Unmasking the Executioner
In a 1926 essay, “The Penalty of Death,” American satirist and cultural X-rayer H.L. Mencken presented his arguments in favor of the death penalty. Mencken thought the practice was worth preserving mostly because of the “salubrious discharge of emotions” it offers, a “healthy letting off of steam” that he called katharsis. He contended that “one of the prime objects of all judicial punishments is to afford…grateful relief (a) to the immediate victims of the criminal punished, and (b) to the general body of moral and timorous men.”
For Mencken, katharsis was especially important where capital crimes were concerned. Without flushing the stain of murder, rape, or some other heinous offense from the hearts and minds of the living — without summing that grim and left-handed equation by which the horror of transgression is balanced out by retribution against the transgressor — there could be no real peace, either in the breast of the wronged and aggrieved, or in society at large. Some crimes are so wicked that they demand a mortal recompense. In Mencken’s view, where wanton violence has thrown the world out of order, somehow only lawful and deliberate violence can restore the world to working form. Until the dark price has been paid, society cringes in a sickly light. Katharsis, won by taking the life of he who brought chaos into our midst, is the only cure for the community stricken by unimaginable evil. We pin the sickness to his lapel and send him back to God.
Truth be told, I agree with Mencken. I agree as a Catholic. As Monica Migliorino Miller, who is opposed to the death penalty, set forth in these pages (“Is Francis’s Revised Teaching on the Death Penalty a Development of Doctrine?” Dec. 2018), and as other faithful Catholics, such as Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, have also argued, the Church’s teaching on capital punishment has been consistent for all but the past 50 or so years. Those who wish to renounce the death penalty by appealing to the Magisterium must slalom through a whole field of counterarguments.
There is also something about the death penalty that casts light into the darker corners of our human nature. If I peer into my own soul and am honest, I can see that the desire for revenge is not a godly want. But the desire for justice is. I take no pleasure when I learn that a rapist, murderer, pedophile, or gangbanger has met his Maker at the end of a rope or in the electric chair. But, God help me, I do take satisfaction. Thank God, it is done, I think. The human heart is a murky swamp, and things are not always as they seem, but it is this murky thing that Christ came to save, and it gives me great comfort — yes, that is the word — to see the sheep being separated from the goats. Vengeance is Mine, saith the Lord. Vengeance and glory be to God forever, but the earthly settling of accounts is, by some mysterious design, up to men to work out. The Bible makes it clear as day: God sometimes uses princes for chastisement (cf., e.g., Jer. 38.).
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