Friday, February 27, 2015

The Fifth Commandment: the Catholic Stand on Capital Punishment

From "Zola Levitt Ministries"
 "A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."  St. John Paul II (Homily at the Papal Mass, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999).
 My object all sublime

I shall achieve in time—

To let the punishment fit the crime.  W.S. Gilbert, The Mikado

Tom Wolf, the newly elected Governor of Pennsylvania (for whom I did NOT vote), has done a fine thing:   an executive order instituting a moratorium on the death penalty.    Pennsylvania Bishops have applauded this act since it follows from a position put forth in 2001 against capital punishment.
Now, that last link would explain the Catholic position on the death penalty, along with statements by St. John Paul II, and I could let this post go at that (dear reader--please continue), but I would like to put my own spin on this, extrapolated in part from teachings in Fr. Nicanor Austriaco. O.P.'s book, Biomedicine and Beatitude, an Introduction to Catholic Bioethics.


The King James version of the Fifth Commandment says "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex 20:17, Deut 5:17) and elsewhere, "do not slay the innocent and the righteous" (Ex 23:7).   If one looks at the Hebrew
"   The Jewish sages note that the word “ratsakh” applies only to illegal killing (e.g., premeditated murder or manslaughter) — and is never used in the administration of justice or for killing in war. Hence the KJV translation as “thou shalt not kill” is too broad."  Hebrew Lessons--10 Commandments.
Accordingly,  the "thou shalt not kill" is not a universal prohibition.   The Catholic Catechism recognizes that self-defense and defense of others may be justification for killing:

  •  "The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor. . . . The one is intended, the other is not.
  •  Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow...
  •  Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm...Catechism 2263-2265 
Further on the Catechism specifically allows for capital punishment:
  • "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." [emphasis added] Catechism 2267
That capital punishment be allowed is qualified in the Catechism: it might be necessary only on extremely rare occasions.  


Advocates of capital punishment point out that capital punishment is necessary in order to
  1. deter criminal acts by others, by showing, as an example, the severity of punishment;
  2. prevent further criminal acts by the convicted criminal;
  3. satisfy the friends and relatives of victims of the convicted criminal.
Scholarly opinions (for whatever THEY might be worth) are mixed on the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrence to crime:  do a Google search "Does the death penalty deter crime" or see
Deterrence and the Death Penalty.     There is not convincing evidence of a deterrent effect, particularly if one takes a historical perspective, when the death penalty was used more frequently and crime was not thereby diminished.

Execution of the criminal will certainly prevent him/her from carrying out further criminal acts.   However, as the Catechism points out, there are almost always other ways of doing this (e.g. life imprisonment) than capital punishment.    One question is do these alternative methods, for example life imprisonment, always work?   If, as at Guantanamo Bay, terrorist killers are released by executive edict to kill again, is imprisonment effective?    If a prison break occurs, or killing occurs before sentencing and imprisonment, is imprisonment effective?

Benefit #3, retribution and satisfaction for relatives and friends of victims, is superficially met by the death of the criminal, but does this satisfaction meet Catholic standards?    Are we not supposed to "forgive those who trespass against us"?    Does this extreme punishment of the criminal serve a real purpose, any more than drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, or beheading did in earlier times (and now, for some terrorists)?

Some might argue that there is a "double effect" of both good and bad in capital punishment, such that the good outweighs the bad.    The Principle of Double Effect  that is used, for example, in justifying killing someone in self-defense, would not apply to capital punishment.    The requirement in that principle that a bad effect of an action not be intended even if it is foreseen, would clearly not apply to capital punishment.    If capital punishment is to be applied, it is to kill the criminal,

There is one strong argument other than those given above against capital punishment:   if the verdict of murder is mistaken, then execution will be a tragic error.


In the quote above, St. John Paul II gave as one of the arguments against capital punishment, 
Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.    St. John Paul II, (Homily at the Papal Mass in the Trans World Dome, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999).
There are stories of killers who have converted to Catholicism--Alessandro Serenelli, the killer of St. Maria Goretti, possibly being the most notable.   In this case, St. John Paul II's argument applies, because it was only after some years and the vision of Maria Goretti, that Serenelli repented and achieved spiritual peace.   Another is the story of Clayton Fountain, a vicious killer who repented and became a monk.     Other stories of deathbed conversions (for example Dutch Schultz) are not relevant to this argument since there was a minimal time delay between sentencing and conversion; and perhaps Samuel Johnson's quote applies:  "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."  or not.


In the first chapter of his book on bioethics, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco argues that a fundamental viewpoint in bioethics should be the pursuit  of beatitude, of growing in holiness.   With  this in mind one might consider the question of capital punishment, not in terms of the good and bad effects listed above, but rather in our own spiritual growth.    If we act as hangman, do we then follow the injunction of Christ to forgive our enemies, as we ask God to forgive us?  One might (I don't) argue that one can forgive and still inflict the supreme punishment of execution, as a parent might forgive a child for his bad deed, but still punish him/her.   Whether that can be so is a question I will leave for the reader to answer. 

No comments: