A Canadian Reader Puzzles about the Death Penalty

A Canadian Reader Puzzles about the Death Penalty August 3, 2015

She writes:

Good day to you and yours! I have been thinking about this topic for some time, and I thought to myself, ‘why not ask the Great Dark Lord?’ *kneels, grovels, licks boots*

Now, you may have addressed this already, and if you have, I do apologize for the ignorance (and hassle of a repeat question). But on my way to work the other day, the news/commentary radio program I overheard was discussing the death penalty, and the reasons why it should be reinstated in my country. One of the commentators said, ‘It should have never been removed,’ to which the other replied along the lines of, ‘Well, there are the strict Catholics/Christians.’ (In the on-and-off application of the death penalty in my country, the Church hierarchy has been viewed as one of, if not the most vocal opponent; even while, of course, some members have supported it at some point or another.)

Again, I probably have missed this, but I realized that I am not sure as to why in America, support for the death penalty has apparently become a non-negotiable among quite a number of self-identified religious conservatives. Am I understanding this correctly? Have I been misinformed by popular media? I won’t be surprised if so. I do know, however, that this is quite the can of worms, so I certainly recognize your prerogative to leave it unopened if you so choose. But if you should wish to answer, I would greatly appreciate your perspective on this.

It’s a great mystery to me that conservative Christians have such a deep love for the death penalty and cling to it with such fervor.  The excuses for this love generally tend to run to “It’s tradition!” (despite the fact that the Magisterium–the authentic conservator of the Tradition–insists that it is not essential to the Tradition) as well as various changes on what boils down to a simple love for bloody vengeance that tends to ask not “When do we have to kill?” but rather, “When do we get to kill?” and resents it when the Church puts a crimp on the thirst for blood.  You’d think that–failing the moral insight that says “Suppose your victim is innocent?” or the realization that so many arguments for the death penalty are just amazing junk–an instinct for self-preservation would prompt Christians to not urge the power to kill into the hands of a Caesar who is rapidly becoming hostile to the Church.

But cling to the death penalty many conservative Christians do, another example of the way in which so many in this subculture defy the teaching of the Church in order to pursue a perverse and wrong-headed agenda that is sheer folly.

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  • Such mysteries as to why some people believe in something are generally resolved by asking them. In my personal case, I largely support the death penalty in theory because I am not convinced that modern penal practices are actually as good as advertised at keeping prisoners from further killing. This is a matter of fact, not of theology. I further think that having the penalty on the books, when properly administered, can have a useful effect in reducing criminal conduct without wandering into the territory of “blood lust”.

    I know now that there are deep defects in how we administer justice in the US. Justice reform probably would lead to a faster administration of justice (more death penalties actually applied) as it reduces wrongful convictions (fewer death penalty convictions).

  • This characterization is unacceptable, Mark. You know, as well as I do, that while there are unreasonable arguments in favor of the use of Capital Punnishment, the strongest argument is that a state’s recourse to it is a natural right according to the Natural Moral Law. Now, a state can chose to not ever excercise a right, however, this is very different than it not being something it can do justly.

    It would be far better and more defendable position to affirm the natural right but advocate for the choice to lay it aside.

    • Des Farrell

      I genuinely didn’t know a state had any natural rights, people yes, but not a state, be it Royalist, Communist or Democratic. Does this have something to do with the Thomist argument that obstinate heretics should/could be killed? I’m easily confused these days.

      • State’s according to traditional thought are juridical persons because they possess agency, regardless of the particular form of government. This has to do, more fundamentally with the nature rights. Rights exist to fulfill obligations. If yo have a natural right to something it is because you have a natural obligation that needs to be fulfilled. The primary purpose of a state, according to the Natural Moral Law, to promote the flourishing of the human family. One requirement of this is the care of the common good, which involves the protection of the lives of the families that it is responsible to care for. There are many tools to do this. However, the principle used to determine the types of tools that are licit is that the means used to do so must be proportionate to the harm that is caused or may be causes by some bad agent. Sometimes, just as in the individual case of self-defense, the state may need to exact means that take the life of the bad agent for the sake of the common good.

        This point is only a small part of the question (and the traditional answer). Aquinas does a better job deal with the particulars. However, the point is that the natural rights of states come from their obligation to care for the common good.

        • Des Farrell

          Ah, rights derived from obligations or a duty, to protect a citizen for example. Thanks for the the reply. I shall put on my pondering hat and give it some thought.