Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

3/21/2012 (4 years ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The way I seek to effect a reconciliation between the two is to distinguish between the order of justice and the order of mercy

The question of capital punishment within the Catholic Church is a thorny one, and it is difficult within the cacophony of competing voices to sort out the current state of the Church's teaching. The Church's teaching that relates to the intentional killing of an innocent human being by either public authority or a private actor is certain.The teaching of the Church on the killing of a malefactor-specifically as found in Pope John Paul II's Evangelium vitae and the editio typica of the Catechism of the Catholic Church-is not quite as absolute

An electric chair

An electric chair

Highlights

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

3/21/2012 (4 years ago)

Published in U.S.

Keywords: capital punishment, death penalty, Gospel of Life, common good, justice, mercy, Andrew M. Greenwell


CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - The question of capital punishment within the Catholic Church is a thorny one, and it is difficult within the cacophony of competing voices to sort out the current state of the Church's teaching. 

The Church's teaching that relates to the intentional killing of an innocent human being by either public authority or a private actor is certain.  It is an absolute and exceptionless norm that the intentional killing of an innocent human being is in each and every case an intrinsic evil, against the natural moral law, and a violation of the Fifth Commandment.  It is a sin against justice and against charity.  EV, 57, 62, 65, 71.

The teaching of the Church on the killing of a malefactor-specifically as found in Pope John Paul II's Evangelium vitae and the editio typica of the Catechism of the Catholic Church-is not quite as absolute, and hence the uncertainty.  EV, 57. 

Before he was pope, Cardinal Ratzinger himself recognized this in a letter to the U.S. Bishops dated July 3, 2004, where he recognized that "if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment . . . he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to Holy Communion."  While urged to "exercise discretion and mercy . . . it may still be permissible . . . to have recourse to capital punishment."

Without suggesting that I have the final word on the matter which is in a little state of flux and which better minds than mine have struggled, I have tried to do two things in this very short treatment. 

First, I have tried to preserve the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church that the death penalty may be justly applied by public authority, i.e., that it is not a moral evil and in fact is a moral good, in a proper case, to put a malefactor to death for a serious capital offense.  I believe that teaching to be irreformable.  But I have also tried to give John Paul II's teaching in Evangelium vitae which has found its way into the Catechism of the Catholic Church its full and plenary meaning without quibbling.  And taking both teachings, I have attempted to reconcile the two.

The way to I seek to effect a reconciliation between the two is to distinguish between the order of justice and the order of mercy.  As St. Ambrose put it in his letter to the Christian judge Studius, "authority, you see, has its rights, but mercy has its policy." 

In Evangelium vitae, with respect to the malefactor and the "problem of the death penalty," John Paul II is not focusing on the rights of authority in the order of justice to execute a malefactor, but on mercy's policies.  He is balancing two goods: one of justice and one of mercy.

Within the order of justice, for the public authority to put a malefactor guilty of a capital offense to death is no wrong.  It is justified by the good of retributive or vindicative justice, and the public authority, as custodian of the common good, has that power given to it by God.  It is certainly an evil in the physical order, but it is a moral good in the order of justice

This is the constant teaching of the Church, and it is found in the Old Testament (e.g., Gen. 9:6, Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17), and New Testament (e.g., Rom. 13:1-7), and from St. Clement of Alexandria, to St. Thomas Aquinas, to St. Alphonsus Liguori, the Gratian, to Popes Innocent I and Innocent III to Pius XII.  Indeed, I find it to be consistent with John Paul II's teaching in Evangelium vitae, who observes that while an innocent's life has absolute value, a malefactor's life is not likewise so absolute.  EV, 57.

However, the order of justice is not the only order that informs the good.  There is also an order of mercy.  If a malefactor may justly be put to death, there is the further question: is there room for mercy?  And if so, when?

In Evangelium vitae, Pope John Paul II provides the analysis for the limits of mercy within the context of the death penalty.  Adopting the analysis that is used when a private party defends against an unjust aggressor, the Pope teaches that mercy may theoretically extend as far out to the point where "absolute necessity" requires otherwise, in other words, "when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society."  EV, 56.  This is the outer limit for mercy. 

To go beyond this limit would be to expose society to danger, and that would be uncharitable, unmerciful, indeed unjust.  St. Thomas says that mercy without justice is dissolution.  Misericordia sine iustitia mater est dissolutionis.  The public authority may not forego justice and exercise mercy on a malefactor guilty of a capital offense if the result would be to expose the public to harm.  Obviously, the better the "organization of the penal system," the less the exercise of mercy exposes the public to harm.  This is a contingent circumstance public authority must consider in exercising clemency.

In answering the question of when a malefactor who justly could be put to death ought to be the beneficiary of mercy, the responsible public authority must consider other contingent circumstances, such as the "concrete conditions of the common good," including the "public order."  For example, the public authority might consider that there is a "growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it [the death penalty] be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely." EV, 56. 

The reason why this is a proper consideration is that the larger the proportion of the populace opposed to the death penalty is, the lesser the sense that such a punishment is required for vindicating the order of justice.  While the malefactor might justly be put to death objectively without moral fault, the "public order" might not share in the sentiment that the malefactor ought to be put to death. 

On the other hand, if the public sentiment is the opposite, the "public order" might demand that mercy not be extended to the fullest theoretical limits.  An example of this is if granting clemency to a justly condemned malefactor would almost certainly result in rioting by the population.

Moreover, the public authority should consider the intrinsic dignity of the malefactor, who, though he has "marred" his dignity and has "deform[ed] the image of God in his own person," has not effaced it, and in fact never can efface it.  EV, 36, The malefactor remains a human being whose fundamental ontological dignity is unaffected despite his crimes, and is the potential subject of God's grace and conversion.  After all, he still has a soul.  It is the traditional teaching of the Church that the conversion of one soul is worth the entirety of material creation.  It is a manifest, extraordinary good.  It is a pearl of great price.  (Matt. 13:45)

That is the meaning behind the parable of the lost sheep, where the good shepherd leaves the ninety-nine that are safe, and is solicitous for the one who has gone astray (Matt. 18:12-14; Luke 15:3-7).  The good of mercy exceeds the good of justice on a scale of 99:1.  The Church, says the Venerable John Henry Newman, "holds that it were better for sun and moon to drop from heaven . . . than one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but commit one single venial sin."  The exercise of clemency to allow a man more time to convert to God is a great good.

Iustitia sine misericordia crudelitas est says St. Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on the Gospel of Matthew.  "Justice without mercy is cruelty."  There is great good in mercy.

Even if there is some incremental good in the order of retributive justice that is lost by letting a man guilty of a capital offense live through clemency, the good in the order of mercy potentially gained, given the value of the conversion of a human soul, is vastly great and very arguably a better thing.

Finally, the times the Christian is enjoined to have mercy as mercy was had on him in the Scriptures is so prevalent as to resist citation.  In a nutshell, the Gospel message is as Pope St. Nicholas I (r. 858-67) put it in his letter to the Bulgars: "You should save from death not only the innocent, but also criminals, because Christ has saved you from the death of the soul."  Here is Pope St. Nicholas speaking in the order of mercy.

To the cry of "injustice!" from a man justly condemned to die, Christians will turn a deaf ear, for this is not true.  But to the cry of "mercy!" from a man justly condemned to die, Christians will pause.  It is in this forum--not of justice, but of mercy--where the sinner, the malefactor will always have an audience, and one that is biased in his favor.

Sure.  We may be resistant, like Shylock in Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice.  "On what compulsion must I?  Tell me that!"  Our sense of justice may be offended.

Though there be no compulsion of justice (and therefore no mortal sin), there is a sort of compulsion of mercy.  Justice must be tempered by mercy.  Shakespeare restates what we know to be the better virtue when he has Portia say in response to Shylock's question:

But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice.


We might also here adopt the prayer of St. Anselm of Canterbury which applies to all of us malefactors, for all of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  (Rom. 3:23).  We all, like sheep, have gone astray. (Isaiah 53:6)

Parce per clementiam,
Ne ulcisaris per iustitiam.


Spare in mercy;
Avenge not in justice.

-----

Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

---


Pope Francis: end world hunger through 'Prayer and Action'


Copyright 2016 - Distributed by THE CALIFORNIA NETWORK

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for May 2016
Universal:
Respect for Women: That in every country of the world, women may be honored and respected and that their essential contribution to society may be highly esteemed.
Evangelization: Holy Rosary: That families, communities, and groups may pray the Holy Rosary for evangelization and peace.



Comments


More U.S.

BREAKING: ISIS kills Navy SEAL Watch

Image of ISIS breaks Peshmerga lins to kill U.S. Navy SEAL (navysealsmuseum).

By Kenya Sinclair (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

A U.S. Navy SEAL was killed in the line of duty when ISIS forces pushed their way through a Kurdish Peshmerga line. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - "It is a combat death, of course. And a very sad loss," U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said during an official ... continue reading


'It was an escape:' father of Scientology founder tells all Watch

Image of Ron Miscavige, the father of Scientology leader David Miscavige, opens up (20/20)

By Kenya Sinclair (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Ron and Becky Miscavige escaped the California Scientology compound known as the "Gold Base" and have stepped forward to share their story. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Scientology is a quiet religion shrouded in secrets - many of which are believed to be ... continue reading


'Clown-in-Chief' Obama makes skit about retirement, but here's why we're not laughing Watch

Image of Obama thinks he's a comedian, but some matters are too serious to joke about.

By David Drudge (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

President Obama, in an act of self-depreciating humor, has made a SNL-style spoof about his retirement. While amusing at moments, we can't decide if the video is good, because to make it he had to take time away from issuing executive orders, or bad, because it must ... continue reading


CIA under fire for 'live tweeting' dramatic Bin Laden raid on 5 year anniversary Watch

Image of Though some patriots were pleased to see the tweets, several compared the CIA to ISIS and their propaganda videos.

By Kenya Sinclair (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

The CIA celebrated the 5-year anniversary of Osama bin Ladin's death by posting "live tweets" of the raid that killed him. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - For those who don't have a Twitter account, the CIA posted a timeline of the raid on their website.The tweets ... continue reading


Athanasius, Defender of the Incarnation: Defend the Faith! Watch

Image of St. Athanasius, Bishop and Doctor of the Incarnation

By Deacon Keith Fournier

The Bishop and Doctor of the Church whom we honor today in the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar was called the Defender of the Incarnation. This title summarizes a life given over to defending the central Christian claim - about who Jesus is and who we can be - ... continue reading


No Phony Truces in the Battle to Block Most Anti-Life, Liberal Court in a Generation

Image of The United States Supreme Court

By J. Kenneth Blackwell

While much of our attention is on the Presidential race, the looming battle over a Supreme Court nomination merits no less attention.  The battle lines are clear in this nomination and the future of the Court and our Constitutional principles are at ... continue reading


Fr Frank Pavone - Amoris Laetitia: Pope Francis' Encouraging Roadmap for Families Watch

Image of Fr Frank Pavone, National Director, Priests for Life

By Fr. Frank Pavone, National Director, Priests for Life

Amoris Laetitia is a timely and loving exhortation for families towards genuine charity that begins within the nuclear family. It can be described as a new road-map for a culture that has taken a sad and tragic detour. The Joy of Love recognizes women's ... continue reading


Catherine of Siena: We Need Saints for this Missionary Age Watch

Image of Today, in the Roman Catholic Liturgical Calendar, we commemorate one of the greatest women saints of Christian history, Catherine of Siena.  While praying at Peter's tomb, she experienced the great weight of the Church fall on her shoulders.

By Deacon Keith Fournier

Father, raise up women like Catherine of Siena for this new missionary age of your Church. Women who are so in love with you, and so conformed to the Image of your Son, they can do for your Church in this hour, what she did in her own. Saints are a gift for the ... continue reading


Christian student shockingly dropped from master's program for practicing religious rights Watch

Image of Andrew Cash was discriminated against for practicing his religious rights (YouTube).

By Kenya Sinclair (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Andrew Cash practiced his religious rights at Missouri State University - and was dismissed from the master's program in counseling as a result. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - According to the Catholic News Agency, Cash was referring same-sex couples to another ... continue reading


Not a newsflash, U.S. government authorized use of propaganda on American people...in 2013. Here's who to blame Watch

Image of Obama signed the amendment into law in 2013.

By David Drudge (CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Does the news seem a little too pro-American to you? Does it seem reporters pull punches and that the real issues are ignored? Perhaps that's the result of a quiet change to the law that took place in 2013. A law banning the use of government propaganda on the American ... continue reading


All U.S. News

Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

the FEED
by Catholic Online

  • Pope Francis hit with sexually-explicit abuse on Twitter after ...
  • Daily Readings for Tuesday, May 03, 2016
  • ICE gets more money, deports fewer illegals. Where's the money going?
  • St. James the Lesser: Saint of the Day for Tuesday, May 03, 2016
  • Daily Reading for Wednesday, May 4th, 2016 HD Video
  • Prayer to Our Mother of Perpetual Help HD Video
  • BREAKING: ISIS kills Navy SEAL

Daily Readings

Reading 1, First Corinthians 15:1-8
1 I want to make quite clear to you, brothers, what the message of the ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 19:2-3, 4-5
2 day discourses of it to day, night to night hands on the ... Read More

Gospel, John 14:6-14
6 Jesus said: I am the Way; I am Truth and Life. No one can come to the ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for May 3rd, 2016 Image

St. James the Lesser
May 3: St. James the Less, the author of the first ... Read More