C.S.Lewis and the Death Penalty

Capital punishment as a deterrent has not been shown to be effective, but the main argument against it is that the deterrent factor should not be the motivation for capital punishment in the first place. If punishment is meted out for its deterrent factor then let us stop complaining about Muslims lop of thieve’s hands, stone adulterers and throw homosexuals from rooftops.

Capital punishment obviously has nothing to do with rehabilitation except that the immanence of the electric chair, the injection room or the firing squad may prompt repentance and remorse. However, even then it is not always the case as plenty of death row prisoners face their end either spitting with rage and rebellion or strutting in with false bravado and a defiant gesture.

It is arguable that capital punishment protects the public by removing a threat permanently, but incarceration accomplishes that without the killing.

It remains then to ask whether the execution of a criminal fulfills the demands of retributive justice. Are there crimes so heinous that we must execute the criminal simply because that is what is just? Some would say so. I used to believe so. I no longer do.

Here’s why: it is certainly arguable that one who cruelly and deliberately takes an innocent life should forfeit his own life in return. But a life in prison is also a way to lose one’s life. Perhaps those who are so in favor of the death penalty have never visited a prison or met a man serving a life sentence. I have, and I can tell you that a life sentence is a long, slow death.

The life prisoner has a lifetime to learn remorse. He has a lifetime to count the cost. He has a lifetime to make amends. He has a lifetime to give a life for the life he took.

There is, therefore, no good argument for the death penalty.

But what about the victims of the crime? Do they demand the death penalty? Sometimes they do. Often they do not. Despite the sympathy one has for the victims and their families, justice is not determined by their needs alone. Everything should be done to support and assist them, but executing the criminal does not necessarily bring them closure, and may simply make them feel yet more wounded and soiled by the horror into which they have been plunged.

This is why I support the editorial in our four Catholic publications today. As to the four journals (who normally cater to very different Catholic audiences) coming together, I say Bravo!

I’ll be writing more on the subject of Catholic tribalism later.