In the past few days, several Catholic media outlets have decided to get together and support a ban on capital punishment. It follows a discourse by the Vatican’s representative at the UN urging states to end the death penalty. However, several conservative Catholics got worried when the media started reporting that the Vatican was proposing that we “ban” capital punishment worldwide – yet many doctors of the Church approved of capital punishment in the Church as stated traditionally that states have the right to use it.
The Church’s teaching on capital punishment is nuanced, so I want to clarify it. I hope this blog post will be a clear synthesis of why the Church seems to affirm two opposing positions: that the state has the right to execute people, and that the state should not execute people. I will first explain why the Church asserts it is a state’s right and what are some problems with it. I will then explain why few, if any, states should exercise this right today.
In Romans 13:4, St. Paul talks about the “Power of the sword” – which was the Roman expression for the power to execute criminals – and affirms that it is legitimate. Jesus’ response to Pilate, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above,” (John 19:11) also seems to affirm the legitimacy of a states right to punish crimes with capital punishment.
The New Testament scriptural support is not excessively strong, but several logical arguments show the legitimacy of capital punishment. First of all, capital punishment protects society from dangerous criminals. This argument was stronger in former times (or in less developed countries today) where jails may not be secure, or corruption means that the jailers can be bought off. Aquinas states: (ST IIa-IIae, q. 64, a. 3) “It is permissible to kill a criminal if this is necessary for the welfare of the whole community. However, this right belongs only to the one entrusted with the care of the whole community — just as a doctor may cut off an infected limb, since he has been entrusted with the care of the health of the whole body.”
Capital punishment is also permissible because it fits certain crimes. If you murdered five people, no punishment could be proportionate, but the death penalty is closest. It is retribution. Several thinkers, including St. Thomas Aquinas, extend this reason to speak of the death of a sinner as expiation or atonement. It cleanses the soul by making up for the sin, similarly to how our penance after confession expiates the sins we confessed. Aquinas says (ST IIa-IIae, q. 64, a. 2): “The death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime.”
Capital punishment also deters people from committing crimes they know might be punished in such a way. Cardinal Dulles argued for the legitimacy of this reason in 2001 so it isn’t just medieval. I think this was probably true in past times where executions were public and grotesque. However, it’s unclear whether capital punishment deters crime in the modern United States.
Some even argue that execution (and knowing the date of your death) helps with repentance. It might for some people, but I suspect that for the vast majority, having a long time to think about your sins sitting in prison is more likely to bring about conversion than being executed.
Finally, capital punishment definitively ends the sin of the sinner. Aquinas says (ST IIa-IIae, q. 64, a. 2): “If he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin anymore.” I find this argument very weak today since putting someone in jail also ends most of their sins, and gives them a greater time to repent and be converted.
Despite the fact that we believe the state has the right to execute people, capital punishment has some problems. First of all, an individual needs to execute the criminal. Even though he’s acting as a legitimate agent of the state and what he’s doing is moral, it is still dehumanizing to kill people. Being a soldier can also be dehumanizing this way but less so, because the people you’re killing pose an imminent danger. An executioner kills people who pose a danger in the long-term, but not at this very moment. The clearest sign of this is shown in how executions were done in the Old Testament: Executions by stoning since nobody will know who threw the stone that killed the person. During St. Thomas Moore’s time, the executioner would wear a black hood and only his eyes would be visible. They would later do it by firing squad so that none of the soldiers would know for sure that they killed the man. Even today with lethal injections, they have a system set up where a number of people press the button and none of them know which one of them is actually pressing the button that kills the man.
Secondly, it devalues human life in general. We need to aim for a consistent life ethic where we seek as much as possible to avoid violating the life of another. Of course the criminal has let go of some of his dignity by committing crimes, so the state can execute him. But when we respect his dignity beyond what is required, we give a firmer witness to the value of human life. St John Paul II said in Evangelium Vitae (#56): “Public authority must limit itself to such means [other than the death penalty], because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” When we are arguing against abortion and euthanasia, it strengthens our argument to argue against capital punishment at the same time.
The recent debate in the USA as to whether capital punishment is “cruel and unusual punishment” is also about the respect for the human person. The head of the Vatican’s delegation to the UN stated this: “My Delegation contends that bloodless means of defending the common good and upholding justice are possible, and calls on States to adapt their penal system to demonstrate their adhesion to a more humane form of punishment.” As far as I understand, “a more humane form of punishment” means one that better respects human dignity.
The death penalty is particularly horrendous when someone is erroneously found guilty. Between 1973 and 2005, 123 people on death row in the USA were released because they were found innocent. These people were saved, but the point is that people can be convicted and later found innocent: if they are in jail they can be released, but if they’re executed nothing can be done (I wrote this a few days ago and yesterday the front page of the Washington Post had a story of someone likely wrongly executed for the death of his daughters in a fire). Related to this is the fact that a poor man is less likely to afford a good lawyer and thus more likely to report on death row than a rich man.
The biggest problem with capital punishment is that today in developed countries, there are maximum security prisons that prevent criminals from ever harming society again. In fact, no one has ever escaped from the USA’s current super max prison in over 20 years of operation (even while holding people like drug cartel leaders and notorious prison escapees). If we don’t need to execute people to protect society from them, and executing them has the above problems, why do it?
Ultimately, capital punishment is dehumanizing to the criminal, the executioner, and society as a whole. That is why the Vatican and the Catholic press all want to reduce it and hopefully eliminate it in the near future. Right now in developed countries, I can only see very restricted times in which it might be needed: for people who commit murders while already incarcerated (since incarceration has not protected all members of society from them), or mutiny in a war zone (because then he becomes an enemy combatant). Penal law should respect the dignity of the human person. We show that everyone has this dignity when we grant respect to those humans who least deserve it.
Now, evidently capital punishment can’t be eliminated everywhere. In certain countries, it would be impossible to hold certain criminals (especially those involved in organized crime) due to the corruption in the country. Some countries are also so under-developed that their prisons cannot reliably protect society from dangerous criminals. Archbishop Tomasi, the Vatican delegate to the UN, points out: “As for those countries that claim it is not yet feasible to relinquish this practice [of capital punishment], my Delegation encourages them to strive to become capable of doing so.” This shows great prudence and points out that we should all move towards a full respect for the dignity of the person, even if we can’t achieve it fully today.
I will conclude with a recent quote from Pope Francis: “All Christians and men of good will are thus called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also in order to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom.”