Catholics and Capital Punishment
Catholic opponents of the death penalty sometimes seem to lose sight of the primary purpose of punishment. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, "Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense." If I commit a serious offense against society, I bring about a disorder, and the point of punishment is to reestablish the lost order. If I willingly accept my punishment, "it assumes the value of expiation." And it can protect you from future crimes I might commit. The Catechism thus gives three purposes of punishment: defending public order, protecting people, and moral change in the criminal.
Unless, as suggested, "protecting society" be taken to comprehend "redressing the disorder." (Paragraph 2266 distinguishes "defending public order" from "protecting people's safety.") One sometimes hears in the clamor to end the death penalty that retribution is no longer the aim of punishment. But if there is no cause for retribution, punishment is unjust: All that would excuse it is the fear that someone might in the future harm us and that solitude might better his soul.
Enthusiasm sometimes obscures the fact that the Catechism "does not exclude recourse to the death penalty." However rare such recourse might be, even if it were only once in a millennium, it would have to be justified. The long and rich tradition of Catholic morality has made clear what that justification is. That doctrine is what would justify capital punishment, however rarely exacted. Which is why that doctrine must not be, however implicitly, trashed. We should not preen ourselves, as we join the somewhat motley parade of opponents of capital punishment, that we have advanced beyond our tradition to a higher plane of morality.
Actually, the Holy Father's campaign against having recourse to capital punishment is a corollary to his evaluation of dominant trends in modern culture. Ours, he has said, is a culture of death. We live in a country where, as Russ Hittinger puts it,...