The error of conceiving capital
punishment as a moral evil is pervasive in the Catholic Church today. Arguments
against the death penalty, as voiced by Catholics, have a common denominator,
namely, the punishment is unchristian. The charge is most unusual because the
Church perennially has defended the right of the State to put a criminal to
death. In effect the current anti-capital punishment sentiment accuses the
Church of uncharitable behavior for two millennia because she has sanctioned the
State's right to "carry the sword," as St. Paul puts it (Romans 13:4).
I say "in effect" because in most cases the
Church's traditional support of the death penalty is simply ignored. The
abolitionists claim, for sundry reasons, that the punishment is uncharitable ―period.
In the following article, I will attempt to
bring to evidence, by appealing to Scripture, tradition and reason, and
stressing the insights of St. Thomas Aquinas and Immanuel Kant [Edís
note: while the Catholic Church has condemned Kantís liberal system of
philosophy, nevertheless, his quotes are important as they show remarkable
support for capital punishment from one of the most influential apologists of
liberalism], that capital
punishment is a just and therefore charitable punishment because:
it respects man as an image of God;
it is a punishment which is proportionate to certain heinous
it has a purgatorial effect on the soul;
it protects the common good; and
it treats the criminal as a person, as an image of God.
The defense of the death penalty
will be clustered around three arguments against capital punishment in vogue
among Catholics. I will state the objections to the death penalty in the form of
propositions. They should be recognizable to anyone even remotely acquainted
with the subject of capital punishment.
Argument: Modern man's rejection of
capital punishment as morally wrong is indicative of his growing awareness of
the dignity and value of human life. Those who support the death penalty, on the
other hand, treat human life irreverently. If we are to revere life we must
revere all life, including the life of the criminal.
Ironically, the death penalty is first
sanctioned in Genesis 9:6, precisely because the act of murder violates man's
integrity as made in the image of God. Genesis 9:6 reads: "Whoever
sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God
man was made." The sacred writer warrants the death penalty ―not its
abolishment ―on the basis that it is a sign of reverence for the life of the
murdered man. Recognition of the dignity, value and preciousness of man demands
that the murderer be put to death. Hand in hand with the recognition of the
dignity and value of man is the conviction that only the punishment of death is
commensurate with the crime.
Conversely, the sacred writer implies that
the failure to ratify capital punishment when a man is murdered bespeaks a lack
of reverence for man as an image of God. The preciousness of the person, his
dignity, his ontological value qua person ―which the murderer blatantly
disregards ―is not esteemed unless the villain is put to death. That man is made
in the image of God is a gift of priceless value. Genesis 9:6 warns us,
albeit indirectly, that the worth of the gift is grossly underestimated when the
murderer is allowed to live.
Apropos of society's willingness to
discard the death penalty, it is incontrovertible that such a desire cannot be
adduced as indicative of an increased appreciation of the value of human life.
On the contrary, the demand for the abolition of capital punishment is a sign of
blindness, not appreciation; for the diabolical consequences of our irreverent
attitude toward human life are myriad. Since the Roe vs. Wade decision, some
twenty million babies have been murdered. Pornography in all its satanic forms
permeates society. Suicide is a national plague. The many abuses in the realm of
sex are omnipresent. Euthanasia is not without its proponents and practitioners.
In light of this moral wasteland, the assertion that abolitionists witness to
modern man's recognition of the value of life is preposterous.
What Constitutes Man as an Image of
Since Genesis 9:6 sanctions the death
penalty on the grounds that man reflects God in a particular way, it is
important to understand the nature of this reflection.
According to the traditional teaching of
theologians, God is reflected in His creatures in the following ways: as a trace
(vestigium), which is characteristic of all material entities; as an
image (imago), which is characteristic of spiritual beings in their
natural state; and as a likeness (similitudo), which is characteristic of
spiritual beings in a supernatural state. For example, man's body is a trace;
his soul, lacking grace is a divine image; and his soul perfected by grace, is a
Man is an image of God because of the
rational soulís powers of intellect, will, and love. He is able to grasp truth.
choose the good, and love all that is true, good, and beautiful. These three
powers ―intellectual, volitional, and affective constitute man as an image of
God. Divine likeness is achieved only in the state of grace, when "a partaker
of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4).
Indeed, the soul is manís crowning glory. So
precious is our soul that it is worth the blood of the Son of God. We have been
redeemed "...not with perishable things, with silver or gold, but with the
precious blood of Christ, as a lamb without blemish and without spot"
(I Peter 1: 18-19).
Heretics and the Soul
Man is composed of body and soul. His
material body is a trace of God; his soul, a spiritual substance is an image of
God. If the murderer is rightly condemned for destroying the life of the body,
all the more should the "murderer" of the soul be put to death. St. Thomas
Aquinas argues in a similar vein when he answer the question: "Are heretics
to be tolerated?" The Angelic Doctor writes:
On their side [the heretics'] is the sin
whereby they have deserved, not only to be separated from the Church by
excommunication but also to be banished from the world by death. For it is a
much heavier offense to corrupt the faith, whereby the life of the soul is
sustained, than to tamper with the coinage, which is an aid to temporal
life. Hence if coiners, or other malefactors, are at once handed over by
secular princes to die a just death, much more may heretics, immediately
after they are convicted of heresy, be not only excommunicated, but also
justly done to die. (Summa Theologica [here after ST], IIa
IIae, q. 11, art. 3)
The person is not taken seriously as a
spiritual creature, as a divine image, if heretics, who "corrupt the faith,
whereby the life of the soul is sustained," are not punished ―dare I say it? ―with excommunication. What greater crime is there than the spiritual harm
caused by heretics? Yet these contumacious individuals are not even admonished.
In fact, they are the putative heroes of the day. Instead of being extirpated
they are held in high esteem for their perfidiousness.
The Church hierarchy stresses the
dignity of the person in many of its official pronouncements. Fine. They point
out that the main duty of public authorities is to protect the community and the
common good. Great. But Church officials do not provide a good example when they
permit nefarious Church members to cause unbridled scandal in their own domain.
To avoid the charge of hypocrisy, the guardians of the Catholic Faith should be
solicitous for the spiritual well-being of Catholics before expecting secular
authorities to administer to the common good.
Argument: Capital punishment is morally wrong because barbarous
acts ―murder, treason, etc. ―are punished with a barbarous act. The punishment is
just as evil as the crime.
This objection would be cogent if the penalty of death were
totally disproportionate to the crime. For example, condemning a person for
stealing a candy bar. In this case the punishment of death is barbarous. But
when the punishment is proportionate to the crime, then the former is quite
just. With regard to murder, Immanuel Kant, in The Metaphysics of Morals,
exposes the soft underbelly of the abolitionists' objection:
If however, he has committed
a murder, he must die. In this case, there is no substitute that will
satisfy the requirements of legal justice. There is no sameness of kind
between death and remaining alive even under the most miserable conditions,
and consequently there is also no equality between the crime and the
retribution unless the criminal is judicially condemned and put to death...
It may also be pointed out that no one
has ever heard of anyone condemned to death on account of murder who
complained that he was getting too much punishment and therefore was being
treated unjustly; everyone would laugh in his face if he were to make such a
(translated as The Metaphysical Elements of Justice, New York: The
Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc., 1965, pp. 104, 106)
Moreover, the objection that
capital punishment is an unjust act would be convincing if it referred to the
act of the vigilante. Acts of vengeance by the private individual, for example,
lynching, are indeed evil. But the objection is discredited once it is
understood that the State has the right to use the death penalty.
Capital Punishment and the State
The Church has acknowledged
continuously the State's authority to put a person to death. For example, St.
Paul, after he points out that rulers act as God's representatives in punishing
the criminal, speaks of the Roman policy of capital punishment with approval:
Let everyone be subject to the higher
authorities, for there exists no authority except from God, and those who
exist have been appointed by God. Therefore he who resists the authority
resists the ordinance of God and they that resist bring on themselves
condemnation. For rulers are a terror not to the good work but to the evil.
Dost thou wish, then, not to fear the authority? Do what is good and thou
wilt have praise from it. For it is God's minister to thee for good. But if
thou dost what is evil, fear, for not without reason does it carry the
sword. For it is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who does
evil. (Romans 13:1-4)
When the proper authority punishes ―an instance of forceful
correction, according to Saint Thomas ―it is an act of justice. Needless to say,
the act is good, too, since it is an act and perfection of virtue.
Examined from the point of view
of the one punished, punishment is a physical evil; pondered from the side of
the authority empowered to punish, however, punishment is a good.
Punishment: Suffering as Expiatory of Evil
Socrates revolutionized ethical theory with the discovery that
it is better to suffer injustice than to commit it. Evil, for Socrates, does not
consist in inflicting pain on others (physical evil). He is concerned with moral
evil. Callicles and Polis find this teaching absurd. They think injustice is bad
because the individual exposes himself to punishment. Hence, according to them,
to do evil and get away with it is a great good. For Socrates, on the other
hand, this is the worst evil for man (Gorgias, 479d). Why? Because the person
will carry the burden of the evil in his soul as long as he does not undergo the
cleansing power of a just punishment (Gorgias, 477; 480). By submitting to
justice, the person is released of the burden of injustice and he is much
happier for doing so. This is the paradox of punishment (Gorgias, 473).
In order for this purification to take
place, however, certain conditions must be met.
The criminal must freely submit to the punishment;
the authorities must be willing to punish the offender.
St. Thomas Aquinas emphasizes the purgatorial power of
punishment too. The Common Doctor avers that punishment orders guilt:
retribution has as its object the maintenance or restoration of justice and
order in the soul. For this reason he holds that punishment is an act of virtue
(ST, IIa, q. 12, art. 2).
One popular argument against
capital punishment also recommends that punishment be abolished altogether in
favor of forgiveness. I will now consider this objection.
Argument: Did not Christ replace the law of lex taliones
with the law of love? Would not it be more charitable to forgive the criminal
than to punish him?
Christ did replace the law of
retribution with His commandment of love. He urges Christians to relinquish
their individual rights for the sake of charity:
You have heard that it was said
eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you not to resist the
evildoer; on the contrary, if someone strike thee on the right cheek, turn
to him the other also... (Matt. 5:38-39)
However, these words of Christ, which are often cited by the
abolitionists as supportive of their position regarding capital punishment,
refer to the offended individual, not to the State. As Dietrich von Hildebrand
has shown, only the injured person (or someone closely related to the person)
can forgive the objective evil done to him or her. In other words, the formal
object of human forgiveness is the objective evil for the person; the wrong
inflicted on the individual. The pardon refers to the evil intention of the
villain inasmuch as it has the negative importance of an objective evil for the
person. Note, however, that this does not mean the moral disvalue of the
criminal's act is pardoned by the injured person; for only God (or His
representatives on earth whom He has empowered to "bind and loose") can
forgive this aspect of the morally evil act.
Hence for Christians to suggest
that the State should pardon the evildoer is to ask for something which is
metaphysically impossible for the State to perform. The situation is akin to
affirming that contradictory judgments can both be true: the words can be said
but the judgment can never correspond to reality. Similarly, the State can make
a declaration of forgiveness, but the act can never be exercised in reality.
The State Protects the Common Good
The purpose of the State is to protect the community and the
common good. Pope John XXIII defines "common good" in Pacem in Terris as
follows: "The common good of all embraces the sum total of those conditions
of social living whereby men are enabled to achieve their own integral
perfection more fully and easily" (58).
And so the State has as its goal the perfection of persons,
which in turn makes possible the perfect State. According to St. Thomas, the end
of the State ―the perfect State ―is realized when men are living virtuous lives.
Moreover, the virtuous life is lived by adhering to the dictates of the natural
moral law; such adherence is a divine good insofar as it is a participation in
the eternal law (ST, Ia IIae, q. 94, art. 2).
Hence inasmuch as the State
guards the common good by sentencing a man to death, it is acting justly. As
St. Thomas puts it:
The slaying of an evil-doer is lawful
inasmuch as it is directed to the welfare of the whole community, and
therefore appertains to him alone who has charge of the community. Now the
care of the common good is entrusted to rulers having public authority; and
therefore to them is it lawful to slay evil-doers, not to private
(ST, IIa IIae, q. 64, art. 3)
The Law of Lex Taliones
Far from being unjust or uncharitable, the law of retribution
assures the actualization of justice because the criminal is punished in accord
with his or her crime. "All other standards," Kant writes, "fluctuate
back and forth, and because extraneous considerations are mixed with the, they
cannot be compatible with the principle of pure and strict legal justice" (op.
cit., p. 101).
Granted, there are criminal acts which cannot be punished "eye
for an eye" Two such acts are bestiality and rape. When the law of
retribution cannot be strictly applied, the villain should suffer "that which
according to the spirit of the penal law ―even if not to the letter thereof
the same as what he has inflicted on others," Kant rightly asserts (op.
cit., p. 133).
In the Old Testament the law of retribution is sanctioned in Exodus 21:23-25, and in Lev. 24:17-21. In addition, the law proclaimed on Mount
Sinai ratified the death penalty for the following crimes:
murder (Ex. 21: 112,14);
assaulting one's mother or father (Ex. 21: 15);
kidnapping (Ex. 21: 16);
cursing one's mother or father (Ex. 21: 17);
housebreaking at night (Ex. 22: 1);
and bestiality (Ex. 22: 18).
Punishment is a Matter of Justice
Punishment is a matter of justice: injustice ought to be
punished. Retribution is due the criminal. To the degree that punishment gives
the criminal what is due him, it is just; and insofar as it is just, it is also
charitable. Thus, the primary question with regard to punishment should be:
"Is the punishment just?" All other deliberations ―utilitarian, pedagogical,
or deterrent ―are as Kant points out, "extraneous considerations." There
is a due relation between crime and punishment; the individual should be
punished if and only if he has committed a crime. Kant explains:
Judicial punishment can never be used
merely as a means to promote some other good for the criminal himself or for
civil society, but instead it must in all cases be imposed on him only on
the ground that he has committed a crime ...He must first be found to be
deserving of punishment before any consideration is given to the utility of
this punishment for himself or for his fellow citizens. The law concerning
punishment is a categorical imperative, and woe to him who rummages around
the winding paths of a theory of happiness looking for some advantage to be
gained by releasing the criminal from punishment or by reducing the amount
of it. (op. cit., 100).
So seriously does Kant take the concept of due relation between
crime and punishment ―and this is as it should be ―that he correctly asserts:
Even if a civil society were to
dissolve itself by common agreement of all its members, (for example, if the
people inhabiting an island decided to separate and disperse themselves
around the world), the last murderer remaining in prison must first be
executed, so that everyone will duly receive what his actions are worth. (op. cit., p. 102).
No Punishment, No Person
If the concept of due relation between crime and punishment is
not considered, the question of justice is left out altogether. Once the
question of justice is discarded, then the criminal is treated as something less
than a person, an image of God. Instead of being treated as a person who is
morally responsible for his actions, he becomes the object of experiments
("Let us see how he reacts in this environment") deals ("If you supply us
with information, your sentence will be reduced"), and ridicule (when used
as a scapegoat). As C.S. Lewis observes in his essay, The Humanitarian
Theory of Punishment:
Thus when we cease to
consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or
deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice
altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere
object, a patient, a 'case'.
Moreover, if curing the criminal
or deterring others are the only considerations, then the doctrine of
determinism is tacitly, if not explicitly, introduced. You see, criminals cannot
be punished because man is not free; he is the product of circumstances; the
plaything of experiences. What he wills he cannot help but will; for his
character has been determined by irrational factors such as upbringing, social
and economic conditions, psychological and biological considerations, and the
like. Man does not determine his character; his character is the result of
experiences and circumstances beyond his control.
The determinist cannot use words
like "deplorable," "wicked," "shameful," and "disgraceful" to describe heinous
acts because these words make sense only if the criminal is free to choose
between good and evil, and therefore is responsible for his actions.
If the determinist recommends
punishment it is to cure the offender, or to use him to deter others Ėsometimes
both Ėbut never as a means of retribution for criminal acts. Therefore the
criminal is treated as something less than a person. And to consider the
criminal in this manner is to remove him from the realm of justice altogether.
Justice presupposes a person; an animal or an inanimate object can neither
possess the perfection of justice nor be the object of it.
Capital Punishment and the Bishops
The objections to capital punishment analyzed in this article
were given an impetus by the "Statement on Capital Punishment" issued by the
bishops in 1980. J. Brien Benestad, in his book The Pursuit of a Just Social
Order (Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C., 1982), summarizes
the arguments used by the bishops to annul the death penalty. He writes:
The bishops asserted that abolition of
the death penalty would promote four Christian values. It would:
show that we can break the
cycle of violence characteristic of modern society;
manifest belief in
the dignity of all human beings, who have great worth because they are
created in the image of God;
testify to the Judeo-Christian and Islamic
belief that God is the Lord of life and strengthen the defense of all life,
including that of the unborn, the aged, and the infirm; and
be most consonant with the teaching
and example of Jesus Who practiced forgiveness (pp. 75-76).
Although the bishops concede that support of the death penalty
is not incompatible with the teachings of Catholicism, they maintain ―and want
Catholics to maintain ―that it is more appropriate as Catholics, more in keeping
with the commands of Christ, to advocate abolition of the death penalty. Are not
the bishops guilty of double-think? They fail to realize that if their arguments
against capital punishment are valid, then support of the death penalty is
unjust, uncharitable, and unchristian. One thing is certain: When the bishops
speak individually on the subject of capital punishment, they clearly assert
that to uphold the death penalty is incompatible with the principles of the
The bishopsí failure to uphold
the death penalty is yet another example of their propensity to reject the
traditional teaching of the Church. Unfortunately, many Catholics follow their
lead. Thus the ever-increasing phenomenon of considering both the Church itself
and Catholics who defend her teaching, as unchristian.