The Implications of Not Using the Death Penalty

In all the excitement of every bishop in the world’s credibility imploding in one fell swoop, I haven’t gotten in on the death penalty conversation.  I’m going to the leave the theology at this: I believe in the hermeneutic of continuity.  We read the new in light of the old, and therefore a valid reading will take into count the compendium of centuries of thinking on this topic.  Nothing to be afraid of here.

But of course the Catechism is meant to tell us how to live, and it has become quite emphatic on the bit about not putting criminals to death.

It already said you shouldn’t.  Now it says, No, really, we mean that.  Don’t put them to death.  It’s bad for you and bad for them.  

So what that means for Catholics is: Don’t put criminals to death.

Whoah!

Let’s think about what that means.

What if we can’t keep prisoners behind bars? Then the Catechism is saying you have a moral obligation to improve your methods of detention so that people are kept safe.

What if our prisons are the headquarters of vast networks of organized crime? Then the Catechism is saying you must change your policing and your prison system so that “justice” means less crime not more.

What if being in prison is a fate worse than death? Well, if your goal is revenge, I suppose you’ve got it.  But I hazard the Catechism is saying that you must work for humane prison conditions, and perhaps alternate penalties for non-violent offenders.

What if my country is in a state of corruption, anarchy, and open warfare?  The Catechism unequivocally allows for just warfare and legitimate self-defense.  It also has all kinds of other bits that address the many, many problems that contribute to your slaughtering-innocent-civilians situation.  And perhaps it’s saying: Please don’t hide behind the death penalty on this, because Heaven knows you’ve got enough people being killed already.  How about you do all the other things, and then if you still need the death penalty, we can talk?

 

***

And maybe also the Church is saying that when a bishop asks for the Knights to investigate . . .

 

. . . they are counting on the Knights to stick to nice dull ceremonial swords.

Which is the half-right answer.  A few sacrificial victims going to the scaffold does not bring real justice.  The dignity of the human person calls for true repentance and reform.

File:Griffenfeld on the scaffold 1676.jpg

Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain


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