Blessed Pope John Paul II on the death penalty: less development than meets the eye
September 7, 2012 § 12 Comments
In a thread over at the Orthosphere, a commenter posted an excerpt from the Catechism of the Council of Trent. The whole section of that document on the fifth commandment makes for wonderful reading, and those who either appreciate or deprecate my posts on killing the innocent would be well served to read it.
Of particular interest here is the part under the heading Execution Of Criminals:
Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.
The Catechism promulgated by Blessed John Paul II reads as follows:
2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
Much hay is made over the supposed novelty of restricting the licit use of the death penalty to cases where it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor”. If I had a nickel for every time some Catholic has claimed that this represents a major rupture from the traditional teaching I’d have, well, a lot of nickels. But from where I sit it doesn’t look like much of a development, given that the State’s legitimate power to inflict the death penalty arises – according to Trent, and when and only when it is also a just punishment – from a mandate to “[preserve] and [secure] human life.”
The third paragraph from the Catechism I include for completeness. It clearly represents an expression of a prudential judgement regarding a factual matter of practical capabilities, not an expression of doctrine. I’m dubious of the proposition that the modern State actually is capable of “rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm”, as long as we consider fellow inmates to be human beings who ought to be protected from harm. So I think the scope of the applicability of this non-development of doctrine is debatable.
But as I mentioned in the Orthosphere thread, it doesn’t strike me as all that unreasonable to suppose that in addition to the burden of proving guilt and punishing justly charity lays upon us – that is, upon the State – the additional requirement of resorting to the death penalty only when it is, in addition to being just punishment, necessary to do so for the protection of society. That especially makes sense in the light of what Trent tells us about the source of the State’s just power to inflict death as a punishment.