Death Penalty - Catholics and Capital Punishment

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Catholics and Capital Punishment

Catholic opponents of the death penalty sometimes seem to lose sight of the primary purpose of punishment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense." If I commit a serious offense against society, I bring about a disorder, and the point of punishment is to reestablish the lost order. If I willingly accept my punishment, "it assumes the value of expiation." And it can protect you from future crimes I might commit. The Catechism thus gives three purposes of punishment: defending public order, protecting people, and moral change in the criminal.

Paragraph 2267 reminds us that "the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty" but then adds, "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor." This appears to make a secondary purpose of punishment override the primary. That appearance has led to some fuzzy thinking. The correct meaning must be that the primary aim of punishment can be achieved short of exacting the death penalty. A single means-say, life imprisonment-restores the order lost by the crime, protects society against future crimes of the incarcerated, and gives the prisoner a chance to repent.

The paragraph should not be read as making the protection of society trump everything else. Why? Because imprisonment protects society against future possible crimes. But the criminal cannot be punished for what he might do; he is in prison because of what he has already done. If life imprisonment is to serve the primary purpose of punishment, it must, like the death penalty, be primarily justified as sufficiently "redressing the disorder introduced by the offense."

Paragraph 2267 is concerned exclusively with a secondary purpose of punishment: protecting society. Unless, as suggested, "protecting society" be taken to comprehend "redressing the disorder." (Paragraph 2266 distinguishes "defending public order" from "protecting people's safety.") One sometimes hears in the clamor to end the death penalty that retribution is no longer the aim of punishment. But if there is no cause for retribution, punishment is unjust: All that would excuse it is the fear that someone might in the future harm us and that solitude might better his soul.

Enthusiasm sometimes obscures the fact that the Catechism "does not exclude recourse to the death penalty." However rare such recourse might be, even if it were only once in a millennium, it would have to be justified.

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