capital punishment

This topic started to make some headway in the Comments section on my Catholic Peace post. It a point worth bringing to the forefront.
Capital Punishment is executing someone who is guilty of a crime. It is a valid punishment according to the Catholic Church. CCC 2267 states that “the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.”
This is in a similar thread to war. As we examined in the last post, warfare could, in theory, be just.
However, what is the purpose of the punishment? Is it for revenge for the crime? Is it to “give justice” to the victim’s family? No.
The purpose of punishment is to make things right. It is to make a disordered situation ordered again. What about “giving justice to the victim’s family?” Isn’t that what I just said? No again.
Punishment is to make things right in the grand scheme of things. With most capital offenses, someone was killed. Making that situation right would for the deceased to rise again. The next aspect of making things right would be to preserve the common good from then forward.
In a different age, preserving the common good would equate to the death penality in many circumstances, hence why is is allowable by the Church. That being said, in the world in which we live, the death penality is no longer the only course of action we have in perserving the peace of the society.
In the Church, one of the pillar truths that we build our moral law upon is the dignity of the human person. Each person is a human person, with a soul, created by God, no better or worse than any other among us. They might have done evil things and have fallen deep into the darkness with thought; however, they all still have the immortal soul created by God. He loves everyone. We should strive to do the same.
The death penality was used, in my mind morally, when no matter what other course of action was taken, the lives of other people were constantly in danger. It is related to legitimate self-defense. If the only way to perserve the lives of others was to end this life, then the fundamental love towards oneself was key. The intention was not to kill the person on death row, but to save the lives of all others.
The death penality is used now, immorally, when in our society we have the means and the ability to “lock someone up and throw away the key”. As John Paul II says, when there are bloodless ways of making things right, i.e. perserving the public good, then we must execute those ways. Our understanding of the dignity of the human person does not allow us to use death as an option when it is not the only option.
Although the Catechism and traditional Church teachings tell us that we can use capital punishment without falling into sin, that is the broadest application of moral law.
This is one of the differences between the American mindset and the Catholic mindset. The American mindset is to have a law, follow the letter of the law and we’ll all be happy. If we’re at a red light at 4 a.m. with not a car around us, we tend to stay at the red light until it turns green. In Italy, the mindset looks at the spirit of the law. The spirit of the law is to maintain order while driving as so both directions of traffic have a protected throughfare. The spirit of the law does not prohibit one from running a red light when he or she is the only one there. This is true of the Church as well.
The Church gives us this moral directive: Capital punishment is not wrong, but only must be used to protect the common good and be in proportion to the crime. We see this as being what it is: The Church saying it’s okay for us to use it since we are protecting the common good and it is a proportional response.
However, the spirit of the law is different. The law is telling us that, under the gravest of circumstances, we may be forced to use the dealth penality. In those cases, it is acceptable. Those situations do exist. If we lived in a small village in a third world country, someone has just killed another member of the community. He did it out of cold blood and he wants to do it again. The only way we have to restrain him is by using our hands and our usual form of grave punishment would be to exile him. There is reasonable knowledge that if we tell him to go, he will instead go into hiding to plan and then execute his next murder. While this is a very simplified example, it could be said that capital punishment would be allowable.
It is for that reason the Church says that it allows capital punishment. In the United States, however, we have prisons. We do not need this provision. We can maintain the criminal’s human dignity while also maintaing the common good. We are not trapped between the moral rock of dignity and the hard place of the common good. We do not need to exercise a “last option” clause.
We, as Americans, have used loopholes to allow us to continue doing immortal acts. Our criminal justice system needs to be reformed to raise the dignity of the person to the focus of our penalities and punshiments.






One response to “capital punishment

  1. Bryan Sakowski Avatar
    Bryan Sakowski

    At least they own up to it and list “homicide” as the cause of death on the death certificates of those who have been executed by the state.

Leave a Reply