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The Catholic Case for Capital Punishment

The Catholic Church has long supported the right of the state to inflict the death penalty on persons who commit extremely serious crimes. In recent decades, however, popes and other Church leaders increasingly have narrowed what they see as the scope of the death penalty’s legitimate application—so much so that the second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church adopts Pope St. John Paul II’s judgment from his encyclical Evangelium Vitae that instances where capital punishment is necessary “are very rare, if not nonexistent” (CCC 2267, EV 56).

From the occasional statements of national and local bishops’ conferences to the preaching heard from the pulpit, many believe the Church has changed its position on the death penalty. But two California scholars—Edward Feser, associate professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College; and Joseph Bessette, the Alice Tweed Tuohy Professor of Government and Ethics at Claremont McKenna College—take issue with that assumption. In their forthcoming book By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty (Ignatius Press, 500pp.), they argue that the Church has not and cannot change its traditional teaching on this issue.

Catholic Answers Magazine: Has the Church changed its thinking on the death penalty over the years, or are its leaders merely applying traditional Catholic principles to present-day realities?

Feser: The Church has not changed her teaching. Indeed, during Pope St. John Paul II’s pontificate, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—the pope’s own chief doctrinal officer, with authority to issue statements on these matters—explicitly denied that the Church had altered the relevant doctrinal principles. What has changed is only the prudential judgment about how to apply the teaching to current concrete historical circumstances.

Cardinal Ratzinger also explicitly affirmed that a good Catholic could legitimately disagree with that prudential judgment. We document all of this in the book. We demonstrate that there could not in principle be a doctrinal change or development in this area. It is not only irreformable teaching that capital punishment can be legitimate in principle, but it is also irreformable teaching that it can be legitimate in principle even just for purposes of retribution and deterrence. To contradict these teachings would be to contradict Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, which the Church says we cannot do.

It is sometimes claimed that John Paul II “developed” doctrine in such a way that the death penalty is now legitimate even in principle only when the protection of society requires it. As we show, that is a serious misinterpretation of what he taught.

Your book doesn’t argue merely that Catholics can favor the death penalty but rather that they should.

Feser: That’s right. To be sure, it is important to show, and we do show, that a Catholic may legitimately support capital punishment. But we go beyond that. We argue that there really are no good reasons at all to abolish capital punishment, and that there are compelling reasons to preserve it. Catholics not only may but ought to support it.

For one thing, we argue that the institution of capital punishment is crucial to maintaining within society an understanding of criminal justice in general. When even the most brutal and callous offenders are spared the punishment that is proportional to their crime, people start to lose any sense of a connection between punishment and desert. Society starts to treat offenders as therapy cases to be managed and manipulated, rather than as free and responsible moral agents who merit rewards for their good actions and punishments for their evil actions.

We also argue that there are strong reasons to believe that capital punishment does indeed have a deterrent effect, that in many cases it actually fosters repentance in the offender and that it reassures the families of victims that society affirms the dignity of those victims’ lives by making sure that their killers are meted out a sufficiently grave punishment.

This is a crucial point. It is often claimed that the death penalty is incompatible with a respect for human dignity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Genesis 9:6 famously teaches that murderers ought to be executed precisely because their victims are made in God’s image. Nothing less than a penalty of death would be consistent with affirming the gravity of the offense of cold-blooded murder. Nothing less would affirm the dignity of the victim or the moral responsibility of the offender.

And yet the Catechism itself, in part, regards “bloodless means” of punishing criminals as “more in keeping with the dignity of the human person.”

Feser: That is true, but the question is whether that statement in the Catechism reflects a binding doctrinal principle or instead is merely a nonbinding prudential judgment. We argue at length in the book that it is the latter. That is why Cardinal Ratzinger stated in 2004 that a Catholic could be “at odds with” the pope about capital punishment and that “there may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about . . . applying the death penalty.”

He explicitly contrasted the case of capital punishment with the case of abortion and euthanasia, where disagreement is not allowable. Abortion and euthanasia are intrinsically and always contrary to human dignity. Capital punishment is not. And whether its abolition in some particular, concrete circumstances would be more conducive to a respect for human dignity is not a doctrinal matter but a prudential question.

We aren’t the only ones who take this view, by the way.  Among others who argue that the reluctance of recent popes to use capital punishment is merely a prudential judgment was the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, who was among the most eminent of contemporary theologians loyal to the Magisterium of the Church.

What is the natural-law argument in favor of the state’s right to inflict capital punishment?

Feser: According to classical natural law theory, which is defensible on secular grounds but also happens to be endorsed by the Church, the primary purpose of punishment is retributive justice, which is a matter of inflicting on an offender a proportionate penalty. As the Catechism says, “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense.” And there are some crimes that are so heinous that nothing less than death would be a proportionate penalty. Think, for example, of a serial killer who rapes and tortures his victims. Life imprisonment, which someone might merit for far less serious offenses than that, is simply not proportionate to the nature of this kind of crime.

Now, if we accept the principle that offenders deserve a punishment proportionate to the gravity of their crimes—which is, again, a principle that both secular natural law theory and the Church are committed to—then it follows that there are going to be crimes for which nothing less than death is a suitable punishment. We can debate which crimes these are, exactly, but it cannot reasonably be denied that there will be some such crimes. Now, if you do deny this, then you are implicitly denying that offenders deserve a proportionate punishment, and if you say that, then we argue that you are really implicitly denying that people can deserve any punishment at all.

The “New Natural Law Theory” (NNLT) advanced by prominent orthodox Catholic thinkers like Germain Grisez, John Finnis, Robert P. George, and Christian Brugger argues against capital punishment. Where do you part ways with the NNLT proponents on this issue?

Feser: The NNLT writers go well beyond anything Pope John Paul II ever said. They claim that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong, in principle wrong, always and everywhere wrong. Not only did the pope never teach such a thing, this extreme claim flatly contradicts the teaching of Scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and the teaching of the popes, including John Paul II.

Indeed, the NNLT writers would like the Church to change its teaching on this point. But this is simply impossible. If the Church were to do this, then she would in effect be saying that Scripture, the Fathers, and the popes all taught grave moral error, and that the Church has been teaching grave moral error for 2,000 years. This would completely undermine the authority of the Church and indeed of any pope who would say such a thing.

The Old Testament often prescribes death for particular moral or criminal offenses. But didn’t Christ, in his Sermon on the Mount, strongly favoring mercy and restoration over retribution?

Bessette: Christ’s teachings favoring mercy and forgiveness are directed not to public authorities, who are responsible for promulgating and enforcing criminal laws to secure the public safety, but to individuals. For example, when Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil,” he was not advocating the abolition of the criminal justice system.

Early Christians emphatically did not believe that Christ opposed punishing murderers, rapists, robbers, and other criminals. Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Christ had specifically addressed the crime of murder: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’” Under the Mosaic Law, those who treacherously took a human life were to be executed, while those guilty of lesser homicides were to be exiled for a time to a city of refuge.

Not only does Christ not object to the traditional punishment for murder, but he also insists that even those who are angry with their brother shall be “liable to judgment” and those who call their brother a “fool” “shall be liable to the hell of fire.” And before all this Christ told the crowd that he had come not “to abolish the law and the prophets . . . but to fulfill them.” No one endorsing the traditional Mosaic Law and threatening “the hell of fire” can plausibly be taken to oppose harsh punishments for serious crimes.

In his letter to the Romans, written only two decades after Christ’s crucifixion, St. Paul drove the point home when he contrasted the prohibition against seeking private vengeance with the legitimate right of public authorities, acting on God’s behalf, to “execute [God’s] wrath on the wrongdoer.”

As Pope Pius XII once noted, when some receive the ultimate punishment at the end of the world it will not be to protect society or to deter others from sin but simply because they deserve it. This what Christ taught; this is what the Church has always taught.

The U.S. bishops have issued numerous statements on capital punishment in recent decades, condemning its use while admitting it is a matter of prudential judgment with which Catholics may disagree. You state that the bishops’ arguments are weak. Could you summarize these weaknesses?

Bessette: While occasionally the bishops acknowledge that the Catholic faithful may disagree with their prudential judgment about the death penalty, this is actually not so common. Indeed, in a major document on citizenship issued in 2007, the U.S. bishops maintained that the Church’s teaching that “human life is sacred . . . compels us as Catholics to oppose genocide, torture, unjust war, and the use of the death penalty.” It is highly unfortunate when the bishops misstate Catholic teaching on a matter as important as the death penalty, for the Church has never taught that the sacredness of human life compels Catholics to oppose capital punishment.

The bishops also make a variety of prudential arguments that we show to be unpersuasive. Here the bishops are relying on the arguments of others since few, if any, have direct expertise in the complex empirical issues they address—such as whether the death penalty deters potential murderers, results in the execution of the innocent, or discriminates against minorities or the poor.

There is very good reason to believe that the death penalty saves lives, that since the reform of death penalty laws in the 1970s it has not resulted in the execution of the innocent, and that it does not discriminate against minorities or the poor. We show not only that there are no good prudential grounds for opposing the death penalty but also that there are powerful prudential grounds for applying it with some regularity.

Some argue that capital punishment cuts short the criminal’s life, perhaps before he or she has come to the point of repentance; others argue that a sure sentence of death provides the criminal with the motivation and urgency to repent of his or her sins. Is there empirical evidence for either argument?

Bessette: As best we can tell, no one has ever compared the frequency of repentance by murderers serving life without parole with murderers facing execution. Yet we present substantial evidence that repentance by those on death row is common.

In 1998, the state of Texas executed Karla Faye Tucker for the brutal pickaxe murder of two people sleeping in their beds in 1983. During her first year of incarceration, Tucker came across a Bible, and after immersing herself in it for one night had, apparently, a thoroughly sincere conversion experience. Years later, near the time of her execution, she became something of a celebrity in Christian circles as many Christian leaders tried to get her sentence commuted.

Perhaps even better known is the case recounted in the 1995 movie Dead Man Walking, which was based on a book of the same name by Sr. Helen Prejean. The murderer in the movie is an amalgam of two Louisiana death row inmates for whom Sr. Prejean had become the spiritual adviser. As accurately recounted in the movie, at least one of the offenders genuinely repented of his crimes in the days before his execution.

When we examined the records of forty-three executions in 2012, we found that eighteen offenders expressed sorrow for their crimes; eleven mentioned God, several at length; six specifically invoked Jesus Christ; and at least three received Catholic sacraments before execution. Moreover, it seems likely that the evidence undercounts the number of death-row inmates who turn to God for salvation.

We cannot overstate just how dramatic some of these transformations are. Men and women guilty of the most despicable acts, exhibiting at times a depravity of soul that seems almost beyond comprehension, become profoundly remorseful for what they have done and put their souls in the hands of a merciful and loving God, particularly in the care of his Son, Jesus Christ. What can account for such a radical transformation if not the murderer’s consciousness that he has done great wrong—which, we argue, the death penalty itself reinforces—and the awful reality that death and judgment await at some time certain, however long after the crime itself?

This is precisely the kind of evidence we would expect if Aquinas and others are correct that the death penalty encourages, and may even be necessary for, rehabilitation. As double murderer Kevin Varga told his mother moments before his execution in 2010, “This is the only way God could save me, Mom.”

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