The Right of the State

Two former heads of state were laid to rest last week; one, a former President of the United States, and the other, the former dictator of Iraq.  Their deaths were more distant from one another than could be measured by mere miles.

President Ford was remembered as a healer of his country and a man with many admirable qualities, who died of old age surrounded by love and crowned with respect. For the former Butcher of Baghdad, death came at the end of a hangman's noose.  Iraqis, remembering his lifelong plunder and oppression of his countrymen, expressed joy and relief at his demise.  And this brings capital punishment into sharp focus.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church outlines the teaching of the Church on the subject of the death penalty: "Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor" (#2267).   The right of the state to defend itself is not abridged, and the state has the duty to defend itself.  This is ancient Christian doctrine, most famously spelled out by St. Augustine in his famous treatise, City of God.

After establishing this right, however, the Catechism continues:  "Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'"

 There it is: In the eyes of the Church, the state should exercise its right to defend itself through the death penalty very rarely; the Catechism uses the words "practically non-existent" to underline what "rare" means.

The United States of America, alone among Western nations, still puts men to death for crimes against the state.  According to Amnesty International, we are in a fairly ignominious group of nations who still allow capital punishment.  This group includes Iran, China, Vietnam, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.  Notwithstanding that surely there are many good people living in those countries, they are hardly bastions of liberty and Christian principles.  Our inclusion on the list is a sad commentary on how entrenched the culture of death is in our society.

In the case of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi government probably had few options to defend itself from a tyrant who had supporters engaged in an insurgency against the elected government and who was still a source of fear to many.  As long as he lived and fueled the idea that he might return to power, he would continue to be the cause of deadly violence.  His was a hard case, but a rare one, probably the very example of the "last resort" kind of situation the Catechism refers to.  But whether or not it was, it's done and there's no going back.  The sheer finality of that act should give one pause.

Whichever side you take on the Saddam case, it certainly casts a shadow over any other execution, both here and abroad.  It should cause us to reflect: if we should consider sparing the life of the man who murdered thousands of his own countrymen, who continued to fuel murderous acts even from behind bars, how much more should we consider sparing the life of someone guilty of a lesser crime than genocide?

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  • Guest

    I was not in favor of Sadaam’s execution (particularly the fact that it was a hanging). However, I would not call his execution a tragedy the way our Holy Father did. I can think of far greater tragedies that occur every day; for example, this weekend I learned that there is an embryo bank in a Texas clinic where egg donors and sperm donors are solicited, and then embryos are created and banked until a couple comes along to buy them based on their profile. To me, this is a far greater insult to the dignity of life.

  • Guest

    I must voice my position against the death penalty, even for Saddam Hussein. Capital punishment is an act of violence against humans created in the image of God. Our taxes support these acts. Especially based upon the wealth of Church teaching about pro-life issues, I believe we Catholics are called to support life from conception to natural death. I refer to the website for Catholics Against Capital Punishment, http://www.cacp.org which has links to Church documents that address the death penalty.

    I remain a bit confused when some who work so hard to promote pro-life values end up being pro-death penalty. Please read, and pray. We can no longer afford to have pro-life mean only one issue.

  • Guest

    This article is right on and it is much needed. As Catholics, we can support the death penalty. I must respectfully but strongly disagree with delynn. There is a clear distinction between abortion and capital punishment. Many Catholics fail to see the difference. The Church has always taught that the state, by right of natural law, may have recourse to the death penalty. Saint Thomas Aquinas himself wrote the following:

    “If a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump’ (I Cor. 5:6) The life of certain pestiferous men is an impediment to the common good which is the concord of human society. Therefore, certain men must be removed by death from the society of men…. Therefore, the ruler of a state executes pestiferous men justly and sinlessly in order that the peace of the state may not be disrupted….” (Book III, ch. 146).

    Capital punishment is not an intrinsically evil act as, say, abortion clearly is. It would be helpful to read over a letter written by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in 2004. Within the context of discussion the reception of Holy Communion by pro-abortion Catholic politicians, he said the following:

    “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

    This “legitimate diversity of opinion” to which the Cardinal referred to implies that, with regard to the death penalty, Catholics can support it without any facing any moral scruples. The question today is whether or not the death penalty is necessary, but even those who say that it isn’t have never denied that it is the prerogative of the state to have recourse to it, if necessary.

  • Guest

    Very good article. The DP is an excellent example of the wisdom of the teachings of the Church. It should not be taken lightly and is worthy of some deeper thought. We are called to respect the dignity of human persons, even the bad ones. In modern countries, it is a very rare case that the DP is necessary. Yet the state does have the right, and indeed may in some circumstances actually has the duty to execute someone to fulfill its role in protecting the innocent from an unjust aggressor. The key piece, as JamesM said so well, is the necessity of the DP in each circumstance. The DP can not be used as a deterrent, or for cost effectiveness. Only in order to protect the innocent from the unjust aggressor. Unlike abortion, embryonic stem cell research or euthanasia, Catholics in good standing can disagree about the DP’s necessity in a particular case. The same as they can about immigration policy, minimum wage laws, and so forth.

  • Guest

    Ahh, but many of us who view the death penalty as a viable option do so with an eye toward life; life innocent given empowered bastion against life violated.

    To say that this means that I do not trust our order, justice and incarceration systems to so provide protection is self-evident.

    Yet, too, I see capital death punishment as ‘handing over to God’, not ‘ending life of all life’.

    If the death penalty is anathema, how do we project such anathema as I see of those who expose themselves to the death penaty? As a lesser course, do we ‘do something’ about those who have given us this offender in the course of his life? As I mentioned in another thread about ‘debt to society’, and there, too, referring to what offenders owe actual victims instead of the amorphous state: if the Church and state, et al, ministered to capital convicts in the ‘holistic’ way of seeking reform of all about him, as of he himself, I’d give another look. We, simply, do not do this – so, I have to demand protection against further violence that we currently do little else to work to guarantee.

    I will note that Christ’s view of the Mosaic Law is at best inferential. He Himself died a capital criminal, however trumped-up the charges. Indeed, he effectively suffered two executions, for only His determination that, fully and completely, ‘Thy will be done’ kept Him from dying by scourging; Romans not being too particular about how they executed ‘provincials’. It seems He could have uttered an Eighth Word from His quintessential Throne, eh?

    Does the CCC and the Vatican project some spiritual optimism that I cannot abide? Perhaps – and, yet, they simply have not so much of the spiritual and optimistic as to say ‘Nay!’ to capital punishment by death . . .

    Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

  • Guest

    Are Catholics pro-life, believing it is wrong to terminate life? Of course, except in certain very rare cases. A little bit of execution, a little bit of hanging, a little bit of abortion, a little bit of euthanasia are OK in special cases.

    Let us get it clear The Ten Commandments say “Thou shalt not kill”.
    God bless,

    NoelFitz.
    _________________________________________________
    In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas.
    _________________________________________________

  • Guest

    Uh, NoelFitz? tell that to victims of violent offenders – get their response. There is more than passionate emotion of retribution in response to being violated. There is abject fear of being violated again.

    Of your argument, you have a ‘whole cloth’ made of patches of different material. Hanging a murderous person is in any way equivalent to abortion or euthanasia? Do you really believe that?

    To your citing our Fifth Commandment I can extend citation into the Mosaic Law that clearly comes out of the Decalogue. In effect: “As you have taken, so shall you give.” To me, it holds as long as we seem to lack real protections that ease the fears of being violated again.

    Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

  • Guest

    Noelitz,

    With all due respect, your last post is embarrassingly deficient in grasping Church teaching. Abortion and the death penalty are not morally equatable, just as killing and murder cannot be equated, in the absolute sense. As already stated, the Church has always taught that the state has the legitimate power to execute violent criminals. If you accept the spurious, yet apparently widely accepted, belief that the Church views the death penalty as an intrinsically evil act, you would have to accept, by extension, that the Church can change her moral teaching; which, of course, she cannot do. Again, here are the Pope’s thoughts on the subject, from a 2004 letter.

    “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

  • Guest

    Noelfitz:
    It should be pointed out that in it’s original form, the commandment does NOT say “Thou Shalt not kill”, but rather says, “Thou shalt not MURDER.”,.

    To thee, O Lord, I lift up my soul. (Psalm 25)

    Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam
    Viva il Papa!

    We Love B16, and we miss JP2

  • Guest

    Thank you, Viva il Papa, for pointing out what most Christians, much less Catholics, know. One is standing on shaky ground (“shifting sand”?)when one takes a position without knowing the facts. Knowing what the language means–aside from how it was translated–can make all the difference in where one chooses to take a stand. Congratulations, and thank you.
    Viva il Papa, etiam!

  • Guest

    Yet, too, V.i.P. and Cooky – I give credit to NoelFitz in his extension of ‘Thou shalt not . . .’ from ‘murder’ to all death.

    He would not have his Church, his land or his hands bloodied even by taking life of those who are bloodied themselves. In that, there is credit to a man of God seeking a serenity that surpasses, for him.

    Speak on, NoelFitz (and you two other wunderkind) in your gentleness and gentlemanliness.

    Through Christ, with Christ, in Christ,

    Pristinus Sapienter

    (wljewell @catholicexchange.com or … yahoo.com)

  • Guest

    Forced death is not a good. Even in response to Hitler or Saddam. It should be the last option.

    In days of yore this was not the case. Death was all around.

    How can a society like the US that knows so little about death or any type of adversity hang its hat on death so easily? We should be moving away from a tooth for a tooth – not toward it. Especially when we face trouble with Mohammed’s people.

    GK – God is good!

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