The Death Penalty Is Good

Pope Francis is wrong to change the Catechism of the Catholic Church to suit his postmodern, antibiblical leanings, making capital punishment utterly “inadmissible” in civil society, like hearsay evidence in court.

Pegging his new teaching on the “inviolability and dignity of the person,” he has offended decent people by blaspheming against the Bible, calling evil what God calls good and, in the process, violating the very dignity he claims to protect.

Who am I to judge?  A Christian man armed with common sense and the ability to read both the Bible and history in light of the consistent and plain teachings of the Church since the beginning.

This issue transcends Protestant/Catholic/Orthodox debates over doctrine.  Because the Pope has great influence the world over, this change in Catholic teaching—it is, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a change—will further the harm wrought in Western countries where capital punishment is already banned; it will also motivate American politicians, eager to please Catholic voters, who will now seek to ban the death penalty where it still exists.

We need more, not less, of the death penalty.  And not for the reasons commonly cited, the straw men which the Pope seemingly addresses with his new teaching.

C.S. Lewis, in his “Examples of the Tao” appended to The Abolition of Man, catalogs the universal application of the basic principles of natural law.  Every lasting human society has written into song, poem, story, and positive legal statutes the moral principles common to all mankind.  Among these are laws forbidding crimes against the dignity of mankind such as murder and rape, which have been universally deemed capital offenses.  And in his essay “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” Lewis reminds us that these offenses are capital not because the execution of offenders deters crime, nor because it protects society.  Execution for capital crimes has been deemed necessary and good because it is just; it satisfies retributive justice.  Period.  Deterrence, protection, and even rehabilitation are side benefits that occur, sometimes more, sometimes less, when justice is served.

By his change to the Catholic catechism, the Pope has declared that retributive justice either doesn’t exist or else is unattainable in today’s world.  The former fits with his criticisms of the doctrine of Hell, the latter with his Marxian sense of “social justice.”  Either way, by pitting what was “long considered” against the perceived exigencies of “today,” Pope Francis has opened the floodgates to “developments” in moral doctrine that are in fact 180-degree turns in the opposite direction.

The death penalty is not merely “acceptable” or “permissible,” as the two previous popes, who by insinuation laid the rails for this runaway train, taught.  The death penalty is good.  It is reflective of God’s gift of good government, bearing both His design of the world and the mark of His own character.

God Himself handed down the first death sentence.  And since Edenic times, every human government on earth has received the sword of authority from God in order to execute justice.  Flawed justice?  Of course: Unlike God, man is sinful.

The Lord tells sinful Noah and his sinful sons to “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth,” knowing that by turning them loose after the Deluge, they will sin, even during the act of being fruitful with their wives.  Yet He commands them to act, to live as fallen, mortal creatures, according to His commands and in anticipation of His grace.  And in that very same discourse, God tells them, bluntly and plainly, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”  Is this said on a whim, like the commands and musings of arbitrary Allah?  No: The Lord explains why capital punishment is formally necessary and therefore good: “for in the image of God made He man.”  Capital punishment is necessary to preserve the dignity of man, the honor (marred by sin yet still present) bestowed upon man which distinguishes him from the gibbon and the orangutan and the shrimp and the house cat.  Certain crimes against God’s image-bearers have mortal consequences.

When the Lord commands, “Thou shalt not kill,” He is not contradicting Himself.  The Hebrew word means “murder,” not “kill” in the abstract, and carries with it the abiding reality of capital punishment as the just reward for murder.  It is not good that a man commit a crime that demands justice in the form of his own execution.  That is evil; the murderer commits unspeakable evil.  But it is good to execute him.

Not “permissible”: good.

Indeed, according to the Bible cherished by billions of believers for thousands of years, there are other crimes worthy of death.  Rape, adultery, incest, sodomy, bestiality—all of these actions garner the death penalty in the Old Testament.  Why?  Because they violate nature in ways plain to all.  A man may not take what is not his to take, whether sexual pleasure from another man or the virginity of a maid.  Unlike a cow or a lamp, those things, once stolen, cannot simply be restored.  You cannot give a lady back the virtue you have stolen (rapere, Lat. “seize”); instead, you have to pay with your life.

These papal discouragements toward using the death penalty, now culminating in the shocking condemnation of it, bear the mark of the New Natural Law Theory popularized during the late 20th century.  Indeed, it was so popularized that when most today hear “natural law,” they assume we are speaking of abstract “incommensurable” truths that are “self-evident” to fallen human reasoning.  So far from the traditional approach of Thomas Aquinas (and Scripture, and the Protestant divines, and the Church Fathers, and the Romans and Greeks of Classical Antiquity), the writings of today’s “natural law” theorists read like the Declaration of Independence—or, more to the point, the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  Subtly, New Natural Law theorists Grisez, Boyle, and Finnis shifted the subject of the moral conversation from the prescriptive truths—among them, the lex talionis—whose articulation was passed down through the centuries in tradition, to incommensurable and self-evident rights, including the “right to life.”  In the new, modern understanding, every person simply has a right to life, which cannot be violated without also violating his “dignity.”

Yet according to the old and correct view, the death penalty teaches everyone—including its recipient—what true human dignity is.  Death was Ted Bundy’s due when he was found guilty of raping and beheading women, despite (or regardless of) his pleas for clemency based on his conversion to evangelical Christianity.  Indeed, his conversion might have appeared more credible, had he embraced his lethal injection as a testament to the human dignity of the women he savagely violated.

Similarly, by declaring that the Church opposes the death penalty “in light of the Gospel,” Pope Francis undercuts the Gospel.  Christ Himself satisfies the demand of divine justice by giving His life as a ransom for many.  “It pleased the Lord to bruise him” (Isaiah 53:10).

Justice is a virtue, whereby man is duty-bound to render each what he is due.  It is simply not possible that God Almighty told the sons of men that a murderer or rapist is due execution, only to wait for the invention of modern maximum-security prisons in order to change His mind.

What’s done is done.  You cannot unring the bell.  And though bitter the occasion, we must grasp this opportunity to reconsider our moral language and our approach to natural law, especially in the pro-life movement.  What resonates in the hearts of men is not an appeal to an abstract right to life, from which we deduce ethical precepts.  After all, what is “life”?  Shall the biological scientists tell us?  Or pollsters?  Or the abortionists who appeal to the “right to life” on behalf of women who are contemplating infanticide?  No, what resonates in the hearts of men even in this violent and lawless Neo-Noahic Age is the command embedded in every mother’s heart and acknowledged by societies, however imperfectly, throughout time: Thou shalt not kill.  That and the demand of retributive justice that accompanies it.

Aaron D. Wolf

Aaron D. Wolf

Aaron D. Wolf (1973-2019) was Chronicles' executive editor.  His writings have appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers. He was a frequent guest on Issues, Etc. (Lutheran Public Radio) and The Paul Youngblood Show (nta.fm), and has appeared on several other radio programs, including The Tom Clark Show (Wisconsin Public Radio) and Extension 720 With Milt Rosenberg (WGN).

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