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The medicinal value of capital punishment

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 08, 2013

In a short but powerful essay on capital punishment that appears in Crisis magazine, Father George W. Rutler reminds readers that the Catholic Church has traditionally taught, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church ( 2267) still teaches, that the state’s rightful authority to punish criminals “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty…”

The Catechism goes on to stipulate that non-lethal punishment is preferable, and that in practice “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’” But Father Rutler observes that this is a provisional judgment, less authoritative than the general statement that it follows:

As a highly unusual insertion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical formula, this would seem to be more mercurial in application than the doctrine of the legitimacy of the death penalty.

A broader argument can be made about the Catechism’s treatment of this question, and Father Rutler goes on to make it: “What is oddly lacking, however, is reference to capital punishment as medicinal as well as punitive.” The Catechism concentrates on how a convicted criminal may be prevented from further offenses against society. But the punishment of criminals serves other purposes as well. Ideally, a criminal sentence gives the offender an opportunity to reform his life, and puts other potential offenders on notice that crime will not pay.

Imagine this hypothetical case: Two men, A and B, have committed the same crime, which is a serious matter but not a capital offense. We have complete assurance that A would never do the same thing again, and equally certain that B will do it again at his first opportunity. (Such assurances are impossible, but leave that aside for now.) Would we then be justified in setting A loose immediately, since he no longer poses a threat, and incarcerating B for life, since he will be a danger to society as long as he lives? Certainly not, because A still owes a debt to society as a result of his offense, even if it was only a one-time offense. Moreover, if A escapes punishment, others might be tempted toward the same crime, thinking—rightly or wrongly—that they could escape punishment as well. Finally, B deserves the chance to prove that he has amended his ways, even if he will ultimately fail

These are the “medicinal” effects of punishment. The punishment of a criminal should have a positive influence on the convict himself, enabling him to discharge his debt to society and improve his own life. At the same time the punishment should have a positive influence on society at large, reinforcing that society’s sense of revulsion at the crime. As Father Rutler notes, these considerations are absent from the Catechism’s treatment of capital punishment.

The Church, Father Rutler reminds us, has not only allowed for capital punishment but participated in executions. Criminals were put to death in the papal states. Canonized saints accompanied criminals to the place of execution, and even found themselves edified by the process. (It is quite possible for a repentant murderer to have a holy death.) As late as 1946, Father Rutler observes, Pope Pius XII gave his unequivocal support to the Nuremberg Trials, which resulted in death sentences for a dozen Nazi war criminals.

Father Rutler takes no final position on the death penalty, and neither shall I. Capital punishment is problematical at best in our time, when society has grown so hardened to the destruction of human life for reasons of convenience, and when an ever-expanding coalition of powerful interests looks upon sincere Christians as “enemies of the state.” But for the sake of logical consistency, the teaching of the Church should be clarified, to take into account the medicinal purposes of punishing criminals.

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  • Posted by: jacobtoo - Feb. 10, 2013 12:17 PM ET USA

    Good, Jason. Here are two more: read again what happens when "the state" bows to Romeo's friends' pleas and sentences him to "life" instead of death; and watch "Dead Man Walking" again and forget what the author intended.

  • Posted by: jasoncpetty3446 - Feb. 08, 2013 9:01 PM ET USA

    An additional reason strikes me. We have all wondered about the date of our death. If we knew it, would we not behave differently? Those facing capital punishment know the day they are going to die. Such knowledge is certainly a gift.

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