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Opposition to the Death Penalty


When I gingerly introduced the subject of Hell, those who had spontaneously rejected capital punishment and then had some second thoughts about life imprisonment when looked at in itself and not as an alternative to the death penalty seemed inclined toward a creative interpretation of eternal punishment.


During the spring semester I read, with several dozen undergraduates, some encyclicals of John Paul II, among them Evangelium Vitae: The Gospel of Life. Paragraphs 27 and 56 of this encyclical prompted a discussion of the death penalty. Their first reaction was that the Pope was against it and that he was saying that the penalty has no justification. There was general resistance to the suggestion that while the Pope's attitude toward the death penalty is, to put it mildly, unfavorable, he did not flat out say that it was immoral, wrong, without justification.

These textual questions are addressed by many authors in this issue of Catholic Dossier, and I will return to them myself, but let me go on a bit about that undergraduate seminar. Quite apart from exegesis of the encyclical, a majority of the students were against the death penalty. Period. Were they in favor of life imprisonment? Absolutely. Don't put killers and the like to death, just lock them up and throw away the key. Isn't that what the Pope was saying in paragraph 56? The tide of public opinion against capital punishment rises, he writes, both in the Church and in civil society, and there is a growing demand to limit its use even to the point of total abolition. Nowadays we are able to protect society from the offender without taking his life. Lock him up and he will have lots of time to repent and redeem himself.

Our discussion accordingly turned to the question of life imprisonment. While this admittedly looks attractive when compared to the death penalty, considered in itself it is a terrible thing. However antiseptic and humane his quarters might be, the thought of a human being locked up for life gives pause. Surely only the most grievous offenses could warrant such severe punishment. Are there really any offenses that severe? In Italy, later in the spring, I became aware of a campaign against life imprisonment. My experience in the seminar somehow prepared me for this.

What I detected, rightly or wrongly, was an animus against punishment as such. When I gingerly introduced the subject of Hell, those who had spontaneously rejected capital punishment and then had some second thoughts about life imprisonment when looked at in itself and not as an alternative to the death penalty seemed inclined toward a creative interpretation of eternal punishment. And of course there have been eminent theologians who have wondered aloud about the doctrine of Hell. Even Jacques Maritain, late in his life, and to the displeasure of Cardinal Sid, had written equivocally on the subject. This is what the Catechism says of Hell:

The teaching of the Church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity. Immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into hell, where they suffer the punishments of hell, "eternal fire." The chief punishment of hell is eternal separation from God, in whom alone man can possess the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs (1035).

No one is predestined to hell, the Catechism adds (1037). For the living, hell is a powerful reminder that we should use our freedom with an eye to our eternal destiny (1036). And the prayer from the Roman Canon is cited: "Father, accept this offering from your whole family. Grant us your peace in this life, save us from final damnation, and count us among those you have chosen."

All that by way of preface to these thoughts. Johnson's remark that imminent hanging concentrates the mind is one of his most quoted. Only someone with a belief in an afterlife could have made it. The person condemned to death has an opportunity few have to put his house in order and to turn failure in this life into success in the next. On his own cross, the good thief asks the other thief who is taunting Jesus if he has no fear of God. The two of them are justly condemned, he notes, but Jesus is innocent. He then asks Our Lord to remember him when he enters into his kingdom. Gregory the Great, in commenting on this passage (Luke 23:41), says that the crucified thief has been deprived by nails of the use of everything but his heart and his tongue. And by the grace of God he believes in his heart and confesses with his tongue. In doing so, he exemplifies the three theological virtues. Faith, by believing that Jesus will reign; hope, by asking to be admitted to his kingdom; charity, by urging his fellow thief to follow suit. Thus by the grace of God a whole life is redeemed in mere moments. "This day you shall be with me in paradise."

For centuries Christians have meditated on this tableau on Golgotha. The innocent victim par excellence, the Word of God made flesh, is condemned to die like the worst of criminals. And he is flanked by two thieves who have been justly condemned to die. One is repentant, one is not. The good thief is promised the reward that all men seek, right away, this very day. He has turned his loss into an eternal gain.

The loss of the sense of a life beyond this one, a life of eternal happiness or its opposite, has had its effect on the way the death penalty is viewed. Dante who turned the eye of his imagination unflinchingly on the Inferno, explained to his patron Can Grande della Scala what the meaning of the Commedia is. Actually, he gives several meanings, the literal and the allegorical. The literal meaning of the great poem is the state of souls after death. "But if taken allegorically, its subject is man insofar as by the use of his free will, by his merit or demerit, he is justly subject to reward or punishment."

It is the mark of human action that it is responsible that is, that we are answerable for what we freely do. Our ultimate answerability is in the next life where we will be permanently marked by the way we have acted here. What happens to our view of human action when we remove from consciousness the next life and the true stakes of life? What happens when men lose the sense that meditation on the Four Last Things Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell is a salutary thing to do?

Of course it took time for this Christian view to fade from the public consciousness. It permeates our literature, our art, our music, to say nothing of our theology. When a personal God was replaced by the deist's clockmaker, society was not immediately altered. When the death of God was proclaimed, people went on acting for a time as if they were accountable to Him. But soon the thought occurred, in literature, in philosophy, in seminars, lecture halls, then publicly, that the practical denial of God and of our answerability to Him has removed all underpinning from personal and social life. If God does not exist, anything is permitted. God is dead and we have killed him. Jean-Paul Sartre blew the whistle on those who thought they could deny God and still have natural law, that is, obligations antecedent to choice, rules that bind us whether we like it or not. If God does not exist, the rules are whatever we say they are.

Throughout much of this century, moral philosophers have scrambled to provide some rationale for ethics. They have failed. In the resultant flatland, there are only claimants and rights, pragmatic adjustments in which we mutually exploit one another. "A good deal is one in which both parties think they have gotten the better of the other." There has been the New Deal and the Fair Deal. This is the age of the Good Deal. Society has become atomized. We are only units, each with his own universe. Justice Kennedy has decreed that each of us has a fundamental right to define what life is, what is good or bad, indeed, what the universe is. The incoherence of his decision is scarcely appreciated.

What becomes of moral responsibility in such an atmosphere? For a person to be called to task for what he does becomes, on Justice Kennedy's ruling, for that person to be a victim of tyranny. Your judgment of my action can only be the imposing on me of your way of looking at things. But your way of looking at things has no claim on me. Nor of course does mine on you. If you should say that 60% of people polled agree with you, you are merely adding to the number of tyrants. All majorities are tyrannical.

Most of us muddle on as if none of this was being taught or showing up in Supreme Court decisions. Most of us go on acting as if there were rules independent of our making them up. But the cognoscenti recognize this even as they are grateful for it as merely residual, an echo of a lost viewpoint.

Why have I gone on about this? Because we have to understand the environment in which there is said to be mounting opposition to the death penalty. If this is true and there is a good deal of conflicting evidence the reason for it should be sought in the effective denial that human agents are responsible. It is not only the death penalty that no longer makes sense to many of our contemporaries. Punishment of any kind has lost its justification. It is not a growing sense of the dignity of the human person that explains opposition to the death penalty, indeed opposition to any judgment of action, let alone punishment of it.

The net effect of the nihilism and relativism that seem to reign in the classroom and courts is to trivialize human action. It is a denial of the dignity of the human person not to hold him responsible for what he does. St. John Chrysostom wrote that it is because man is capable of responsible action that he is said to be made in God's image. The denial of God leads ultimately to the denial of responsible action. Of course people are against the death penalty. They are incensed that any judgment at all should be passed on what they do. We are constantly warned against being "judgmental." To misconstrue this as a reminder of the obligations of Christian charity is to overlook the moral decay of modern society, the culture of death, as John Paul II has called it.

The Holy Father, in The Gospel of Life, n. 65, refers us to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In his contribution to a symposium on the encyclical, the Spanish Dominican Niceto Blazquez fulminates against the way in which both Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism invoke the unjust aggressor defense as a rationale for capital punishment.1Father Blazquez thinks it is absurd to regard the murderer on trial as an unjust aggressor, pointing out that it is one thing to be fending off a present attack and another to be appraising past actions in a court room. No doubt, but if the trial is to determine whether or not the accused was indeed an unjust aggressor, the difference of tenses hardly seems a crucial consideration. Blazquez is on firmer ground when he notes that incarcerating the criminal lest he offend again concerns future possible crimes, not the actual one(s) for which the criminal is primarily being punished. In his article (I have not read his book), Father Blazquez completely ignores the passage of the Catechism which ranks the points of punishment.

The primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment has the effect of preserving public order and the safety of persons. Finally punishment has a medicinal value; as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender. (2266)

I count three points of punishment. It is primarily to redress the disorder caused by the offense. Secondarily, it protects society against future offenses, and it can be an occasion for the offender to repent. It is the secondary points that dominate thinking opposed to the death penalty. Paragraph 2267 states that, if there are bloodless means to defend human lives and protect public order and safety, public authority should limit itself to those means "because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.2

An argument could be made that imprisonment for crimes now reckoned as capital could meet the primary point of punishment, which is to redress the disorder caused by the criminal act. It can also protect society and provide a prolonged occasion for the offender to repent. But it should not be overlooked that to embark on such a course has its dangers.

To justify life imprisonment one must be able to identify crimes which are such that the offense against the order of society is so grievous that the offender forfeits his right to live in society. Capital punishment acts on that by removing him from society by killing him. Life imprisonment removes him from society by locking him up and throwing away the key. In either case, the justification must be sought in the irreparable disorder caused by the offense.

To make that argument now, in the present moral climate, may not contribute to a sense of the dignity of the human person. That dignity consists in his being made in the image and likeness of God. That dignity is manifested in free and responsible action. But we live in a time when the notion of responsible action has been weakened beyond recognition. God only knows what a justice Kennedy's rationale would be for opposing the death penalty, but it seems unlikely that it would be human dignity as the Holy Father understands it. To ally ourselves with the culture of death's opposition to the death penalty might seem to lend credence to its diminished notion of action, responsibility and judgment. That is, to its effective denial of the dignity of the human person.

Paradoxically enough, a Dante-like defense of human dignity could be made by supporting the death penalty. When Gary Gilmore, perpetrator of unspeakable crimes, was converted in prison and accepted his coming execution as just, protesters still gathered in candlelit vigil outside the prison. Doubtless many of them thought Gilmore was crazy to see himself, when he was strapped into the electric chair, as about to appear before the judgment Seat of God. Doctor Johnson would have understood. Many of our contemporaries would dismiss this as nonsense.

Do we?


  1. See Commento Interdisciplinare alla Evangelium Vitae, edizione Italiana a cura di Elio Sgreccia e Ramon Lucas Lucas, Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1997, pp. 403-418. Blazquez is intemperate in his dismissal of the traditional justification of capital punishment, including that of Thomas Aquinas. He has written a book on the subject, but this article does not make one eager to read it. [N. Blazquez, O.P. Pena de muerte (Madrid 1994~]. Blazquez equates the direct killing of an innocent person by a murderer with the direct killing of the criminal by the state executioner and taunts his reader to show him the difference. Nothing easier. At some level of abstraction, the two acts could be similarly described, but not on the level of moral appraisal. Father Blazquez might equally well have said that the adulterer and the spouse perform the same act so there is no difference between adultery and conjugal love. [cf. P. 4041 One making accusations of fallacious reasoning is well advised to avoid exemplifying what he is condemning.

  2. The revised 1997 version of these paragraphs, quoted in our documentation section, do not affect my points here.


McInerny, Ralph. Opposition to the Death Penalty. Catholic Dossier Vol. 4 no. 5 (September-October 1998): 5-8.

Reprinted with permission of Catholic Dossier. To subscribe to Catholic Dossier call 1-800-651-1531.

The Author

Ralph McInerny, the Michael P. Grace Professor of Medieval Studies and professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, holds degrees from the St. Paul Seminary, University of Minnesota and Laval University. He has taught at the University of Notre Dame since 1955 and was the director of the Jacques Maritain Center from 1979 to 2006. He is author of two dozen scholarly books and many more scholarly essays, as well as numerous general interest works. He is expert in the work of Thomas Aquinas, Soren Kierkegaard, and Jacques Maritain, and has written and lectured extensively on ethics, philosophy of religion, and medieval philosophy. McInerny is editor of an acclaimed series of translations of Aquinas's commentaries; for many years, he directed Notre Dame's prestigious Medieval Institute. Ralph McInerny's writings include about 67 books, many of them mysteries, including Thomas Aquinas: Selected Writings, The Writings of Charles De Koninck: Volume 1, The Writings of Charles De Koninck: Volume Two, Restoring Nature: Essays Thomistic Philosophy & Theology, Relic Of Time, Dante and the Blessed Virgin, and Stained Glass.

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