Three notes on the death penalty

Over the past year, I have made slow progress toward deepening my grasp of moral philosophy.  As a philosopher, I am still not ready to join all the discussions that swirl around the Internet.

But when people began to wrangle about Pope Francis’s comments on the death penalty, I noticed a few points that I could contribute as a theologian.  Here are some key lines from the Holy Father’s remarks:

It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.  It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which—ultimately—only God is the true judge and guarantor.

This is a strong argument, to be sure.  I hope to do some justice to the strength of the argument below.  But as a Catholic biblical scholar, I see three points that might deserve consideration:

  1. It is possible for a human person to deserve to die.

The story of the fall in Genesis 3 explains death as a punishment for man’s first sin.  This is the backdrop against which we can understand Christ’s offering a sacrifice to save us from death, and in fact the Council of Trent went so far as to make this understanding of Genesis 3 a matter of faith:

If any one does not confess that the first man, Adam, when he had transgressed the commandment of God in Paradise, immediately lost the holiness and justice wherein he had been constituted; and that he incurred, through the offence of that prevarication, the wrath and indignation of God, and consequently death, with which God had previously threatened him, and, together with death, captivity under his power who thenceforth had the empire of death, that is to say, the devil, and that the entire Adam, through that offence of prevarication, was changed, in body and soul, for the worse; let him be anathema.

In other words, our faith requires us to hold that a human being can merit death by sinning.  One could of course cite this or that New Testament verse (Romans 1:32 comes to mind), but the point I want to make goes beyond any particular biblical text:  the whole Christian faith assumes that human beings can deserve to die.

It is not clear how to square this with the Holy Father’s statement that “It is necessary . . . to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.” Perhaps his statement should be taken in relation to my next point?

  1. It does not always follow that it is a good idea for the guilty person to die at the hands of another human being.

In Genesis 4-9, we find a lengthy, narrative account of how the death penalty originated in God’s providence.  I have written extensively about this before, but the part relevant for today’s topic is easily summarized:

When Cain killed Abel, Cain assumed that he would be killed by other people, but God protected him; no one was allowed to take a human life, not even Cain’s.  But after murderers following Cain’s example filled the earth with blood and brought down a world-wide flood on the human race, God, through the covenant with Noah, granted permission to execute murderers.

In other words, the story of Scripture does lend some support to the claim that even a murderer’s life is “sacred” in the sense of belonging only to God, and God has bent as far as to allow the murderer’s execution by human authorities as a patch on a problem, a way of protecting the human family from the endless multiplication of bloodshed.

In this connection, it is helpful to recall what Pope John Paul II said about the death penalty in Evangelium Vitae 56:

[Legitimate self-defense] is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”. Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.

Notice that John Paul II could claim support for his position in Scripture’s own “origin story” of the death penalty.  To the degree that Pope Francis also sees the death penalty in tension with the fact that human life is “sacred,” reserved for God to give and take, he could claim the same support.  But notice also that, while John Paul II cast the death penalty as legitimate self-defense, Pope Francis says that the death penalty has always been illegitimate:

In past centuries, when means of defence were scarce and society had yet to develop and mature as it has, recourse to the death penalty appeared to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice.  Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice. Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.

The Holy Father thus puts himself in opposition to what John Paul II said, and to this degree he would find his claims harder to support from Scripture.

  1. It does not seem that the death penalty can be per se contrary to human dignity.

Reasoning from the preceding points, I would like to raise a final question.  Here, I’ll admit, I begin to wish I had completed my moral philosophy reading project, but maybe my question will make sense to others:

To do what is just cannot be wrong; mercy might be even better, but justice is, by definition, morally good.  So if a human being can deserve death because of his sin, so that it is just for him to be killed, then it does not seem that it can be morally wrong per se for death to be inflicted on him for his sin.  At the same time, it is always and everywhere morally wrong to act against the dignity of the human person.

So if it is not morally wrong for death to be inflicted on a guilty party, and yet every action against the dignity of the human person is morally wrong, it seems to follow that death being inflicted on this person is not, per se, a violation of his human dignity.

Is that a reasonable conclusion?  How does it relate to the Holy Father’s statement that the death penalty is always and everywhere an abasement of human dignity?  More to come as I get further into the project.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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John Cabaniss
John Cabaniss
6 years ago

I don’t think your evaluation of Gn 9:6, that it means only that capital punishment may be allowed, really captures the meaning of the passage, nor by extension do I agree with your position that executions are a patch to a problem, grudgingly permitted, and only then as it provides protection against further bloodshed. This analysis fails to address the question of (retributive) justice, which as Feser and Bessette wrote, is the fundamental end of all punishment. This strikes me as a serious flaw with CCC 2267: it speaks of protection as if it was the primary objective of punishment,… Read more »