Capital Punishment in Context

Five points for reflection

I’ve just reconnoitered a website that lays out seventeen well-argued essays on whether capital punishment is inherently wrong. Their authors don’t reach a consensus, nor is one likely to emerge any time soon. So what are we to do?

As always with controverted questions, we should pray for clarity and insight. To that end, I’d like to suggest five points for reflection.

The first of these is in keeping with the October canonization of John Henry Newman. Doctrine develops, as he famously wrote, and it does so without contradiction. The integrity of doctrine calls for a deeper appreciation of its sources. As a matter of history, the Church’s teaching on slavery and usury and religious liberty has developed.

The second point is that doctrine finds its roots in Scripture. St. John Paul II, discussing capital punishment in Evangelium Vitae (n. 9), highlights God’s response to Cain’s murder of his brother: “God, who is always merciful even when he punishes, ‘put a mark on Cain, lest any who came upon him should kill him’ (Gen 4:15). He thus gave him a distinctive sign, not to condemn him to the hatred of others, but to protect and defend him from those wishing to kill him, even out of a desire to avenge Abel’s death. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.”

The dignity of the person, a third point for reflection, is that God fashions us in His own image and likeness. Out of love, God directly creates the soul of every human being. (Even the damned, insofar as they exist, give evidence of God’s creative love.) Neither Cain nor any criminal forfeit the dignity of the human person.

A fourth point is that philosophy, with the impetus of revelation, can help us better understand how it is that the life, the “to be” of a human person, is a basic good. As such, life is both  incommensurable and non-fungible. While I might courageously risk my life to save another, I cannot deliberately kill one person to save another—or even a hundred others. Of course, the consequentialist denies this. But consequentialism turns the person, and the basic goods of the person, into tools for utilitarian manipulation.

There is a fifth point to consider. Our knowledge of the natural law can grow over time, at least insofar as our culture becomes more humane. A just criminal law system can overcome the routine execution or enslavement of criminals. Prisons can secure public safety. A chastened criminal law admits the multiform biases that mock the presumption of innocence. And as we execute fewer and fewer criminals, we can achieve a level of insight that increasingly points to ending capital punishment.

A final note, however, is in order. In his Philosophy of History Jacques Maritain insists that there is no easy or linear moral progress. Rather, he argues, there is a painful tension between our choices for the good and our undermining of those choices. Are we more aware of human rights? Yes, and we are more confused about their justification. Does our scientific advance offer us longer and healthier lives? Yes, and we are more confused about the moral limits of science. It is easy enough to add to such a list of ethical contradictions. Where are we to end? A Christian philosophy of history, lest we forget, understands that all history, personal and communal, ends with a final Judgment.


Jim Hanink is an independent scholar, albeit more independent than scholarly!

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