In the meantime, though, as I began to gather my links and thoughts about it all, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to review what the Church teaches about the death penalty, and what my own ideas about it are. Otherwise the post tomorrow will be much too long for anyone to want to read (especially on a Friday).
To begin with, let's look at Church teaching, as summed up in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
What do we take away from this passage in the Catechism?
2266 The State's effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.67
2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.
"If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
"Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]
First: the use of the death penalty is not something that is intrinsically evil; in fact, it is something that is seen as a legitimate use of the authority of a State.
Second: notwithstanding the State's right to execute criminals, it is a better treatment of the dignity of the human person to avoid execution whenever possible. Given the modern ability to incarcerate criminals indefinitely, it is rare that the death penalty will be required.
Two those two points I would add these others, often brought up in death penalty discussions among Catholics:
Third: it is never right or just to see the death penalty as a form of vengeance enacted by the public upon the criminal, regardless of the hideousness of his crimes. This is wrong not because it damages the criminal so much as it is wrong because it damages the person seeking and feeding his impulse toward vengeance--and when the person is, in fact, a whole large group of people or society itself, the potential harm is very great indeed.
Fourth: it is not just for the death penalty to be indiscriminately applied to the poor, especially when this happens simply because a wealthier person accused of a crime will have access to highly-trained lawyers, expert witnesses, and other resources that the poorer person will not have available. Note: I don't mean to denigrate the honest and sincere efforts of public defenders when I write this; but it is simply a reality that a poor defendant relying solely on public defenders may not, despite their best efforts, learn of things that could truly impact his case or his appeal. If the death penalty ceases to be the impartial result of the justice system for all criminals accused of certain types of crimes, and instead becomes applied disproportionately and unjustly to those who lack the monetary resources to defend themselves or create reasonable doubt in the minds of juries, then can the death penalty really be said to be just?
Fifth: the Catechism itself says that the death penalty may be justly applied when the identity of the criminal and his responsibility for the crime have been ascertained fully and completely. But we know that this is not the standard by which the death penalty is applied in America; it is certain that innocent people have been executed in the past and will continue to be executed in the future. Such a thought should fill our souls with horror--and yet accepting the broad use of the death penalty means accepting that some innocent people will likely be executed for crimes they have not committed.
I realize that it is slightly obnoxious for me to quote an earlier writing of mine; but I addressed my own slow journey to full acceptance of the Church's teaching at the Coalition for Clarity blog last year, and would like to share those thoughts here as well:
I eventually came to realize that while States may execute criminals, this does not have to be the first or only response to violent crime, and is subject to so many misuses and miscarriages of justice that any society should proceed with great caution before executing anyone at all. This puts me at odds with a certain faction on the Right, which equates being "tough on crime" with being adamantly in favor of the death penalty and unwilling to discuss its merits or its just application regardless of what the Church teaches.
I personally struggled to embrace this view of the death penalty. For a long time I saw it only as a matter of meting out to violent murderers their "just desserts." I ignored tales of innocent people being executed (or released from Death Row years after being convicted), and of the disproportionate justice offered to the wealthy, who could afford expensive lawyers, and the poor, who had not these means to defend themselves against criminal charges. I didn't think about that corporal work of mercy which orders us to visit the imprisoned, or consider the impact on the souls of victims' families when they would publicly demand the death of the criminal as a kind of revenge for their suffering and loss.Surprisingly enough, it was a purely secular source that led me to rethink my position in favor of the use of the death penalty as it is used here and now, in 21st century America. It was the late Erle Stanley Gardner's book, The Court of Last Resort, that first made me rethink my assumptions in favor of the death penalty. At the time I read this book, I'd been presented with Catholic arguments against the death penalty--I had just rejected them as "liberal" without really thinking about them. Mr. Gardner's book, detailing cases where men were waiting to die when there really was reasonable doubt that they were guilty--and in some cases, abundant evidence that they couldn't possibly be guilty--made me think about the issue in a new way.
Death, after all, is irrevocable. If an innocent man is executed, there is nothing that can be done to remedy the matter. But if a guilty one merely lives out the rest of his life in prison--who, exactly, is harmed? Society is not harmed--because we can't execute prisoners merely to avoid the cost of housing them. Society would only be harmed if the incarceration were lacking and the prisoner continued to hurt or kill people while behind bars--which does happen, and must be addressed.
For the Church teaches that a man doesn't lose his intrinsic dignity even if he has sinned so greatly as to commit violent acts of murder and mayhem; he is still our brother, and we are still his keeper. It is a work of mercy to pray for prisoners, to visit them, to continue to speak to them of God's mercy and of the possibility of forgiveness.
And so I find myself disturbed by the relish with which the death penalty is often spoken of by people whose political views I might otherwise share (at least to some extent). But more about that tomorrow.