Page 5, 26th September 1997

26th September 1997
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Page 5, 26th September 1997 — life for a life?
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life for a life?

MICHAEL PETEK

drga-estu re case for retaining the ultimate sanction of capital punishment and applauds the revised Catechism for not taking away the State's right to execute exceptional criminals NOW IT'S OFFICIAL. The Catholic Church has ruled out the death penalty as morally acceptable, according to recent reports of the revised Catechism. Or has it? The new paragraph 2267 states that the death penalty may be used if it is the only way to defend society and if the full identity and responsibility of the guilty party can be established. It adds the condition that it should not be used if bloodless means are sufficient to protect society, commenting that the existence of highly developed and effective penal systems has rendered the justification for capital punishment "very rare if not practically non-existent".

The revised teaching is not quite as revolutionary as it looks. The Pope has not said, "By the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, I confirm that the use of capital punishment is always gravely immoral." Neither is it universally true that penal systems are in fact so sophisticated as to render the death penalty obsolete. The US and European penal systems are formidably sophisticated, but they are primitive in the rubble of Bosnia and the chaos of postbloodbath Rwanda.

The reason why the Church's apparent prohibition of capital punishment is not as categorical as it looks is that, if it were, it would run counter to many centuries of Christian moral teaching, endangering the credibility of both the Church and the Bible itself. The basis of Catholic moral teaching is the constancy of God, which means that whatever is of divine law is so at all times, in all places and for all persons. Development of doctrine is not ruled out as long as it brings out further depths of the same truth without contradicting its essential content. If it has ever been morally licit to execute criminals, then it always will be, and not even the Magisterium of the Church can declare otherwise however much it can exhort the State to mercy and prudence. There are certainly well founded arguments against the use of the death penalty, but divine law is not one of them.

Section 53 of Evangelium Vitae, which deals with the sacredness of human life, is headed by verse 5 of Genesis chapter 9: "From man in regard to his fellow I will demand an accounting for human life." It is well to quote the next verse: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image." This is a clear Biblical statement that those who wilfully take innocent human life forfeit the right to their own. The rule that the death penalty is in principle permissible as punishment for extreme crimes has always been at least implicit in the definitive, and therefore infallible and irreformable, teaching of the Church that retribution is a legitimate aim of criminal punishment.

HE NEW TESTAMENT, moreover, makes no modification to the law of God in respect of the death penalty. Jesus had ample opportunity to make one, but used it instead to tighten up the law of marriage and relax that of the Sabbath. Beyond the cheek-turning prohibition of private revenge he left the public penal system untouched, and St Paul himself spoke like a model Roman citizen in asserting the right of the State to wield the sword for retribution. It is retribution which is the most persuasive argument for the rightness in principle of capital punishment. Take away this right and society has no answer to criminals whose crimes are so heinous that retributive consideration should override all others, such as the ethnic cleansers of Bosnia, the genocidal monsters of Rwanda and such terrifying bizarre figures as the Manson family and Ukranian serial butcher, Andrei Chikatilo.

The tendency in civil society towards the limitation and ultimate abolition of the death penalty is not always motivated by the Christian instinct for mercy, but is often the expression of the humanistic maxim that crime is caused primarily by a social environment which turns people into criminals, and only secondarily, if at all, by the moral choices they make. I know one or two humanists who yield to no one in their opposition to the death penalty, while passionately affirming the right of women to abor tion on request. Criminals should be treated, not punished, and even if it is conceded that they should be punished there is place only for reformation and rehabilitation, not retribution.

THE PURPOSE of the punishment of criminals is fourfold: the protection of society; the deterrence of those who might otherwise offend; the reformation of the offender, and the retributive exaction of a penalty which fits the crime. How these are to be balanced against one another is an art governed by judicial wisdom which will demand a different balance for different cases. If the offender refuses to be reformed, and if others refuse to be deterred from crime, the case for emphasising retribution is correspondingly stronger.

Retribution, let it be understood, has nothing in common with the playground petulance of vindictive little school boys or with atavistic blood lust. It is based on the fact that God has created men and women in his image with a sense of right and wrong and with freedom of moral choice. Retributive punishment, even by death, is not, as such, inhuman. On the contrary, it is eminently human. It is precisely because the victim of murder is made in the image of God that the price of the crime can be paid only by the equally valuable life of his assailant. It is precisely because the murderer himself is made in the image of God that he can be held to retributive account as a free and responsible person for his wrongdoing. It would be a little incongruous to interpret the Catechism's teaching on the death penalty as the voile face it appears to be. If, as some commentators declaim, the death penalty were put on a par with abortion and euthanasia, then one is entitled to ask why the Church, guided as it is by the Holy Spirit, has taken two thousand years to discover the truth on a moral issue of such supreme importance.

Has the Church erred in not classifying all judicial execution as murder? Are the Old Testament Scriptures which establish capital offences to be de-canonised as not having been inspired by God after all?

After many months of bated breath outside the locked doors of the rumour mill, we can breathe a sigh of relief that we need not find ourselves impaled on the horns of the dilemma. The Church has not taken away altogether the right of the State to the death penalty it cannot. It merely calls the State to the attitude of clemency which was expressed in the ancient Jewish tradition that a court which executed one man in seven years was accounted murderous. Capital punishment may remain on the statute book for murder and comparable crimes, but is to he reserved for cases which are notorious even as these offences go and should not be the normal penalty for any offence.

The purveyors of genocide and other crimes against humanity still have cause to quake in their jackboots at least in theory.




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