The death penalty is one of the most controversial issues in society. It strikes at a fundamental religious and philosophical question: Can an individual become so depraved that they deserve death?
One must balance the offender’s dignity with the need for justice to effectively address this issue. Historically, Roman Catholic theologians such as Thomas Aquinas have answered in the affirmative.
Beyond theology, classical philosophers such as Aristotle and Cicero reached similar conclusions. There is an almost limitless human capacity for evil. It is the state’s duty to administer justice. To refrain from abusing this power, it must do so after reasoned deliberation. Additionally, it must be guided by the principle that the punishment fit the crime.
This is a faithful realism: It accounts for the imperfections in human justice by instituting limits on state power while recognizing human depravity. Thus, an account of the death penalty must account for both circumstances and intentions.
Absolutism vs. Faithful Realism
In contrast, Pope Francis has codified the opposite perspective into Roman Catholic teaching. Instead of a faithful realism, Pope Francis has adopted an absolutist position, fundamentally rejecting the traditional framework. His position does not account for the role of circumstances in administering punishments, but asserts that divine mercy overrules the principles of proportionality and prudence.
Pope Francis’s position on the death penalty is characterized by an unwavering absolutism. He states that capital punishment is “an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any purpose of punishment.”
Additionally, Pope Francis opposes life sentences on similar grounds. The central question is not capital punishment alone, but how dignity and justice might be reconciled. Moreover, the pope’s teachings are not a call for legislators to reform their nations’ judicial systems.
This radical position has been codified into the catechism. It notes that prior to the revision, “legitimate authority” and a “fair trial” could justify an execution. In the current formulation, these circumstances are no longer relevant. This is a dangerous departure from classical reason.
In his address to the Bundestag, Pope Benedict XIV taught that Greek reason, Roman law, and Jewish faith are foundational to the modern world:
“The conviction that there is a Creator God is what gave rise to the idea of human rights, the idea of the equality of all people before the law, the recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions.”
With this in mind, we can steer towards a faithful realism by revisiting these foundations.
An Appropriate Punishment
The traditional Catholic teaching as articulated by Thomas Aquinas harmonizes these elements. Firstly, it acknowledges that accountability recognizes an individual’s dignity. As they are blessed with reason, one can justly hold them responsible for their choices.
Nevertheless, through choice, one can lose reason. Aquinas holds that the death penalty is acceptable when a sinner “withdraws from the order of reason,” forfeiting their dignity. As a Christian, he believes that sinners can repent and regain their dignity. Nevertheless, capital punishment is justified as human justice “reserves for repentance those who sin without grievously harming others.” While many depart from reason in their sins, these constitute understandable lapses in judgment.
The state can effectively address these issues through the typical range of punishments ranging from fees to imprisonment. The exceptionally depraved commit grievous harms, however, such as the obvious example of cold-blooded murder. Such acts constitute more than understandable lapses in judgment; they are fundamentally evil. Thus, the penalties must be more severe to address this grave evil. Law cannot hope to remedy all harm, much less to heal the soul. Therefore, it is the law’s duty to specifically identify grievous harms and to prescribe an appropriate punishment.
Additionally, Thomas Aquinas believed that the magistrate’s motives must be considered in administering punishments. Judgements must be made “with an inclination towards justice” for the common good. Thus, Aquinas disapproves of hasty and intemperate judgments. In a modern context, this would translate to requiring a fair trial with defendants possessing ample rights.
In Aquinas’s essentially moderate position, we see the emergence of equality before the law. He explicitly rejects a draconian approach, requiring that only grievous sins warrant the ultimate punishment. Thus, Aquinas permitted the death penalty in certain circumstances. This position effectively balances charity with the demands of justice. The death penalty is just only when administered with righteous intent toward the exceptionally depraved.
Aristotle: A Pattern of Vicious Behavior
Similarly, Aristotle notes that one of humanity’s quintessential qualities is the ability to shape one’s own character. Through actions, one becomes virtuous or vicious. When an individual engages in a pattern of vicious behavior, however, redemption becomes increasingly unlikely. Pursuing this line of reasoning, Aristotle declares in his Nicomachean Ethics:
…at one time then, it was possible for him not to be sick; but in letting himself go, it is no longer possible, just as it is not possible for someone to toss away a stone and then retrieve it. Nonetheless, the throwing was up to him, because the origin of [of the throwing] is in him.
Through their reason and choices, humans can become completely depraved and must therefore be held accountable for their actions. One may protest this position as too severe; surely, redemption is always possible. While redemption always exists as a possibility, it becomes increasingly unlikely if an offender persistently refuses to reform.
Moreover, accountability reinforces human dignity. It is only because humans are capable of reason and choice, Aristotle argues in his Politics, that they can become “the most unholy and savage of the animals.” Unlike beasts, humans can be not only dangerous, but truly evil. What is the appropriate legal response to such persons?
Despite his emphasis on character, Aristotle takes a moderate tone towards legal justice. Justice requires a degree of equality; it is not the perpetrator’s character on trial but rather their actions. The overarching principle is that judges “restore equality by inflicting a loss.” Humans are unlimitedly responsible for their character and are uniquely capable of evil. Therefore, they are capable of committing extraordinary crimes, warranting extraordinary punishment. Thus, Aristotle affirms that individuals can degrade themselves and can deserve death.
Cicero: Capital Punishment for the Common Good
In a parallel to Aristotle, Cicero, a Roman statesman and philosopher, also took a moderate approach to punishment. “Punishment and correction should never be insulting. It should be undertaken in accordance with what is useful to the republic.” To borrow a phrase from the Bill of Rights, severe punishments need not be “cruel and unusual.” Such punishments do not benefit the community.
What creates an insulting punishment? Cicero’s interest lies in motivation. While a corrupt or bigoted judge and an impartial judge can both administer severe punishments, only one is cruel. The first employs the state’s power and authority merely to satisfy a personal ambition. In contrast, although severe punishments are not always justified, Cicero would approve of a judge who honestly believes that a severe punishment can benefit the community.
Law can be gentle and forgiving, but it also must be willing to administer severe punishments, such as when confronting a tyrant. Tyrants ought to be severed from the community.
For surely, as when certain limbs are amputated if they begin to lack either blood or, as it were, life, and begin to harm the remaining parts of the body, so, too, this feral and savage brute with the figure of a human being must be removed, as it were, from the common body of humanity.
Tyranny devastates on an unparalleled scale. A private individual, no matter how depraved, is only capable of minor losses compared to a government. Thus, in harmony with Aristotle’s principle of equality, the ultimate crimes such as genocide warrant the ultimate punishment.
Even under these extraordinary circumstances, Cicero asserts the need for reasoned deliberation. A judgment of this type cannot be just if motivated by self-interest. It must be done for others. Thus, Cicero saw capital punishment as a legitimate means of serving the common good.
Return to Classical Reasoning
Can individuals justly deserve death? Pope Francis answers with an unequivocal “no.” This “no” represents a revolutionary redefinition of dignity and justice. From Thomas Aquinas, we see that faith leads to recognizing that all individuals possess a certain dignity. Like Aristotle and Cicero, Aquinas recognizes that dignity cannot negate accountability, however. Under certain circumstances, accountability can require capital punishment.
Pope Francis’s teachings do not recognize this, and they constitute not only a break with traditional Catholic teaching, but with the very foundations of the modern world. Altruism, unbound by classical reason, is dangerous. It is a pathway to moral relativism.
What is needed? A return to classical reason leads to a faithful realism. This path will lead to an effective balancing of dignity and justice.