Justice and Punishment

A few thoughts occurred to me last night about the death penalty debate. Leaving open the ultimate prudential question of whether the death penalty can be morally used in our time, I want to examine the arguments used in the CDF’s letter explaining the recent change to the Catechism. (Please see my last post for context.)

The central thread in this debate is justice.  Now, justice only exists between rational creatures, i.e., creatures made in the image of God.  We don’t seek to restore the scales of justice against a tree that fell on someone. We try to prevent animals from stealing, but we do not incarcerate them for it.  Justice has to do with the relationships between persons as such.

Consequently, when we hold a man responsible for his deeds, when we seek justice from him, we acknowledge him as being made in the image of God.  Only a man can deserve punishment.  If we chastise him exclusively to make him behave better in the future, this is not punishment but training: it is what we do to animals.  If we inflict some evil on a man solely for the purposes of rehabilitation or reintegration into society, then we are treating him as an animal.

If a man can deserve to die, this does not indicate that he has lost his human dignity but that he still has it.

Mind you, I’m talking about seeking justice, not revenge. Revenge is when you just want this person to suffer evil. Revenge is what we’re after when we kick the inanimate object that just hurt us.  Revenge is what we want when we kick a dog. Revenge does treat someone as less than in the image of God.

We know all this intuitively. We know that what we want from the 88-year-old McCarrick is not above all his rehabilitation and social reintegration, nor do we just want him to hurt. We want justice. We want a proper authority somehow to take back from him what he stole from society, from the Church, and from the people he hurt, and we want him to know that is what is going on.

A lot of people are saying that Pope Francis is just continuing the line begun by Pope John Paul II, exposing the fault lines in JPII’s synthesis.  I disagree. I think the move from one to the other crosses a big conceptual divide regarding justice: precisely because Pope Francis sees punishment not in terms of justice but in terms of rehabilitation, i.e., re-training or behavioral modification, he thinks the death penalty is inherently opposed to human dignity, treating men as animals.  But because JPII thought of punishment also in relation to justice, he did not consider the death penalty as always and everywhere inherently evil.

The same divide on justice will play out in how one talks about heaven and hell.

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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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5 years ago

This is more or less why I think the Scalfari interview was a substantially accurate account of what Pope Francis said about hell. It lines up very well with what he clearly thinks in many other cases. If Scalfari just made it up that would be pure coincidence. That seems unlikely.

Obviously, if this is true the Pope must have known it was incredibly scandalous from a Catholic point of view, and this would be why he said it in such an interview, and never in public. To “get the idea out” while maintaining plausible deniability.