The Death Penalty: Should It Be Abolished?


On August 2 of this year, Pope Francis announced he will revise the teaching on the Death Penalty in the post-conciliar Catechism of the Catholic Church. And indeed the new Catechism did just that affirming that capital punishment is “an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”. (CCC Number 2267) The Catechism did admit that the Church had “long considered” the death penalty for certain grave crimes to be legitimate. But now the Pope is saying that there is a “new understanding” and an “increasing awareness” that the dignity of the human person is not lost even after the commission of certain “very serious crimes.” Nevertheless, throughout the history of the Catholic Church, she has consistently sanctioned Capital Punishment and affirmed that it was not only permissible but even necessary at times.

Over the past several decades, there has been much confusion as to whether the Church still holds this teaching to be true. Those who oppose the Death Penalty argue that no one has the right to take the life of another human being. They insist that the Death Penalty is barbaric and an insult to God who created us in His image and likeness. Life is a gift from God. It is sacred. Hence, only God Almighty has the right to terminate the life of a human being when He, not us, chooses to do so. Therefore, abolishing the Death Penalty is in order.

In light of the preceding, the abolition of the Death Penalty has been increasingly called for by the laity, the clergy, and those secular humanists who worship mankind. They believe that God, in His infinite goodness, would oppose the Death Penalty, even though Sacred Scripture proves otherwise (e.g. Gen. 9: 5-6; Rom. 13: 1-4). According to John Paul II, the execution of criminals is unnecessary in today’s modern world. Consider what he wrote in his encyclical Evangelium Vita (56.1): “It is clear that for the purpose of punishment to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and the state ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity. In other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

Note that John Paul II contends that the “steady improvements in the organization of the penal system” makes the Death Penalty unnecessary. According to John Paul II, there may be a few hard core offenders who pose a serious threat to society. However, he contends that such cases are “very rare, if not practically non-existent.” In the preceding quote, John Paul II touches upon the importance of carefully evaluating and deciding how to apply punishments, if it is to be used at all. This will keep the State from going to the extreme in executing criminals who, if they received proper treatment, could be rehabilitated.

The purpose of this article is to focus upon the Death Penalty as a punishment. Is the Death Penalty, when properly applied, a viable disciplinary tool that could rehabilitate dangerous criminals — even hard core cases?  Keep in mind that a death sentence is the most lethal of all punishments. The Death Penalty can take away the life of a criminal. However, it cannot restore that life once it is taken away. Executing an innocent person is always a possibility — a frightening prospect to say the least. Abolishing the Death Penalty would seem to be the safest course. But is that true? Would abolishing the Death Penalty best serve the common good? The answers to these questions will determine the course that we will follow.

Defining and applying punishment

A punishment is the infliction or imposition of a penalty (psychologists call a penalty an “aversive stimulus”) for bad behavior. Make no mistake about it. Punishment is intended to be “aversive” or painful. There are two kinds of punishment — positive and negative. The former involves inflicting or applying an “aversive stimulus” directly to the body. A taser gun, which delivers electric shock when pressed against the body of a recalcitrant criminal and a child who is spanked for behaving badly are examples of “positive punishment.” “Negative punishment” involves taking away something that is pleasant — the loss of recreational time, paying a fine, or the loss of privileges are examples. Keep this simple model in mind as we apply it to the Death Penalty.

Punishment and restoration

With the preceding in mind, let’s begin by examining the “Death Penalty” as a form of punishment — the most severe punishment in this life — and how it differs from all other punishments. Simply put, the Death Penalty is permanent. It insures that the criminal will not be able to repeat any further crime in the future. The criminal is required to forfeit his life as “payback,” we might say, for the brutal injustice he has perpetrated.

Consider the following example. Joe Smith cruelly murdered Louis Leach. Leach was a married man with three children. He was gainfully employed and popular with the people in his local community. Smith, on the other hand, was a career criminal. He showed no remorse during the trial. Joe Smith was sentenced to death, a fitting punishment for the heinous crime and as retribution for taking Louis Leaches life, which he had no right to do.

Moreover, by violating the law, Smith upset the proper balance that enables society to function as God intended. Smith owes God some form of reparation for violating His commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” Capital Punishment – that is the forfeiting of Joe Smith’s life – not only restored the order that Smith’s murder of Leach created, but it also served as a fitting means of reparation to Almighty God. As we can see, the death sentence was not arbitrarily administered for the purpose of vengeance in this example. The punishment was reasonable and just. In fact, it was the only adequate punishment for the crime of murder, as God Himself testifies: “Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed, for man was made in the image of God” (Gen. 9:6).

It should be noted that perfect retribution can never be made in this imperfect world. Whitey Bulger, for example, was convicted of nineteen murders. Obviously, Whitey could not be executed nineteen times. Rest assured, however, that persons such as Whitey Bulger will face Our Lord for their particular judgment immediately upon their demise. They will then be required to “payback” what they owe to the last penny (Matt. 5: 26). The same will be true for all of us. As St. Paul says, “For we must all be manifested before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the proper things of the body, according as he hath done, whether it be good or evil” (Cor. 5:10). Unlike earthly courts, no “mistakes in judgment” will be made in God’s courtroom. Rather, perfect justice will be done.

Understanding and administering successful punishment

In order to successfully administer punishment, the following old saying should be kept in mind: “One man’s meat is another man’s poison.” In other words, considering how the wrongdoer views the potential punishment will determine whether it succeeds or fails. Remember, the goal of punishment is to stop bad behavior. If no change in behavior occurs when you administer what you think is a punishment, then you need to re-evaluate your plan. For example, Robert’s parents decided to take away his driving privileges for behaving badly. Robert continued to behave poorly. Robert was popular. His friends drove him to school and the places where they hung out. Obviously, Robert did not view the loss of driving privileges as being a punishment. As a result, there was no change in his behavior. However, when mom and dad “grounded” him for two weeks and threatened to increase the grounding, Robert’s bad behavior ceased altogether. Even though the loss of driving privileges might be viewed by most teenagers as punishment, it failed to stop Robert from behaving poorly. Being grounded, however, had a totally different effect. This was a true punishment. Hence, once mom and dad discovered Robert’s “meat” and confronted him with the “poison,” his behavior changed immediately.

As another example, let’s go back to the case of Joe Smith who was sentenced to death in the electric chair. Once activated, the electric chair took Smith’s life. In psychological terms, the activated electricity is called a “positive punishment.” It is the punishing agent that not only terminated Joe Smith’s life but insured that he will not kill anyone in the future. Moreover, Joe Smith’s death debt to society was paid as well. From this point of view, the application of the death penalty could be called “positive.” And Smith, if he uses his remaining time wisely, can make his peace with God before facing Him in the particular judgment. Interestingly, the threat of “positive punishment” could be a catalyst leading to good behavior in some cases. Who among us wouldn’t think twice about changing our behavior if we were confronted with the sure prospect of going to hell? In such instances, the threat alone would motivate many sinners to stop their wrongdoing. Avoiding hell could be a powerful incentive for acting as Our Lord intended. Being burned is something most people have experienced at least to some degree. Imagine being burned in a sea of fire that never ends, especially knowing that the punishment is eternal.

Another example of how “positive” and “negative punishments” (psychological terms) can work together to change behavior is as follows: A psychology student takes a hungry rat and places the rat in a maze with food. The food is located in entrance five, which is rigged with electric shock. Each time that the rat pushes down on the lever, food appears in small amounts. The rat learns to push on the lever to continue getting food. The student now activates the electricity in the lever so that the rat gets shocked each time he pushes it. Although the rat is hungry, he now ceases pushing the lever. He goes elsewhere in the maze to search for food. The electric shock is a true “positive punishment.” It did not kill the rat, but it stopped all pushing on lever five. Notice that avoidance behavior increased to one hundred percent and lever pushing decreased to zero.

Remember, a true punishment causes undesirable behavior to cease. True punishment can then serve as a catalyst for good behavior. The threat of being punished rather than the actual punishment itself, now keeps the undesirable behavior in check. Replacing undesirable behavior with good behavior leads to the “negative reinforcement” discussed previously. For example, the person who received a speeding ticket now drives within the speed limit. Safe driving replaces reckless driving. As long as the threat of getting a speeding ticket exists, the more likely it is that most drivers will drive safely in order to avoid receiving that ticket.

The Death Penalty can be a powerful deterrent

The intensity of a punishment is an important factor in determining its effectiveness. In other words, it must be powerful enough to offset the benefits of behaving badly. How is the Death Penalty viewed by those persons who could be subjected to it? This is a critical question that needs to be addressed. If the criminal fears being caught and that the law will be strictly enforced, he is less likely to engage in wrongdoing. However, if he is easily able to violate the law and there are no negative consequences for doing so, more undesirable behavior is likely to follow. A healthy fear of God and law enforcement can be a powerful deterrent for keeping bad behavior in check. In fact, such a fear is a gift of the Holy Ghost, which we received when we were confirmed. Unfortunately, holy fear has been ignored for decades. The results of our negligence are blatantly before us.

A good example of the preceding is a young man named James who resides in a poor section of the inner city. Unlike most of his peers, James is trying to do well in school. James, however, is volatile and potentially explosive. Sam is a jealous rival who constantly teases James, making fun of his efforts to succeed. James hates Sam. James has access to a gun. He has become so angry that he repeatedly thinks about shooting Sam. James knows that he could be imprisoned and sentenced to death if he was caught and charged with murder. He has seen this happen to other young men in his neighborhood. The thought that this could happen to him was frightening. In order to avoid any trouble with Sam, James intentionally stays away from those places where Sam hangs out. Avoiding a confrontation with Sam, which could lead to serious trouble with the law, helps James to keep his violent thoughts in check. Interestingly, James is a Catholic. He has discussed this problem with the parish priest. James knows that murder is a capital sin, which cries out to heaven for vengeance. He understands that he could go to hell for violating the fifth commandment. James, in order to avoid mortal sin, forces violent thoughts out of his mind when they arise. The reader will recall that when we engage in activities, which enable us to escape and avoid painful circumstances, this is what psychologists call “negative reinforcement.” While such reinforcement is labeled as being “negative,” learning to cope with and overcome adversity (that which is negative) is actually “positive.” It is the situation that we encounter that is “negative.” Meeting and overcoming the presenting challenge is the “positive.” Hence, the term “negative reinforcement” absent its positive counterpart is formed.

Obviously, a punishment, which is powerful and viewed as such, can serve as a deterrent to undesirable behavior. However, the fear of the punishment has to be intense enough to offset any benefits attained by violating the law. Keep in mind that if a punishment is truly a punishment, the recipient of it will think twice before again behaving badly. He or she will admit, “It wasn’t worth it” and refrain from wrongdoing in the future.

Final thoughts with a spiritual touch

The purpose of life is to save our soul. If the Death Penalty can potentially bring this about “keeping it on the books” makes good sense. While those who oppose the Death Penalty insist that it is a supposed “violation” of human dignity, isn’t it possible to forfeit both our dignity and right to life through serious sin? (Summa Theologiae, ll-ll, q. 64, art. 2). Isn’t this why heaven cries out for vengeance when someone is murdered? Serious sin demands serous punishment. Mortal sins, when treated lightly, lead to greater sinfulness. The evidence is right before us. Moreover, the penal system might be better organized and improved significantly. However, it is unlikely that abolishing the Death Penalty will rehabilitate those hard core criminals who have a long history of engaging in anti-social behavior. To think otherwise would be naïve.

It is important to consider that the state is not obligated to sentence all murders to death. In some cases, however, the Death Penalty could possibly be the best disciplinary option for both the criminal and society. Knowing that one could be sentenced to die might motivate some hardened criminals to reevaluate their dark rage and change their lives. For example, Dismas, the “good thief,” who was crucified with Christ, asked Our Lord to forgive him his sins and to remember him when He comes to His kingdom. Our Lord honored this request and did far more than remember him. Some would say that Dismas, in this shot discourse, “stole” heaven. As mentioned previously, the never-ending fires of hell and being punished for eternity might strike a note with those who have given little thought about an all-just and loving God — a God Who will reward and penalize us accordingly. Our Lord is the Author of divine and natural law. He expects us to obey them. It would be a folly for God to make laws, which He has no intention of enforcing.

Lastly, how might the Death Penalty be applied from a spiritual perspective? Suppose murderers were required to pray for the soul of the person whose life they had stolen? Suppose avoiding the electric chair or lethal gas was contingent on praying for the soul of that person? While such a proposal might sound ludicrous in today’s world, some hardened criminals might find meaning through such an experience. How would Christ the King view this proposal? Would He agree that the penal system has improved to the point that the Death Penalty is no longer needed? What would He think about abolishing the Death Penalty, making it illegal to sentence dangerous criminals to death, no matter how deranged they might be? Abolishing the Death Penalty won’t make dangerous criminals less dangerous. Weak-kneed consequences following anti-social behavior will only bring more of the same.

Our nation is currently being torn apart by an epidemic of violence that is unprecedented in our history. Gun violence in our schools, the corruption of our pro-abortion politicians, and never ending wars continue to plague us. Our moral fiber has weakened to the point that we can no longer distinguish right from wrong. Vice has replaced virtue and virtue is deemed as vice.

Again, should the Death Penalty be “kept on the books?” Or should it be considered as a relic of the past and abolished? This is one of the major issues that ought to have been considered in the November state elections. Does each state have the moral right to exact retributive justice for premeditated first degree murder? I would argue that it does.

http/www lifesitenews com/blogs/pope-francis change to catechism contradicts natural law and the deposit of faith
http/www lifesitenews com/blogs pope’s changes to catechism is not just a prudent judgment but a rejection