Blessed Pope John Paul II on the death penalty: less development than meets the eye

September 7, 2012 § 10 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.

(Emphasis mine).

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.

§ 10 Responses to Blessed Pope John Paul II on the death penalty: less development than meets the eye

  • Aegis says:

    Zippy Catholic,

    Perhaps you can help me think through a hypothetical case that has been bothering me.

    Suppose that one had an exceedingly old man, someone in his late nineties, who commits one or more murders. His prison term would be brief by virtue of how little time he has left. Yet, a short prison term for murder and multiple murders appears inadequate as redress to the evil done. What ought to be done in such cases?

  • I wouldn’t worry about ultimate justice being served (Romans 12:19).

    Furthermore, it is never clear what the future holds for a particular man. Perhaps he will face terrible penance from one of the maladies which afflicts the aged. Perhaps he will live far longer than we anticipate. Perhaps he will become another Alessandro Serenelli, whom a very holy priest recently suggested may become a canonized saint.

    Whatever the future holds, though, if it extends beyond the State’s mandate to dispense temporal justice in order to protect the innocent, it seems to me that it falls into the domain of Romans 12:19. Otherwise we make the mistake of treating the State as God.

  • Kevin says:

    I agree that Bl. John Paul II’s teachings on the death penalty are not a radical rupture with the Church’s traditional teaching.

    On the other hand, if I had a nickel for every progressive Catholic who has told me that the death penalty is just as evil as abortion and if you don’t support banning it completely then you’re a Cafeteria Catholic, I could buy myself a fancy steak dinner.

  • I’ll see your steak dinner and raise you a new car.

  • William Luse says:

    Unlike the fellow at Orthosphere, I don’t see any “Catholic confusion” except in the minds of those who wish to be confused for their own purposes. But since the Pope says in EV that “The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is ‘to redress the disorder caused by the offence’,” then goes on to say that we “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,” I do see him emphasizing one at the expense of the other. I’m sure that many killers can be locked away in such manner that they will never bother anyone again, and yet still ought to be executed. Like this guy, for example. He’s been on death row for 28 years. He’s shown not the slightest remorse, files appeals with greater regularity than he killed women, and is in the process of outliving not only his victims but all their relatives and the police officers who arrested him. Make him dead. That would be a good first step toward redressing the disorder.

    If it is in fact the case that, ” in addition to the burden of proving guilt and punishing justly charity lays upon us,” we may use the death penalty “only when it is, in addition to being just punishment, necessary to do so for the protection of society,” no one will ever be executed. And that sounds like an injustice.

  • Mike T says:

    As far as charity on these matters go, I have never understood those who think life imprisonment is more just than execution. To me, few things are crueler to a sentient being than being locked up like a rabid dog in a kennel for the rest of their life (note the irony that we don’t hesitate to put down rabid dogs as both an act of mercy and safety; not that I am suggesting a 100% transferability of ethics regarding euthanizing dogs and executing humans, but I digress).

    At some point, life imprisonment is cruel. From a spiritual perspective, it also has the unsavory side effect of likely decreasing the immediacy of getting one’s house in order after such a grave evil. A timely execution brings with it a useful sense of urgency for many.

  • buckyinky says:

    At some point, life imprisonment is cruel. From a spiritual perspective, it also has the unsavory side effect of likely decreasing the immediacy of getting one’s house in order after such a grave evil. A timely execution brings with it a useful sense of urgency for many.

    How many of our problems are caused by a failure to acknowledge that what we see physically with our eyes is not all there is to reality, nor even what is most important? And yet almost all of our public discourse and decision-making is based on this shallow mode of operation.

  • Peter says:

    Zippy, I see your emphasis in the Tridentine quote, but it’s the next sentence that seemed more interesting to me: “Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority . . . give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. ”

    BJPII’s emphasis on keeping a criminal safely apart from society does indeed repress the individual criminal’s future “outrage and violence” (except possibly against fellow inmates, of course).

    But when I read that sentence in the Tridentine, particularly its choice of the word “repressed,” I thought more in terms of deterring other potential criminals than of sequestering an individual criminal.

    And I think it’s an open question whether punishment by fine or imprisonment, as we currently practice, is actually more of a deterrent than corporal punishment, including the death penalty.

  • The patron saint of this thread is St. Maria Goretti.

    Mike T:
    I have never understood those who think life imprisonment is more just than execution.

    I’ve had similar thoughts. It seems of a piece with the very modern notion that death is the very worst we can do to someone: the kind of gross one dimensional simplification-plus-transitivity I see people applying everywhere.

    Bill:
    Like this guy, for example.

    I’m not worried about him getting what he deserves. Nor do I think that anything we could do to him, including killing him, would be adequate to the task. God isn’t the Big Nice Guy in the Sky that many assume him to be. Protestants don’t have the richness of doctrine we do when it comes to things like Purgatory, so I can understand if a Protestant worries over temporal justice. But even if that man manages to escape eternal damnation – and I pray that through the intercession of St Maria Goretti he does – I personally remain quite sanguine about temporal justice being ultimately served. Part of faith in God – a very hard part of it, at times, and at other times absolutely terrifying – is faith in His justice.

    I’m not so sanguine about placing the modern State in persona Christi.

    Peter:
    I agree that deterrence is one of the prudential considerations which obtain. That is one of the reasons why I think that if we are going to have executions of notorious and heinous murderers, they should be televised. Bl JPII appears to have been as unmoved by the prudential consideration of deterrence as he was moved by the (in my view) fantasy that dangerous lawless men can be protected from each other in a practical and humane way. But these are prudential, not doctrinal matters.

    On the other hand, Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism do clarify, for the modern Protestant-influenced mind, the doctrinal foundation of the State’s just power. The legitimacy of the State’s power to inflict death does not rest, in the traditional teaching, on the notion of an illusory capacity to bring about temporal justice. It rests on the State’s mandate to protect the innocent. Ironically, then, deterrence may be a legitimate justification for inflicting the death penalty where the fact that it is (in a particular case) just punishment alone would not do. The State’s legitimate authority in punishment is limited to the State’s mandate to protect the innocent, and does not extend to attempts to accomplish transcendent justice.

  • Christian says:

    “as long as we consider fellow inmates to be human beings who ought to be protected from harm”

    Especially considering that many of them are likely to be innocent.

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