Transactional Justice: The Death Penalty and Tsarnaev

Transactional Justice: The Death Penalty and Tsarnaev May 20, 2015
Saturday’s Boston Globe (full page treatment)

Guest post by Anne Flanagan, FSP

I grew up in the Deep South at a time when the death penalty was taken for granted pretty much across the board. The explanations were simple enough for a child to understand: if you take a life, you forfeit your own; society had to defend itself; the threat of capital punishment was a deterrent to violent crime. The same explanations might have been given to a child 500 years ago, or 2000, or 5000.

Catholic tradition has long upheld the approach to criminal justice that the Old Testament presumed even while introducing moderating guidelines like “an eye [one eye only] for an eye.” These teachings were incorporated into the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2266, 1992 ed) , although the very next entry urges public authorities to limit their action to “bloodless means.” But just five years later, the entire treatment of protecting the common good was rewritten. Recourse to the death penalty is still “not excluded” (#2267), but only tolerated as a last resort when the public authority simply has no other way to keep the person from doing harm.

All that was going through my mind Friday afternoon when the jury here in Boston rendered its verdict on a case that has been on the front page (and in full-page spreads) every day for weeks on end. I had really thought that, even though the jury selection process had screened out anyone with principled objections to the death penalty, this would be a watershed moment, and the salvageability of a very damaged soul would be recognized.

Instead, we are still on the level of transactional justice. It’s a very American viewpoint, seeing society as a collection of more or less undifferentiated individuals, the loss of any number of whom, while unfortunate, does not really affect the whole in an essential way. “An eye for an eye” works out well enough in this sort of system. When something goes wrong with a part of the body, though, be it a cell, an organ or a limb, we are not quite so cavalier. Nobody says, “an eye for an eye” when it is a matter of their eyesight. Heck, we are not even comfortable with Jesus’ own words, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out!” (although a few people in history have gone that far).

The trouble I see with transactional justice, especially when it goes as far as the death penalty, is that it keeps society on the level of transactional violence: it is just that society is authorized to carry out the violent act and random citizens are not. When it comes to ideologically motivated crime, such as the terrorism in Boston, there is no deterrent effect; there is not even the acknowledgement of legitimate authority. (The Tsarnaev brothers, having immersed themselves in an extremist culture of transactional violence, felt justified in taking lives in retribution for lives lost in the far-off Caucasus.)

Capital punishment is a distant reality for me (I don’t know any Death Row prisoners; I have never met anyone affected by a capital crime), but I do understand the transactional approach to society. Indeed, I could probably limit myself to this one area and never run out of things to bring to the sacrament of Penance. I have a terrible tendency to treat people in a transactional way; to reduce them to the roles they carry out, or the function they occupy in society (or, God help us, in community).

Since the Friday verdict, I have been more aware of the Church’s appreciation of society as a body made up of unique and unrepeatable members. Even (as St Paul says of the Church) the members who outwardly seem to have little merit turn out to be indispensable. When one part suffers, all the parts suffer. When one part is honored, all the parts share the benefit.

Boston’s sorrowful journey can still be a watershed moment.

– – – – – –

From the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1995 edition) (I underlined the values it affirms: just because the criminal disregards or dismisses these values doesn’t means society ought to lose sight of them.)


Capital Punishment

2266 The State’s effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. the primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.

2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. “If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’ [John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]


sranne_smSister Anne Flanagan, a Daughter of St Paul, a native of New Orleans, is author of Five Keys to Understanding Pope Francis. She has also recorded over two dozen albums as a soprano in the Daughters of St Paul choir. Follow her on Twitter @nunblogger. She blogs at Nun Blog.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Chris W

    Thank you Sister, very well stated!

  • Elijah fan

    Not in agreement. Neither is Romans 13:4 ( transactional NT justice from the Holy Spirit) which the last three Popes have never cited on this subject and is a NT echo of Genesis 9:5-6 which JPII edited out of sight ( the execution mandate) in section 39 of Evangelium Vitae by removing the death penalty phrase and affirming the passage minus its death penalty mandate which mandate you can see in ccc #2260 which the above author doesn’t mention. Ccc #2260 is never quoted by anyone despite being near 2267. Fascinating and antithetical in tone to 2267 is the following 2260 which frankly may have been written by a Cardinal at the CDF who found EV and 2267 wanting:

    ccc #2260 The covenant between God and mankind is interwoven with reminders of God’s gift of human life and man’s murderous violence:
    “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning. . . . Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.”
    The Old Testament always considered blood a sacred sign of life.60 This teaching remains necessary for all time.
    Check my point at Evangelium Vitae section 39 online. JPII used ” for your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning”…and he used ” for God made man in his own image”…..and JPII left out the middle…God mandating execution for murder…
    ” Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man will his blood be shed”. It’s a mandate as 2260 declares for all time. It’s not saying anything karmic because David was a ” man of blood” and thus couldn’t build the temple but he died peacefully of old age.
    Simply check wiki..homicide by country. Low murder rates are found in two places generally: countries with an operating death penalty ( China) OR countries with few ghettoized poor people ( most of Europe). Countries with many ghettoized poor but no death penalty often have high murder rates: Catholic Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and almost every country in Central America with Catholic Honduras the worst in the world. China with a billion poor but with a death penalty, has a murder rate of 1 per 100,000. Central America is 31 per 100,000. Catholic Central America ( no death penalty generally/ operative) is 31 times more murderous than largely non Christian China. Japan is .3 per 100,000. She is in the top five safest countries on earth because she has both factors: execution (3 last year) and she has few poor people.
    Exceptions: if you’ve traveled to undeveloped countries, you’ll notice no police for days at a time if not weeks. Guatemala e.g. has high murder rate and the death penalty but a 5% clearing of murder cases. With that solving rate, not even execution would deter because each murderer has a 95% chance of never being caught.