Friday, May 25, 2007

Amerio on capital punishment

As promised, from Romano Amerio, in Iota Unum, on capital punishment.

This is a bit long, but it is worth a read...

Chapter XXVI
187. The death penalty.

Certain social institutions derive from the principles of the natural law and as such are perpetual in one form or another; for example the state, the family, a priesthood of some sort; and there are others that arise from a certain level of reflection on those principles and from historical circumstances, and which are abandoned when thought moves on to another level or when circumstances change; for example slavery. Until recently, the death penalty was philosophically defended, and used in practice by all countries as the ultimate penalty society imposes on evildoers, with the threefold aim of righting the balance of justice, defending society against attack, and dissuading others from wrongdoing.

The legitimacy of capital punishment is usually grounded on two propositions. First: society has a right to defend itself; second: this defense involves using all necessary means. Capital punishment is included in the second proposition on condition that taking the life of one member of the body of society is genuinely necessary for the wellbeing of the whole.

The growing tendency to mitigate punishments of all sorts is in part the product of the Gospel spirit of clemency and mercy, which has always been at odds down the centuries with savage judicial customs. With a certain degree of confusion that we need not go into here, the Church has always drawn back from blood. It should be remembered that canon law traditionally decreed the “irregularity,” that is the banning from holy orders, not only of executioners, but of judges who condemned people to death in the ordinary course of law, and even of advocates and witnesses in trials that led to someone being put to death.

The controversy does not turn on society’s right to defend itself; that is the undeniable premise of any penal code, but rather on the genuineness of the need to remove the offender altogether in order to effect that defense, which is the minor premise involved. From St. Augustine to St. Thomas Aquinas to Taperelli d’Azeglio, the traditional teaching is that the decision as to the necessity and legitimacy of capital punishment depends on historical circumstances, that is, on the urgency of the need to hold society together in the face of the disruptive behavior of individuals who attack the common good. From Beccaria onwards, proposals to abolish capital punishment have admitted the major premise, and allowed that the minor one depends on historical circumstances, since they allow the execution of offenders in some emergencies, such as war. During the last war, even Switzerland sentenced and shot seventeen people guilty of high treason.

188. Opposition to the death penalty.

Opposition to the death penalty stems from two diverse and incompatible sets of reasons, and can only be evaluated in the light of the moral assumptions on which it is based. Horror at a crime can coexist with sympathy for human weakness, and with a sense of the human freedom that renders a man capable of rising from any fall as long as his life lasts; hence opposition to the death penalty. But opposition can also stem from the notion that every person is inviolable inasmuch as he is a self-conscious subject living out his life in the world; as if temporal life were an end in itself that could not be suppressed without frustrating the purpose of human existence. Although often thought of as religiously inspired, this second type of reason for rejecting capital punishment is in fact irreligious. It overlooks the fact that from a Christian point of view earthly life is not an end in itself, but a means to life’s moral goal, a goal that transcends the whole order of subordinate worldly goods. Therefore to take away a man’s life is by no means to take away the transcendent end for which he was born and which guarantees his true dignity. A man can propter vitam Vivendi perdere causas (for the sake of life, loose the causes of life) that is, he can make himself unworthy of life by taking temporal life as being itself the supreme good instead of a means to that good. There is therefore a mistake implicit in the second sort of objection to capital punishment, inasmuch as it assumes that in putting someone to death, other men or the state are cutting a criminal off from his destined goal, or depriving him of his last human end or taking away the possibility of his fulfilling his role as a human being. Just the opposite in fact. The condemned man is deprived of his earthly existence, but not of his goal. Naturally, a society that denies there is any future life and supposes there is a fundamental right to happiness in this world, must reject the death penalty as an injustice depriving man of his capacity to be happy. Paradoxically, those who oppose capital punishment on these grounds are assuming the state has a sort of totalitarian capacity which it does not in fact possess, a power to frustrate the whole of one’s existence. Since a death imposed by one man on another can remove neither the latter’s moral goal nor his human worth, it is still more incapable of preventing the operation of God’s justice, which sits in judgment on all our adjudications. The meaning of the motto engraved on the town executioner’s sword in Fribourg in Switzerland: Seigneur Dieu, tu es le juge (Lord God, Thou art the Judge), was not that human and divine justice were identical; it signified a recognition of that highest justice which sits in judgment on us all.

Another argument advanced is that capital punishment is useless as a deterrent; as witnessed by Caesar’s famous remark during the trial of the Cataline conspirators, to the effect that a death which put an end to the shame and misery of the criminals would be a lesser punishment than their remaining alive to bear them. This argument flies in the face of the juridical practice of pardoning people under sentence of death, as a favor, and is also refuted by the fact that even infamous criminals sometimes make pacts between themselves with death as the penalty for breaking the agreement. They thereby give a very apposite witness to the fact that capital punishment is an effective deterrent.

189. Doctrinal change in the Church.

An important change has occurred in the Church regarding the theology of punishment. We could cite the French bishops’ document that asserted in 1979 that the death penalty ought to be abolished in France as it was incompatible with the Gospel, the Canadian and American bishop’s statements on the matter, and the articles in the Ossevatore Romano calling for the abolition of the death penalty, as injurious to human dignity and contrary to the Gospel.

As to the biblical argument; even without accepting Baudelaire’s celebration of capital punishment as a supremely sacred and religious proceeding, once cannot cancel out the Old Testament’s decrees regarding the death penalty, by a mere stroke of the pen. Nor can canon law, still less the teaching of the New Testament, be can canceled out at a stroke. I am well aware that the famous passage in Romans (Rm 13:4) giving princes the ius gladii (the right use of the sword), and calling them the ministers of God to punish the wicked, has been emptied of meaning by the canons of the new hermeneutic, on the grounds that it is the product of a past set of historical circumstances. Pius XII however explicitly rejected that view, in a speech to Catholic jurists on 5 February 1955, and 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. In the Gospel, Christ indirectly sanctions capital punishment when he says it would be better for a man to be condemned to death by drowning than to commit the sin of scandal (Mt 18:6). From the Book of Acts (Acts 5:1-11) it seems the primitive Christian community had no objection to the death penalty, as Ananias and Sapphira are struck down when they appear before St. Peter guilty of fraud and lying at the expense of the brethren. Biblical commentaries tell us that the early Christians’ enemies though this sentence was harsh at the time.

The change in teaching is obvious on two points. 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. On this point, as on others, the new fangled view coincides with the utilitarianism preached by the Jacobins. The individual is held to be essentially independent; the state defends itself against a miscreant, but cannot punish him for breaking a moral law, that is, for being morally guilty. This guiltlessness of the guilty goes on to manifest itself in a reduced consideration for the victim and even in giving preference to the guilty over the innocent. In Sweden people who have been imprisoned are given preferential treatment in examinations for public employment, as compared with other, unconvicted, members of the public. Consideration for the victim is eclipsed by mercy for the wrongdoer. Mounting the steps to the guillotine, the borderer Buffet shouted his hope that he would “be the last man guillotined in France.” He should have shouted he hoped he would be the last murderer. The penalty for the offense seems more objectionable than the crime, and the victim is forgotten. The restoration of a moral order that has been violated by wrongdoing is rejected as if it were an act of vendetta. In fact it is something that justice demands and which must be pursued even if the harm done cannot be reversed and if the rehabilitation of the guilty party is impossible. The modern view also attacks even the validity of divine justice, which punishes the damned without there being any hope or possibility of amendment. The very idea of the redemption of the guilty is reduced to a piece of social engineering. According to the Osservatore Romano (6 Sept 1978), redemption consists in the awareness of a return to being useful to one’s fellows” and not, as the Catholic system would have it, in the detestation of one’s fault and a redirecting of the will back into conformity with the absolutes of the moral law.

To go on to assert that a life should not be ended because that would remove the possibility of making expiation, is to ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory. In a humanistic religion expiation would of course be primarily the converting of a man to other men. On that view, time is needed to effect a reformation, and the time available should not be shortened. In God’s religion, on the other hand, expiation is primarily a recognition of the divine majesty and lordship, which can be and should be recognized at every moment, in accordance with the principle of the concentration of one’s moral life.

Attacking capital punishment, the Osservatore Romano (22 Jan 1977) asserts that where the wrongdoer is concerned “the community must allow him the possibility of purifying himself, of expiating his guilt, or freeing himself from evil; and capital punishment does not allow for this.” In so saying, the paper denies the expiatory value of death; death which has the highest expiatory value possible among natural things, precisely because life is the highest good among the relative goods of this world; and it is by consenting to sacrifice that life, that the fullest expiation can be made. And again, the expiation that the innocent Christ made for the sins of mankind was itself effected through his being condemned to death. Remember too the conversion of condemned men at the hands of St. Joseph Carfasso; remember some of the letters of people condemned to death in the Resistance. Thanks to the ministry of the priest, stepping in between the judge and the executioner, the death penalty has often brought about wonderful moral changes, such as those of Niccolo de Tuldo, comforted by St. Catherine of Sienna who left an account of what happened in a famous letter of hers; or Felice Robol, assisted on the scaffold by Antonio Rosmini; or Martin Merino who tried to kill the Queen of Spain in 1852; or Jacques Fesch guillotined in 1957, whose letters from prison are a moving testimony to the spiritual perfection of one of God’s elect.

The most irreligious aspect of this argument against capital punishment is that it denies its expiatory value which, from a religious point of view, is of the highest importance because it can include a final consent to give up the greatest of all worldly goods. This fits exactly with St. Thomas’s opinion that as well as canceling out any debt that the criminal owes to civil society, capital punishment can cancel all punishment due in the life to come. His thought is Mors illata etiam pro criminibus aufert totam poenam pro criminibus debitam in alia vita, vel partem poenae secundum quantitatem culpae, patientiae et contritionis, non autem mors naturalis. (Summa, “Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment due for those crimes in the next life, or a least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation and contrition; but a natural death does not.”) The moral importance of wanting to make expiation also explains the indefatigable efforts of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist Beheaded, the members of which used to accompany men to their deaths, all the while suggesting, begging and providing help to get them to repent and accept their deaths, so ensuring that they would die in the grace of God, as the saying went.

190. Inviolability of life. Essence of human dignity. Pius XII.

The leading argument in the new theology of punishment is however the one that asserts an inviolable and imprescriptible right to life, that is alleged allegedly infringed when the state imposes capital punishment. The article we have cited says: “To the modern conscience, which is open, and aware of human values and man’s centrality and primacy in the universe, and of his dignity and his inalienable and inviolable rights, the death penalty is repugnant as being an anti-human and barbarous measure”

Some facts might be helpful in replying to this article, which sums up in itself all the abolitionists’ arguments. The prominence the Osservatore Romano gives to the “modern conscience” is similar to the position accorded it by the French bishops’ document, which says le refus de la peine de mort correspond chez nos contemporains à un progrès accompli dans le respect de la vie humaine (“the rejection of the death penalty is an indication that our contemporaries have an increased respect for human life”). A remark of that sort is born of the bad mental habit of going along with fashionable ideas and of letting the wish become father to the thought; a crude rebuttal of such unrealistic assertions is provided by the atrocious slaughter of innocents perpetrated in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, the widespread use of physical violence by despotic regimes as an ordinary means of government, the legitimation and imposition of abortion by changes to the law, and the increasing cruelty of delinquents and terrorists, who are only feebly resisted by governments. The axiological centrality of man in the universe will be discussed later.

In discussions on the death penalty, the difference between the rights of an innocent and a guilty man are generally ignored. The right to life is considered as if it were inherent in man’s mere existence when, in fact, it derives from his ordination to values that transcend temporal life, and this goal is built into his spirit inasmuch as it is an image of God. Although the goal is absolute and the image indelible, man’s freedom means that by a fault he can descend from that dignity and turn aside from his goal. The philosophical justification for penal law is precisely an axiological diminution, or shrinking in worth, on the part of a person who violates the moral order and who, by his fault, arouses society to some coercive action designed to repair the disorder. Those who base the imposition of penalties merely on the damage done to society, deprive penal law of any ethical character and turn it into a set of precautions against those who harm society, irrespective of whether they are acting freely or compulsively, rationally or irrationally. In the Catholic view, the penal system exists to ensure that the crime by which the delinquent sought some satisfaction or other in defiance of the moral law, is punished by some corresponding diminution of well-being, enjoyment or satisfaction. Without this moral retaliation, a punishment is merely a utilitarian reaction which indeed neglects the dignity of man and reduces justice to a purely materialistic level; such was the case in Greece when recourse was had to the Prytaneum, or city council, to pass sentence against rocks, trees or animals that had caused some damage. Human dignity is something built into the natural structure of rational creatures but which is elicited and made conscious by the activity of a good or bad will, and which increases or decreases within that order of being. No right thinking person would want to equate the human worth of the Jew in Auschwitz with that of his killer Eichmann, or St. Catherine of Alexandria with Thias the Alexandrian courtesan. A person’s worth can only be reduced by actions within the moral realm; and therefore, contrary to popular opinion, it cannot be measured by some level of participation in the benefits of technological progress: by a quote of economic welfare, by a level of literacy, by a better health service, by an abundance of the pleasures that life provided or by the stamping out of diseases. Let there be no confusion between an increase in a person’s dignity or worth, which is a moral quality, and an increase in the possessions of those utilitarian benefits which unworthy men also enjoy.

The death penalty, and any other form of punishment, if they are not to descend to the level of pure defense and a sort of selective slaughter, always presuppose a moral diminution in the person punished: there is therefore no infringement of an inviolable or imprescriptible right involved. Society is not depriving the guilty person of his rights; rather, as Pius XII taught in his speech of 14 Sept 1952 même quand I s’agit de l’exécution d’un condamné à mort, l’Etat ne dispose pas du droit de l’individu à la vie. Il est reserve alors au pouvoir public de priver le condamné du bien de la vie en expiation de sa faute après que par son crime il s’est déjà dépossedé de son droit à la vie (A.A.S., 1952, pp.779ff. “Even when it is a question of someone condemned to death, the state does not dispose of an individual’s right to life. It is then the task of public authority to deprive the condemned man of the good of life, in expiation of his fault, after he has already deprived himself of the right to life by his crime.”).

If one considers the parallel with one’s right to freedom, it becomes obvious that an innocent man’s right to life is indeed inviolable, whereas a guilty person has diminished his rights by the actions of his depraved will: the right to freedom is innate, inviolable and imprescriptible, but penal codes nonetheless recognize the legitimacy of depriving people of their liberty, even for life, as a punishment for crime, and all nations in fact adopt this practice. There is in fact no unconditional right to any of the goods of earthly life; the only truly inviolable right is the right to seek one’s ultimate goal, that is truth, virtue and eternal happiness, and the means necessary to acquire these. This right remains untouched even by the death penalty.

In conclusion, the death penalty, and indeed any kind of punishment, is illegitimate if one posits that the individual is independent of the moral law and ultimately of the civil law as well, thanks to the protection afforded by his own subjective moral code. Capital punishment comes to be regarded as barbarous in an irreligious society, that is shut within earthly horizons and which feels it has no right to deprive a man of the only good there is.

Anita (V-for Victory) passed along a link to Justice Scalia's article on the morality of capital punishment:

God’s Justice and Ours
by Antonin Scalia
Copyright (c) 2002 First Things (May 2002).

This is good companion reading to Romano Amerio's writing in Iota Unum. Justice Scalia makes the observation (which I had not seen before) that democracy has had the unfortunate consequence of (muddling our minds) so that we restrict the state from doing that which we are not able to do ourselves. The thought goes that as the state is an extension of the body politic, it has no rights other than those of the invididual member of the body politic posess and have delegated to the state. Not a very Catholic or Christian view of the state.

There is so much muddled thinking today, these two pieces deserve a careful reading.

observation added 4/28/09

1) If you look at the statistics for capital crimes and the number of executions in the United States, you will see that the prudential condition of "hardly, if ever" appears to be being met at this time, and for a long time prior to the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

2) The argument against capital punishment based on the possibility of executing the innocent, taken to its logical conclusion, is an argument against all punishment for all crime. The proper response to that argument is the improvement of the legal system, not the abandonment of justice.

3) I find it odd that the majority of opponents of capital punishment seek to deprive the state of the use of lethal force upon the guilty after a careful and well controlled trial and appeal system, but seem to have no difficulty granting that same lethal force to all women be used with no restriction whatsoever upon the innocent whose only offense is that they yet to been born.


  1. That is an amazing passage on the death penalty. Amerio is in perfect harmony with Scalia, who also discusses the materialism inherent in so much opposition to the death penalty.

    Marcus Magnus, you are not Marcus Magnus for nothing!

  2. Should I link to this blog for Amerio on capital punishment or might there be a better link?

    And, here is a layman's view.

    Pope John Paul II: His death penalty errors
    by Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
    (contact info, below)
    October 1997, with subsequent updates thru 8/06
    Were Pope John Paul II's death penalty writings in Evangelium Vitae incorrect and was their adoption into the Catechism improper?

    In 1997, the Roman Catholic Church decided to amend the 1992 Universal Catechism to reflect Pope John Paul II's comments within his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). Therein, the Pope finds that the only time executions can be justified is when they are required "to defend society" and that "as a result of steady improvements . . . in the penal system that such cases are very rare if not practically non existent."
    This is, simply, not true.  Murderers, tragically, harm and murder, again, way too often.
    Three issues, inexplicably, escaped the Pope's consideration.
    First, in the Pope's context, "to defend society" means that the execution of the murderer must save future lives or, otherwise, prevent future harm.  
    When looking at the history of  criminal justice practices in probations, paroles and incarcerations, we observe countless examples of when judgements and procedures failed and, because of that, murderers harmed and/or murdered, again. History details that murderers murder and otherwise harm again, time and time again -- in prison, after escape, after improper release, and, of course, after we fail to capture or incarcerate them. 
    Reason dictates that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and/or murder again than are executed murderers. 
    Therefore,  the Pope could err, by calling for a reduction or end to execution, and thus sacrifice more innocents, or he could "err" on the side of protecting more innocents by calling for an expansion of executions.
    History, reason and the facts support an increase in executions based upon a defending society foundation. 
    Secondly, if social science concludes that executions provide enhanced deterrence for murders, then the Pope's position should call for increased executions. 
    If  we decide that the deterrent effect of executions does not exist and we, therefore, choose not to execute, and we are wrong, this will sacrifice innocent lives and also give those murderers the opportunity to harm and murder again. 
    If we choose to execute, believing in the deterrent effect, and we are wrong, we are executing our worst human rights violators and preventing such murderers from ever harming or murdering again - again, saving more innocent lives.
    No responsible social scientist has or will say that the death penalty deters no one.  Quite a few studies, including 10 recent ones,  find that executions do deter. 
    As all prospects for negative consequence deter some,  it is a mystery why the Pope chose the option which spares murderers and sacrifices more innocent lives. 
    If the Pope's defending society position has merit, then, again, the Church must actively support executions, as it offers an enhanced defense of society and greater protection for innocent life.
    Thirdly, we know that some criminals don't murder because of their fear of execution.  This is known as the individual deterrent effect.  Unquestionably, the incapacitation effect (execution) and the individual deterrent effect both exist and they both defend society by protecting innocent life and offer enhanced protections over imprisonment. Furthermore, individual deterrence assures us that general deterrence must exist, because individual deterrence could not exist without it.  Executions save lives. 
    Therefore, the Pope's defending society standard should, again, be a call for increasing executions. Instead, the Pope and other Church leadership has chosen a position that spares the lives of known murderers, resulting in more innocents put at risk and more innocents harmed and murdered --  a position which, quite clearly, contradicts the Pope's, and other's, emphasis on defending society.
    Contrary to the Church's belief, that the Pope's opinion represents a tougher stance against the death penalty, the opposite is true. When properly evaluated, the defending society position supports more executions.
    Had these issues been properly assessed, the Catechism would never have been amended  --  unless the Church endorses a position knowing that it would spare the lives of guilty murderers, at the cost of sacrificing more innocent victims. 
    When the choice is 1) sparing murderers, resulting in more harmed and murdered innocents, who suffer through endless moments of incredible horror, with no additional time to prepare for their salvation, or 2) executing murderers, who have on average, an additional 10 years on death row to prepare for their salvation, and saving more innocents from being murdered,  the Pope and the Catholic Church have an obligation to spare the innocent, as Church tradition, the Doctors of the Church and many Saints have concluded. (see reference, below)
    Pope John Paul II's death penalty stance is his own, personal prudential judgement and does not bind any other Catholic to share his position. Any Catholic can choose to support more executions, based upon their own prudential judgement, and remain a Catholic in good standing.
    Furthermore, prudential judgement requires a foundation of reasoned and thorough review. The Pope either improperly evaluated the risk to innocents or he did not evaluate it at all.
    A defending society position supports more executions, not less. Therefore, his prudential judgement was in error on this important point of fact.
    Furthermore, defending society is an outcome of the death penalty, but is secondary to the foundation of justice and biblical instruction.
    Even though Romans and additional writings do reveal a "defending society" consideration, such references pale in comparison to the mandate that execution is the proper punishment for murder, regardless of any consideration "to defend society."  Both the Noahic covenant, in Genesis 9:6 ("Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed."), and the Mosaic covenant, throughout the Pentateuch (Ex.: "He that smiteth a man so that he may die, shall be surely put to death."  Exodus 21:12), provide execution as the punishment for unjustifiable/intentional homicide, otherwise known as murder.
    These texts, and others, offer specific rebuttal to the Pope's position that if "bloodless means" for punishment are available then such should be used, to the exclusion of execution. The Pope's prudential judgement does not trump biblical instruction.
    Most telling is the fact that Roman Catholic tradition instructs four elements to be considered  with criminal sanction.
    1.  Defense of society against the criminal.
    2.  Rehabilitation of the criminal (including spiritual rehabilitation).
    3.  Retribution, which is the reparation of the disorder caused by the criminal's transgression.
    4.   Deterrence
    It is a mystery why and how the Pope could have excluded three of these important elements. In doing so, though, we can confirm that his review was very incomplete and, thus, improper. 
    At least two Saints, Paul and Dismas, faced execution and stated that it was appropriate. They were both executed.
    The Holy Ghost decided that execution was the proper punishment for two devoted, early Christians,  Ananias and his wife, Saphira,  for the crime/sin of lying. Neither was given a moment to consider their earthly punishment or to ask for forgiveness. The Holy Ghost struck them dead.
    For those who erroneously contend that Jesus abandoned the Law of the Hebrew Testament, He states that He has come not "to abolish the law and the prophets . . . but to fulfill them."  Matthew 5:17-22.  While there is honest debate regarding the interpretation of Mosaic Law within a Christian context, there seems little dispute that the Noahic Covenant is still in effect and that Genesis 9:6 deals directly with the sanctity of life issue in its support of execution. (read "A Seamless Garment In a Sinful World" by John R. Connery, S. J., America, 7/14/84, p 5-8).
    "In his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die (Mt 15:4; Mk 7:10, referring to Ex 21:17; cf. Lev 20:9). (Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, 10/7/2000)
    Saint Pius V reaffirms this mandate, in the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566), stating that executions are acts of "paramount obedience to this [Fifth] Commandment."  ("Thou shalt not murder," sometimes improperly translated as "kill" instead of "murder").  And, not only do the teachings of Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine concur, but both saints also find that such punishment actually reflects charity and mercy by preventing the wrongdoer from sinning further.  The Saints position is that execution offers undeniable defense of society as well as defense of the wrongdoer.
    Such prevention also expresses the fact that execution is an enhanced defense of society, over and above all other punishments.
    The relevant question is "What biblical and theological teachings, developed from 1566 through 1997, provide that the standard for executions should evolve from 'paramount obedience' to God's eternal law to a civil standard reflecting 'steady improvements' . . . in the penal system?".  Such teachings hadn't changed.  The Pope's position is social, not biblical nor theological. 
    If Saint Pius V was correct, that executions represent "paramount obedience to the [Fifth] Commandments, then is it not disobedient to reduce or stop executions?
    The Church's position on the use of the death penalty has been consistent from 300 AD through 1995 AD.  The Church has always supported the use of executions, based upon biblical and theological principles.
    Until 1995, says John Grabowski, associate professor of Moral Theology at Catholic University, " . . .  Church teachings were supportive of the death penalty.  You can find example after example of Pope's, of theologians and others, who have supported the right of the state to inflict capital punishment for certain crimes and certain cases." Grabowski continues: "What he (the Pope now) says, in fact, in his encyclical, is that given the fact that we now have the ability, you know, technology and facilities to lock up someone up for the rest of their lives so they pose no future threat to society -- given that question has been answered or removed, there is no longer justification for the death penalty."  (All Things Considered, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, 9/9/97.)
    The Pope's position is now based upon the state of the corrections system -- a position neither biblical nor theological in nature.  Furthermore, it is a position which conflicts with the history of prisons.  Long term incarceration of lawbreakers in Europe began in the 1500s.  Of course, long term incarceration of slaves had begun thousands of years before --  meaning that all were aware that criminal wrongdoers  could also be subject to bondage, if necessary - something that all historians and biblical scholars -- now and then and in between --  were and are well aware of. 
    Since it's inception, the Church has issued numerous pronouncements, encyclicals and previous Universal Catechisms.  Had any biblical or theological principle called for a replacement of the death penalty by life imprisonment, it could have been revealed long before 1995. 
    There is, finally, a disturbing reality regarding the Pope's new standard.  The Pope's defending society standard requires that the moral concept of justice becomes irrelevant.  The Pope's standard finds that capital punishment can be used only as a vehicle to prevent future crimes. Therefore, using the Pope's standard, the moral/biblical rational -- that capital punishment is the just or required punishment for murder -- is no longer relevant to the sin/crime of murder. 
    If defending society is the new standard, the Pope has decided that the biblical standards of atonement, expiation, justice and required punishments have all, necessarily, been discarded, with regard to execution.
    The Pope's new position establishes that capital punishment no longer has any connection to the harm done or to the imbalance to be addressed.  Yet, such connection had always been, until now, the Church's historical, biblically based perspective on this sanction.  Under a defending society standard, the injury suffered by the murder victim is no longer relevant to their punishment.  Executions can be justified solely upon that punishments ability to prevent future harm by the murderer.
    Therefore, when considering executions in regard to capital murder cases, a defending society standard renders justice irrelevant.  Yet, execution defends society to a degree unapproachable by any other punishment and, therefore, should have been fully supported by the Pope.
    "Some enlightened people would like to banish all conception of retribution or desert from our theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself.  They do not see that by doing so they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it?" (quote attributed to the distinguished Christian writer C. S. Lewis)
    Again, with regard to the Pope's prudential judgement, his neglect of justice was most imprudent.
    Some Catholic scholars, properly, have questioned the appropriateness of including prudential judgement within a Catechism. Personal opinion does not belong within a Catechism and, likely, will never be allowed, again. I do not believe it had ever been allowed before.
    In fact, neither the Church nor the Pope would accept a defending society standard for use of the death penalty, unless the Church and the Pope believed that such punishment was just and deserved, as well.  The Church has never questioned the authority of the government to execute in "cases of extreme gravity," nor does it do so with these recent changes. 
    Certainly, the Church and the Pope John Paul II believe that the prevention of any and all violent crimes fulfills a defending society position.  And there is no doubt that executions defend society at a level higher than incarceration. Why has the Pope and many within Church leadership chosen a path that spares murderers at the cost of sacrificing more innocent lives, when they could have chosen a stronger defense of society which spares more innocents?
    Properly, the Pope did not challenge the Catholic biblical and theological support for capital punishment.  The Pope has voiced his own, personal belief as to the appropriate application of that penalty. 
    So why has the Pope come out against executions, when his own position -- a defense of society -- which, both rationally and factually, has a foundation supportive of more executions?
    It is unfortunate that the Pope, along with some other leaders in the Church, have decided to, improperly, use a defending society position to speak against the death penalty.
    The Pope's position against the death penalty condemns more innocents and neglects justice.
     Please also refer to:

    (1)  "Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty", at
    (2)  "Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective" at
    (3) "The Purpose of Punishment (in the Catholic tradition)", by R. Michael Dunningan, J.D., J.C.L., CHRISTIFIDELIS, Vol.21,No.4, sept 14, 2003
    (6) Forgotten Truths: "Is The Church Against Abortion and The Death Penalty", by Luiz Sergio Solimeo, Crusade Magazine, p14-16, May/June 2007
    copyright 1997-2007 Dudley Sharp
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
    e-mail sharp(at), 713-622-5491,
    Houston, Texas
    Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
    A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
    Pro death penalty sites 


    www(dot)  (Sweden)

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  3. Thank you for re-posting this. I have read Iota Unum before but it is good to revisit it again.


    From Edward Feser's blog:

    Pope Pius XII said that the death penalty's validity is not subject to cultural variation in Acta Apostolicae Sedis 47 (1955) 81-82:

    "We also note that the Church in theory and in practice has kept the two forms of capital punishment (medicinal and vindictive) and that this is more in line with what the sources of revelation and traditional doctrine teach about the coercive power of legitimate human authority. One does not give a sufficient answer to this assertion, noting that the above-mentioned sources contain only thoughts that correspond to historical circumstances and the culture of the time, and that therefore one cannot attribute to them a general and always durable value." [Translated from the Italian]

  4. In 2004, Card. Ratzinger wrote: "[...] it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. 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."

  5. Steven Long, author of that The Thomist article I referenced, has responded to Christopher O. Tollefsen's "Capital Punishment, Sanctity of Life, and Human Dignity," which claims St. Thomas Aquinas's view on human dignity "appears to border on incoherence". The article, up on, is: "'Goods' Without Normative Order to the Good Life, Happiness, or God: The New Natural Law Theory and the Nostrum of Incommensurability".

    From the Iota Unum chapter: "to take away a man’s life is by no means to take away the transcendent end for which he was born and which guarantees his true dignity."

    So what's wrong with killing the innocent as in abortion? Of course there is Exodus 23:7: "The innocent and just person thou shalt not put to death." But also, from the same Summa question Tollefsen quotes, albeit article 6:

    "[H]e who kills a just man, sins more grievously than he who slays a sinful man: first, because he injures one whom he should love more, and so acts more in opposition to charity: secondly, because he inflicts an injury on a man who is less deserving of one, and so acts more in opposition to justice: thirdly, because he deprives the community of a greater good: fourthly, because he despises God more, according to Luke 10:16, 'He that despiseth you despiseth Me.' On the other hand it is accidental to the slaying that the just man whose life is taken be received by God into glory."

    The Iota Unum chapter concludes: "[T]he death penalty, and indeed any kind of punishment, is illegitimate if one posits that the individual is independent of the moral law and ultimately of the civil law as well, thanks to the protection afforded by his own subjective moral code. Capital punishment comes to be regarded as barbarous in an irreligious society, that is shut within earthly horizons and which feels it has no right to deprive a man of the only good there is."

    Antonin Scalia thinks similarly when he writes: "the major impetus behind modern aversion to the death penalty is the equation of private morality with governmental morality. This is a predictable (though I believe erroneous and regrettable) reaction to modern, democratic self–government."

    Tollefsen commits makes this error when he says: "It could well be that no human being has the authority to warrant intentional killing, even of the guilty."
    Certainly "no human being has the authority" of his own power, but that does not imply that God does not give that authority to the civil government.