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.
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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.)
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.]
Sister 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.