The Pope's unconvincing arguments against the death penalty

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 23, 2015

Full disclosure: I oppose the use of the death penalty in America today, for prudential reasons that I may explain in another essay. When Pope Francis said execution is always inadmissible, I was not dismayed by his conclusion. But I was dismayed by the logic he used to reach that conclusion.

”For the rule of law, the death penalty represents a failure,” the Holy Father told the International Commission against the Death Penalty. Perhaps so. In an ideal world, all criminals would be fully rehabilitated; they would pay their debts to society and become productive members of society. For that matter, in an ideal world there would be no criminals. But we do not live in an ideal world. Sometimes the system fails, and sometimes criminals remain dangerous to society despite our best efforts to rehabilitate them.

If capital punishment is excluded, then the most dangerous criminals must be kept behind bars indefinitely. Pope Francis argues that the death penalty is unnecessary because the prisoners on Death Row are no longer a threat to society; he says that their “current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralized—they are already deprived of their liberty.” But that statement is simply inaccurate. Even if we set aside the possibility that an imprisoned killer could escape and terrorize the general population, we should not ignore the threat that a vicious criminal poses to his fellow inmates and to prison guards. Brutal and unrepentant convicts make prison life less humane, and thereby make it more difficult to rehabilitate less serious offenders.

But Pope Francis seems to exclude even the possibility of lifetime sentences, since he says that a life term maybe “considered as a sort of overt death penalty.” Is he contradicting himself here? Or is he proposing that a serial killer must eventually be released?

In making his case against the death penalty, Pope Francis reasons that execution is unnecessary because the killer has already been apprehended, so there is no danger that he will kill again. But here he assumes that capital punishment has no purpose other than protecting society from someone who poses an immediate threat.

Actually the death penalty (or any criminal penalty) has two other important purposes. First it is intended to deter other potential criminals, putting them on notice that they might pay dearly for their offenses. Second it is intended to show the society’s repugnance toward the crime.

To illustrate the latter point, consider a hypothetical case. Imagine a man was justly convicted of a capital crime, but we could somehow know with absolute certainty that he had repented, reformed his life, and would never harm anyone again. Should he then be set free, since he would no longer pose a danger to society? No! Even if he might be a model citizen, he still owes a debt to society that must be paid.

A Catholic priest, in the confessional, can absolve even the most serious sin with only a token penance. But that it because the sinner’s debt has already been discharged, two thousand years ago on Calvary. Secular society cannot take the same attitude without trivializing serious crimes. We may argue about the extent of an offender’s debt, or how it should be repaid. But if we take it for granted that a convicted criminal owes nothing to society, that is a failure of the rule of law.

Pope Francis claims:

With the application of the death penalty, the convict is denied the possibility to repent or make amends for the harm caused; the possibility of confession, by which a man expresses his inner conversion, and contrition, the gateway to atonement and expiation, to reach an encounter with God's merciful and healing justice.

Here again the Pope’s statement seems clearly to be factually incorrect. A convict who is scheduled for execution has both the opportunity and the incentive to set his life in order, to make a good confession, to prepare himself for a final judgment. One could argue that by forcing him to focus on his imminent death, the state gives the convict a rare incentive for repentance. St. Thomas Aquinas made roughly that argument in favor of capital punishment, in direct opposition to the Pope’s argument.

In perhaps the most troubling passage of his March 20 address, Pope Francis said: “States kill when they apply the death penalty, when they send their people to war or when they carry out extrajudicial or summary executions.” Here three completely different sorts of government action are tossed together in an illogical jumble.

And the Pope compounds the problem by going on to say that governments “can also kill by omission, when they fail to guarantee to their people access to the bare essentials for life.” Is he seriously suggesting that the government of a poor country, by failing to stop a famine, is as guilty of “killing” its citizens as a government like the military dictatorship in his native Argentina, which kidnapped citizens by night and executed them without trial?

We can all agree, I hope, that extrajudicial executions—lynchings—are morally indefensible. Perhaps Pope Francis had in mind the brutal mass murders of the Islamic State when he conceded that governments do sometimes have the right, and even the duty, “to repel an ongoing assault proportionately to avoid damage caused by the aggressor, and the need to neutralize him could lead to his elimination.” So making war can sometimes be right, whereas summary executions can never be right, and capital punishment is the topic under discussion. To toss the three things together in a sentence can only produce confusion.

Pope Francis has developed a reputation for making offhand remarks that sometimes cause consternation among the faithful. But his message to the International Commission against the Death Penalty was apparently not delivered extemporaneously; the Vatican announced that the Pope had given a “letter” to the group’s leader. It is distressing that a prepared statement by the Roman Pontiff—which would inevitably be interpreted, rightly or wrongly, as an expression of the teaching magisterium—would make such unconvincing arguments.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - May. 05, 2017 10:30 PM ET USA

    Please speak to Lous Pepe and his family about who is "neutralized". In prison, an Islamic terrorist was able to sharpen a comb into a dagger to plunge into his skull and brain, leaving him permanently disabled. Pepe was chosen to be the victim for this attempted prison break because he treated the prisoners with respect.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Apr. 22, 2015 1:19 PM ET USA

    What is disturbing about Francis is that he doesn't seem to ever pursue a contrary advocate to consult with in privacy before making his views public.

  • Posted by: Minnesota Mary - Apr. 09, 2015 10:58 PM ET USA

    How many people per year are executed? How many babies are killed by abortion? Obsessing about capital punishment while ignoring the staggering numbers of innocents put to death through abortion is the sign of a sick and twisted society.

  • Posted by: Redneckwomandesigns9881 - Apr. 09, 2015 2:46 PM ET USA

    The single biggest predictor on whether someone will murder is whether or not they have already murdered. Unfortunately, putting many murderers behind bars doesn't keep them from killing again. What it does is confine their murders to people society generally doesn't care about: other criminals and a guard or two. A blanket opposition to the death penalty b/c we can keep them locked up only dehumanizes the victims of those who are likely to murder again. Can I oppose the dp b/c my own are safe?

  • Posted by: alirob86799 - Mar. 25, 2015 8:04 PM ET USA

    The U.S. bishops have conceded that Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime. Even the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin – hardly a conservative – never stated that every criminal has a right to continue living, nor did he deny that the state has the right in some cases to execute the guilty. St. John Paul II, although opposed to most applications of the death penalty, thought the same.

  • Posted by: seewig - Mar. 24, 2015 8:15 PM ET USA

    I would agree with Dr. Mirus' statement against the death penalty. But a life sentence without parole is like a "death" too. It must be almost more inhumane than simply killing the murderer. But I am not done with this simple statement. I have a huge problem with the prosecution of murderers. Often a jury (humans) has to make a decision, who may not have been shown all evidence (allowed or disallowed by the judge) And that is my biggest problem. Until that has been solved: no death penalty.

  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Mar. 24, 2015 10:22 AM ET USA

    The Pope is making a strong statement but he is attacking a forest fire with a squirt gun. Death penalty largely kills the poor. Do not the rich murder? Governments omit jobs and make money unavailable so people die. Is this not murder by omission. Wars waged that do not meet just war criteria is killing on a massive scale. Our war against "terror" is an unjust war. Instead of eliminating terror it is creating it. Man's law is not ideal and the sooner we agree on that the better.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 23, 2015 6:26 PM ET USA

    Distressing indeed. But it is important to note that there are folks who have argued for some time that this day would come. Sooner or later. Perhaps more distressing is the possibility that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The distressing part is not the conclusion- at least not entirely. The distressing part is "what it takes" to get there (with this and other topics) and the willingness to do (and say) "what it takes."

  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - Mar. 23, 2015 11:54 AM ET USA

    Thank you for this. I like Catholic Culture because you don't twist logic or Church teaching in order to reach a conclusion just because "the Pope said so."