilutes the united front the Church offers in upholding the dignity and value of every human life. Without an “unconditionally” pro-life position, we are less able to affect change in society. Wherever it is even remotely possible to defend life, even a life guilty of serious crimes, we must act to preserve it. Ultimately, this seems to be the most “Christ-like” position. WWJD?
3) There is a quote which is often attributed to Gandhi which says, “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” Violence cannot be fought with more violence. If capital punishment is an attempt to protect society from violence, it might actually be making the problem worse. Justice is of paramount importance, but so is mercy and compassion. When we can act to satisfy justice through non-violent means, we are then best protecting society from future violence by our own example.
4) The Catechism says that the death penalty can only be used when the identity and guilt of the accused is certain. Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world and mistakes happen. There are a surprising number of people who had been found guilty of capital crimes and were sent to death row and who were later exonerated by new evidence. How many innocent people is it OK to kill? Since mistakes happen, is it not more wise to have a less permanent punishment? Furthermore, the death penalty seems to be applied more frequently to minorities. Implementation is so sporadic and drawn out as to make it unreasonable.
5) The Church traditionally acknowledges 4 ends of punishment. In each case, life without parole serves those ends better than the death penalty. For many, a life sentence is a worse punishment. Sadly, it is not infrequent that cases of multiple homicide ends in the suicide of the killer. Why? They know a life sentence awaits them, and death can seem preferable. Life without parole is not only just, but it is also a great deterrent. Prisons can incapacitate perfectly, and they are more in keeping with the dignity of human life. Lastly, and most importantly, prisons can actually offer a real chance at repentance. A hardened criminal many need some time and assistance to turn from his ways. Particularly with the help of prison ministries where priests visit those men in jail and prisoners have a real chance to reflect on their lives, they can indeed repent. In the end, that is the hope of all Christians. We want even the worst criminal to go to Heaven.
Photo CC: TG4 – Special thanks to the Chester-Belloc Debate Society of Christendom College.
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