Papal muddle on the death penalty

In the 1960s, the West underwent a moral catharsis, as a result of which the death penalty was abolished in most places.

One might find it hard to understand why morality peaked at that particular time, in the middle of a century during which more people died violent deaths than in all the previous centuries combined.

After all, before people began to kill one another on an industrial scale, and when society and community were more than just figures of speech, the moral validity of the death penalty was never in doubt.

It was understood that murder sent shock waves throughout the community, and the amplitude of those destructive waves could be attenuated only by a punishment commensurate with the crime.

That’s one salient point in favour of the death penalty; deterrence is another. Many commentators dispute the deterrent value of the death penalty, counterintuitive as it sounds.

But even they would agree that it undoubtedly deters the executed criminal. He won’t come out of prison and kill again, which nowadays happens with every-increasing regularity.

Some arguments against the death penalty do make sense. Such as that condemning an innocent man to death leaves no room for correcting the error.

That’s true, although, unlike Stalin’s Russia, civilised countries don’t execute criminals directly the verdict is announced.

In the US, for example, criminals may spend years, sometimes decades, on death row. That strikes me as sufficient time to get to the bottom of the case.

Still, no system of justice is 100 per cent reliable, and innocent men still may be executed. However, my first instinct would be to improve a malfunctioning system, rather than abandon it altogether.

Hence I’d give serious consideration to tightening the required standard of proof in the sentencing stage, when the death penalty is possible – for example, by replacing ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ with ‘beyond all doubt”.

Another interesting argument highlights the moral effect of the death penalty on the executioner. “You wouldn’t invite him to dinner, would you?” I’m often asked. My usual reply is that neither would I invite a sewer cleaner, but sewers still need to be cleaned.

Such discussions may be interesting because neither interlocutor would have reason to believe that only a fool or a knave would disagree with him. Thus a serious debate is possible – unlike, for example, on the issue of abortion or euthanasia.

Arguments in favour of those simply don’t hold water, and those who put them forth can’t be taken seriously.

The issue of the death penalty is different – in a secular context. However, in a Christian context, doctrine on this issue was established centuries ago, starting from Scripture itself.

That’s why I was surprised to read that Pope Francis has declared the death penalty “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”.

There now exists, he added, “an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes”.

It’s much better, according to His Holiness, to imprison a criminal for a long time because this doesn’t “definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption”.

Whenever senior church figures make such pronouncements nowadays, I smell a rat, and not just because they go against principles established long ago and happily accepted by great men for centuries. What makes me suspicious is why such statements are made.

The Pope’s language invites such suspicions. ‘Increasing awareness’ among whom exactly? Among serious theologians? Or among those who keep afloat such newspapers as The New York Times, The Guardian and Le Monde?

More and more, rather than leading the masses to salvation, various denominations, including the Catholic Church, kowtow to secular opinion, no matter how puerile and immoral.

The Church should tell the people what’s moral, not be told by them. How long before a Catholic priest officiates a homomarriage, one wonders? Other confessions are already doing it.

And what does ‘the dignity of a person’ have to do with anything? A criminal is punished not for any deficit of dignity but for murder or some such. As anyone who has read Charles I’s scaffold speech will know, it’s possible for a condemned man to go to his death with his dignity intact.

As to ‘the possibility of redemption’, what does the word mean? In a Christian context it usually refers to deliverance from sin and subsequent salvation of the soul. Any believer, and certainly a prelate, ought to know that death, however it occurs, doesn’t ‘definitively deprive’ anyone of this possibility.

Taking a stab in the dark with no statistical evidence close at hand, I’d guess that most opponents of the death penalty in the West are atheists, to whom death is final and irreversible.

Christians, on the other hand, believe that, just as there’s death in life, there’s life in death. And in that life redemption is always possible. Understanding the word as commuting the death sentence to, say, life imprisonment strikes me as a tad vulgar – for a Christian.

It has to be said that many modern Popes found the death penalty abhorrent – none more so than Benedict XVI. His Holiness expressed such views even when he was still His Eminence. But he didn’t go so far as to declare the death penalty ‘inadmissible’ in all circumstances.

To wit: “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

That ‘legitimate diversity’ is now off-limits for Catholics because Pope Francis has changed the catechism to make the capital punishment ‘inadmissible’. The debate is closed, with the door slammed in the face of prudence, wisdom – and tradition.

The tradition didn’t develop by itself. It’s a long, meandering road signposted by scriptural sources and their great interpreters. Looking at two of the greatest, St Augustine of Hippo and St Thomas Aquinas, neither reached the high moral ground apparently occupied by Pope Francis.

Thus Augustine writes in his City of God: “The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.”

Aquinas is as unequivocal in his Summa: “The life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men.

And, just as Aquinas pre-empted most (though not all) theological arguments, he pre-empted Pope Francis’s facile statement about redemption. If the murderer didn’t repent when killing his victim, he’ll probably never repent: “How many people are we to allow to be murdered while waiting for the repentance of the wrongdoer?”, asks St Thomas.

Pope Francis evidently doesn’t trouble himself with such questions. That leads some to ask literally a question that’s often posed figuratively: Is the Pope Catholic?

4 thoughts on “Papal muddle on the death penalty”

      1. Police in the USA at any rate can shoot a fleeing felon if in the opinion of the officer at the scene that felon poses a further danger to society. NOT a law but a Supreme Court standard. The average citizen however cannot shoot.

        1. Westley Allan Dodd in the USA is an instance of 100 % without any instance of doubt guilty. Confessed, was caught in the process of kidnapping a young boy to rape and murder, the bodies of two young dead and raped young boys found in his residence. Westley admitted he had done in all freely and without any coercion, gave up any sort of appeal, asked to be executed and was. And the man was hardly crazy by any stretch of the imagination.

        2. How do you further punish a convict already serving a life-without-parole sentence if that inmate murders a member of staff or another inmate?

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