The big news in my corner of the world is that Washington State Governor Jay Inslee has declared a moratorium on the death penalty.
Now, I don’t pay too much attention to the news; there’s too much of it, and I have a hard time sorting through what’s important and what’s not. I’m much more comfortable with principles than with application. Politics in particular both confounds and depresses me. For the most part, I avoid it.
So the furor over this decision caught me by surprise – mostly because I’ve had my head in the sand for a while.
Moreover, the Catholic teaching on this topic is somewhat complex and subtle. So I’ll try to present the principles as clearly as I’m able.
The dignity of the human person
The primary principle at work here is that every person, simply by the fact of being human, has inherent and inalienable dignity. For believing Catholics, this is founded on what is called the imago Dei, or the “image of God” (see Genesis 1.26-27). For non-Christians, the dignity of every human person may be based on other factors (which Catholics also recognize), such as intelligence, free will, or just our common DNA. But most people these days are agreed on this: every human being is valuable, has basic rights, and is worthy of protection by society.
One of the implications of this principle is that human life is worth preserving, and that killing another human is therefore wrong.
Most of the time, most people are fine with this. Murder is seen as one of the worst crimes anyone can commit. A person who accidentally causes another person’s death is still considered to have done wrong.
But there are hard cases: abortion, self defense, war, suicide (whether physician-assisted or not), and of course capital punishment.
The role of The State
Most of the hard cases involve individuals killing other individuals, but the cases of war and capital punishment involve killing on behalf of “The State”.
By “The State,” I mean whatever entity is responsible for the common good of a community. Today, this is usually some kind of constitutionally established government, but historically it may have included monarchs, tribal elders, conquering warlords, and so on. It does not imply a democracy, and does not mean one of the 50 states in the U.S.A. I’ll capitalize “The State” to keep this distinction clear.
The State, because it has responsibility for the good of society as a whole, has historically been treated somewhat differently from individuals, morally speaking. For example, it is unjust to go looking through someone else’s stuff – unless you are an agent of The State, such as a police detective investigating a crime. It is unjust to take people’s hard-earned money – unless you are an agent of The State, such as a tax collector. It is unjust to force someone to work for you – unless you are enforcing a military draft, or are in charge of a prison work gang.
Now, because The State only has these “rights” because it has responsibility for the good of all, the common good. If The State ever abuses its powers, then the citizens have no obligation to obey, and may even be obliged to oppose or overthrow, the unjust government. As St. Augustine expressed it, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., repeated, “An unjust law is no law at all.”
The hard case of capital punishment
So, life being about as common a good as you can get, The State’s most important responsibility is to protect the lives of its citizens. And this, ironically, is the source of The State’s authority to wage war and to impose the death penalty. Both are analogous to the individual’s right to self defense: The State may use deadly force to defend itself – but only to defend itself – against a deadly attack.
In the case of war, this is fairly straightforward. Just War Theory has been well developed and articulated over the centuries. But objections to capital punishment have arisen only recently.
The Catholic Church takes a rather nuanced stance: the Church insists that The State has a legitimate authority to execute criminals, but also grounds that authority exactly in The State’s responsibility to protect the lives of all its citizens, including those guilty of crimes. Therefore, the Church also insists that the death penalty be an absolute last resort, and that it be used only to protect society from a criminal’s the deadly threat.
Since most modern prisons are fairly secure against escape, life imprisonment seems a preferable alternative to capital punishment. So popes (and many bishops) since John Paul II have urged the world to refrain from using the death penalty at all. However, because the Church proposes principles rather than policies, she does not condemn executions as everywhere and always unjust or sinful. Rather, she raises the question whether it really is absolutely necessary.
If an execution is not absolutely necessary to protect the community from a deadly threat, then that execution must be considered unjust.