Often nowadays, we hear such slogans as, "Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?" But this slogan is fallacious. But because it contains so much rhetoric, people do not immediately see the fallacy. What's the fallacy contained therein? Quite simply, the assumption that we believe and want to demonstrate that killing is wrong. We don't. What is wrong is killing the innocent. But many people don't realize this and, persuaded by the slogan, they adopt it themselves and start raving against capital punishment.
In reality, however, the slogan should be, "Why do we kill guilty people who kill innocent people to show that killing innocent people is wrong?" And of course, here the question immediately becomes laughable, because nobody would ask "why" when the reason why is so obvious.
"Thou Shalt Not Kill" is to be understood in the sense of "Thou Shalt Not Murder." And when the state, the legitimate authority, kills after due process those who have murdered innocent people, then the state, while killing, is not murdering. It would have been absurd for God to suggest that killing is intrinsically wrong and then command the Israelites to kill those who break that commandment (cf. Exodus 21:12; Leviticus 24:17; ) - and not only those. In Exodus 21, we read of crimes other than killing that are nevertheless punishable by death. Obviously, unless God Himself would execute the criminal in question, one of the Israelites had to do it. But this person would not be guilty of murder or any other sin because he was carrying out a command from God and did not kill anyone innocent, nor did he kill on his own authority.
The difference between innocent and guilty people is most crucial and essential, but, alas, it is so often ignored or overlooked nowadays. But this distinction is at the basis of the justification of punishment. Let us, then, take a look now at the Church's teaching on punishment.
II. The Church's Theology of Punishment
The main factor to be considered in an explanation of punishment is Justice - God's Justice. Romans 1:32 reminds us that especially wicked sinners deserve death: "Who, having known the justice of God, did not understand that they who do such things, are worthy of death: and not only they that do them, but they also that consent to them that do them."
God's Justice is at the heart of the theology of punishment. Though God forgives our sins, even those sins which have been forgiven us may still require satisfaction (cf. Denzinger 922), which often reaches beyond the few prayers the priest gives us as a penance. The satisfaction we make by penance does not forgive the sin committed but reestablishes the moral order that has been violated and helps us get our good relationship with God back on track.
The Sacred Scriptures mirror the Catholic theology of punishment, of course. In 2 Kings [2 Samuel] 12:13-14, for instance, we read: "And David said to Nathan: I have sinned against the Lord. And Nathan said to David: The Lord also hath taken away thy sin: thou shalt not die. Nevertheless, because thou hast given occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme, for this thing, the child that is born to thee, shall surely die."
Similarly, in Numbers 12:1-2,4-15:
"And Mary and Aaron spoke against Moses, because of his wife the Ethiopian, and they said: Hath the Lord spoken by Moses only? Hath he not also spoken to us in like manner? And when the Lord heard this, immediately he spoke to him, and to Aaron and Mary: Come out you three only to the tabernacle of the covenant. And when they were come out, the Lord came down in a pillar of the cloud, and stood in the entry of the tabernacle calling to Aaron and Mary. And when they were come, he said to them: Hear my words: if there be among you a prophet of the Lord, I will appear to him in a vision, or I will speak to him in a dream. But it is not so with my servant Moses who is most faithful in all my house: For I speak to him mouth to mouth: and plainly, and not by riddles and figures doth he see the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak ill of my servant Moses? And being angry with them he went away: The cloud also that was over the tabernacle departed: and behold Mary appeared white as snow with a leprosy. And when Aaron had looked on her, and saw her all covered with leprosy, He said to Moses: I beseech thee, my lord, lay not upon us this sin, which we have foolishly committed: Let her not be as one dead, and as an abortive that is cast forth from the mother's womb. Lo, now one half of her flesh is consumed with the leprosy. And Moses cried to the Lord, saying O God, I beseech thee heal her. And the Lord answered him: If her father had spitten upon her face, ought she not to have been ashamed for seven days at least? Let her be separated seven days without the camp, and afterwards she shall be called again. Mary therefore was put out of the camp seven days: and the people moved not from that place until Mary was called again."
Again, God is willing to forgive sin, but this does not mean His justice is entirely vindicated and He desires no more satisfaction on our part. And this is not just an Old Covenant principle; it's also true of the New Covenant. Though our Lord Jesus Christ's Sacrifice was perfect, we must not think for a minute that Christ underwent our punishment, so that we would not have to suffer anything anymore. He did not! Rather, Christ offered Himself as a propitiatory sacrifice to the Father, on account of which God forgives us. But again, forgiveness of a sin does not necessarily include satisfaction for that sin. But even the satisfaction we make is made worthy and effective and meritorious only through Jesus's death on the Cross for us. So, either way, both our forgiveness and ability to make satisfaction depend upon our Most Holy Lord's Work on the Cross. But, in turn, this does not absolve us from our responsibility of making satisfaction, even though the strength we need to do it ultimately derives from Christ.
The holy Council of Trent teaches this quite beautifully: "All our glorying is in Christ, in whom we live, in whom we merit, in whom we make satisfaction, bringing forth worthy fruits of penance, which have their efficacy from Him, by Him are offered to the Father, and through Him are accepted by the Father" (Session 14, Chapter VIII).
Basically, the relationship between God's Justice and His Mercy is such that, for those who die in a state of grace, Mercy will triumph over Justice; but for those who die in mortal sin, enemies of God, Justice will triumph over Mercy.
Given that we now live in the post-conciliar church and a post-Hippie "peace, man" society, it is not all that surprising that, all of a sudden, the essential ingredient of Justice in the theology of punishment should have disappeared: "In the new theology of punishment, justice is not considered, and the whole matter is made to turn on the usefulness of the penalty and its aptitude for bringing the guilty person back into society, as the saying goes" (Romano Amerio, Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century [Kansas City, MO: Sarto House], 433; italics in original).
Justice is thrown out the window because it is no longer politically correct. How often do we hear before a public execution that we should "be merciful" and "forgive" and not execute the criminal (e.g. Timothy McVeigh). But the execution has nothing to do with forgiveness! Of course we must individually forgive the criminal. But that doesn't mean he shouldn't be punished with the ultimate earthly penalty. It is like saying that God shouldn't require satisfaction and penance after He has already forgiven our sins. But He does!
Why? Because it is just. Let me use this analogy. Imagine little Johnnie and Walt playing soccer in a neighbor's backyard. Before they know it, Johnnie kicks the ball too hard and Walt can't catch it-the ball goes through the neighbor's kitchen window! Now what? Johnnie and Walt are scared, not knowing the neighbor, who had just moved in. But it turns out the neighbor is a very friendly man and, knowing they are little kids who didn't mean any harm, he generously forgives them for their fault and promises not to hold a grudge against them.
But who's going to pay for the broken window? Surely, little Johnnie and Walt will have to - or their parents, of course. But to suggest that the neighbor hasn't truly forgiven the boys because he asks them to pay for the window, is absurd. After all, the neighbor could demand payment for the window and hold a grudge against his neighbor's children. "These boys are never playing in my backyard again!" he could insist. But because he has forgiven them, he doesn't. Yet, they still have to pay for the broken window. It is called just reparation.
Now, while this analogy isn't perfect, I think it illustrates the point that punishment does not necessarily have anything to do with forgiveness. As far as eternal punishment in hell is concerned, sure - that is related to forgiveness. But temporal punishment isn't really. And physical death is part of temporal punishment, and therefore so is execution. So to suggest that nobody should be put to death but rather "forgiven" has things wrong. Just like saying that the friendly neighbor should pay for his broken window himself and "forgive" the boys instead also has things wrong.
Let me repeat in this installment the quote from Romans 13:4: "For [the prince] is God's minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God's minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil." The modernists have tried to make this verse apply only to the historical circumstances in existence at that time. But on February 5, 1955, the beloved Pope Pius XII rejected such an interpretation. He said that "the passage of St. Paul was of permanent and universal value, because it refers to the essential foundation of penal authority and to its inherent purpose" (Amerio, Iota Unum, p. 432).
Amen! I find it so refreshing to hear the solid Catholic responses the preconciliar Popes gave to the challenges of modern society. Nowadays, of course, we hear a completely different tone. But more on that later.
To sum up, we have seen the relationship between Justice and Mercy/Forgiveness with regards to offenses and punishment. They are the reasons how and why punishment takes place.
Now let's consider the four ends of punishment. In an article in First Things in April of 2001, Cardinal Avery Dulles said: "Punishment is held to have a variety of ends that may conveniently be reduced to the following four: rehabilitation, defense against the criminal, deterrence, and retribution."
That we defend ourselves against a criminal by putting him to death is beyond question. Even if it were an unjust defense, it is still clear that it is a defense. So no problems here.
As far as deterrence goes, of course capital punishment deters. Every child knows that! A more severe punishment always deters more than a lesser punishment. It stands to reason, then, that capital punishment deters. To suggest that the most severe punishment should, for some reason, not deter, is insane.
Now, I am well aware that the deterrence of capital punishment is disputed. But it is silly. When opponents of capital punishment point to statistics, it is laughable. How are we going to measure crime that has not been committed? We can't, obviously, because it hasn't been committed! You can't measure something that doesn't exist or occur. In order to find out how much (or little) the death sentence deters people from committing a crime, we'd have to know everybody's mind and see whether he would commit a crime deserving death if the state did not have a death sentence. Of course, this can't be done. So, all speculation about deterrence is worthless. Certainly, there will always be people who are not deterred by any type of punishment (e.g., Ted Bundy it seems) - but, are we therefore going to propose getting rid of all punishment and prisons, because some people are not deterred by it? Of course not.
So, I think it's pretty safe to say that capital punishment, by its very nature, always deters.
What about rehabilitation? Obviously, the man condemned to death cannot be rehabilitated after he has received his punishment. In the case of the death sentence, there is no rehabilitation. That is, there is no societal rehabilitation. He cannot be rehabilitated into the life of society. But, since we have the gift of the Catholic Faith, that doesn't matter. What matters is if, perhaps because he is facing earthly annihilation rather quickly, he can be brought to repentance and be rehabilitated in the supernatural life!
C.S. Lewis once asked whether a murderer is "more likely to repent in the execution shed or, say, thirty years later in the prison infirmary?" The argument that facing sudden death through execution is more likely to move somebody to repentance (which is more important than anything else) than wasting away in a filthy, kinky, and immoral prison has much merit. In fact, I think it's right on the money. And getting right with God is the most essential thing in life. It is better for somebody to be executed and go to Heaven, than for somebody to receive a life sentence, be spared his earthly life, and rot away in prison and ultimately suffer eternal damnation.
So, in terms of supernatural rehabilitation, capital punishment is entirely vindicated.
Lastly, we must address the factor of revenge. The Catholic Church condemns the attitude of imposing a death sentence on somebody out of revenge.
Revenge differs essentially from retribution. Retribution is satisfaction for the sin or crime committed by means of temporal punishment, either self-imposed or inflicted by somebody else. "Revenge is Mine, and I will repay them in due time" (Deuteronomy 32:35), says the Lord. And again, "Seek not revenge, nor be mindful of the injury of thy citizens" (Leviticus 19:18). Of course, the New Testament itself is full of prohibitions of revenge. Christ our Savior said: "You have heard that it hath been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you not to resist evil: but if one strike thee on thy right cheek, turn to him also the other" (St. Matthew 5:38-39).
Clearly, somebody who approves of the death sentence as a means of revenge, or a state official who executes in the spirit of revenge, sins. Revenge is vindictive and therefore reprehensible. Retribution, which is satisfaction that restores the moral order, is not.
Such are the facts concerning the true Catholic theology of punishment and how this relates to the death penalty. Being pro-capital punishment is not politically correct, but it is the morally right thing to do - even for the sake of the condemned man, as we have seen.
In my next installment, I will discuss and refute anti-death penalty arguments, and, if space should permit, I will also go into the Newchurch's attempts to change Catholic teaching on the death penalty and make it a moral issue, in fact, even a Pro-Life issue! See you next week.
Editor's Note: So many of the post-conciliar bishops today refer to those clinging to the true Roman Catholic traditions that were in vogue for 2000 years prior to the reforms of Vatican II as 'fossils,' 'dinosaurs,' 'old folks who will die off soon.' We beg to differ and offer as proof the youthful wisdom and enthusiasm of the younger generation in the Traditional Insights of Mario Derksen who exemplifies the thinking of many more young men and women today who realize the new thinking of the post-conciliar church does not add up to true Catholic teaching. Thus they long for those traditions so tried and true. His insight shows great promise, optimism and hope for the future of Holy Mother Church.
Note: [bold, brackets and italicized words used for emphasis]
For past columns by Mario Derksen, see Archives for www.DailyCatholic.org/2002mdi.htm