This Is Going To Hurt Me A Lot More Than It Is Going To Hurt You
October 10, 2007 § 17 Comments
Recent discussions about denying Communion to various politicians as punishment for their objectively wicked and very public acts have reinforced my impression that we have lost perspective on what it means to punish the guilty.
The primary purpose of punishment is always to correct the guilty party himself, and to redress the particular wrong he has done. Treating punishment as if it were primarily about political effects or preventing scandal or whatever is completely wrongheaded, in my understanding. Deterrent and other positive political effects of punishment are salutary to the extent they are side effects of punishment, but when punishment becomes about the side effects it isn’t punishment anymore. Licit punishment of a guilty party is always the best we can do for the punished person himself: even executing a murderer, when it is licit, represents the best we can do for the guilty party himself. Licit punishment always proceeds from charity, and never uses a person (not even a guilty person) as nothing but a means to some (however laudible) end.
So when we ask a question like “should John Kerry be denied Communion?” the proper formulation of the question is “would it be objectively good for John Kerry himself if he were denied Communion?” Doubtless there is plenty of controversy wrapped up in answering that question; but at least it is the right question.