The Traditional Case for Capital Punishment

A group of Catholic publishers recently issued a joint statement urging an end to capital punishment. I have great respect for all of them – I have written for all of them at one point or another. I disagree with them on this issue, however. And it may be good to give some background about why I and many others disagree.

Most importantly, the Catholic Church’s Magisterium does not and never has advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty. The U.S. bishops have conceded that Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime. Even the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin – hardly a conservative – never stated that every criminal has a right to continue living, nor did he deny that the state has the right in some cases to execute the guilty. St. John Paul II, although opposed to most applications of the death penalty, thought the same.

Let’s hear what St. Augustine had to say on this topic: “ . . . there are some exceptions made by the divine authority to its own law, that men may not be put to death. These exceptions are of two kinds, being justified either by a general law, or by a special commission granted for a time to some individual. And in this latter case, he to whom authority is delegated, and who is but the sword in the hand of him who uses it, is not himself responsible for the death he deals. And, accordingly, they who have waged war in obedience to the divine command, or in conformity with His laws, have represented in their persons the public justice or the wisdom of government, and in this capacity have put to death wicked men; such persons have by no means violated the commandment, You shall not kill.” (City of God, Bk I, 21)

Augustine also said that capital punishment protects those who are undergoing it from further sinning, which might continue if their life went on.

If this is not enough, consider the thoughts of the Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, on this topic. Citing Exodus 22, which specifies that certain categories of wrongdoers shall not be permitted to live, Aquinas unequivocally states that civil rulers can execute justly to protect the peace of the state. St. Thomas finds frivolous the argument that murderers should be allowed to live in hopes of their repentance, questioning how many innocent people should have to suffer death while waiting for the guilty to repent. While capital punishment is not justifiable as an act of vengeance, according to Aquinas it is justifiable to help secure the safety of the community by removing a dangerous wrongdoer and deterring others from his example; in addition, it is an act of justice, allowing expiation for the wrongdoer’s sin.

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St. Paul in his hearing before Festus says, “If then I am a wrongdoer, and have committed anything for which I deserve to die, I do not seek to escape death.” (Acts 25:11) Very clearly this constitutes an acknowledgment on the part of the apostle to the gentiles that the state continues to have the power of life and death in the administration of justice. And of course when we first encounter Paul (Saul at that point), he is cooperating in the stoning to death of St. Stephen for the crime of blasphemy.

Pope Pius XII said, “In the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.”

The Catechism of the Council of Trent, composed under the supervision of St. Charles Borromeo, stated: “Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thou shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it. For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives.”

None of the figures mentioned above were bloodthirsty individuals. All probably would have agreed with several modern popes that great care be used in modern conditions in applying the death penalty. But it’s doubtful they would have supported abolishing it.

Indeed, for any son or daughter of God, it is a great grace to know the time of one’s death, as it gives us the opportunity to get right with the Lord who will judge us at our death. Perhaps many people have been saved in this way by the death penalty. Who knows what would have happened if they had been allowed to linger in this life, one day possibly killing other people?

And there are other, utterly unexpected effects. The great Catholic convert and evangelist Frank Sheed wrote a book called The Map of Life. In one edition of the book, he tells of a man sentenced to death for murder. After reading Sheed’s book, the man wrote Sheed that, if what he had put down in that book about heaven and forgiveness was true, though he was offered clemency by the State, he decided to allow the execution, because he would be going to heaven now as a Catholic convert.

Fr. C. John McCloskey III

Fr. C. John McCloskey III

Fr. C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.