Done to death?

The death penalty is back in the news in Britain, as it becomes likely the House of Commons will debate the issue following a high-profile e-petition.

Most of the discussion I’ve seen so far polarises between “liberal” distaste for the very idea that the death penalty could even be considered (sample comment: “what a horribly regressive step into savagery that would be”) and “conservative” enthusiasm for the return of the rope.

Now I’ll admit I’m rather closer to the former than the latter. However, I think I’m closest of all to the Roman Catholic position set out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – where the question is not a simplistic “capital punishment is barbaric” vs “capital punishment is just desserts for murder”, but instead: What best serves the common good? As the Catechism puts it:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” (CCC, para 2267)

This summarises my own view: I wouldn’t absolutely rule out the death penalty in all circumstances, but in modern, peacetime conditions it is hard to see any circumstances in which it is the right thing to do – in which, that is, it best serves the common good.

The last quotation in that passage from the Catechism comes from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, in which JPII compares the growth in opposition to the death penalty with the “spread … of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war”:

Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but “non-violent” means to counter the armed aggressor. In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of “legitimate defence” on the part of society.

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16 Responses to Done to death?

  1. Tom Creedy says:

    Thanks for this – great post. Really appreciated it and aided my conclusion – your view is clear, well thought out and encouragingly straightforward.

    I will read again!

  2. OFelixCulpa says:

    This is an interesting debate. I have noticed (as you seem to imply) that many people take their position without considering the matter very carefully. Though I am no expert, I think the argument in CCC is problematic.
    1) What is meant by “absolute necessity”? Capital punishment could never be the “only possible” option.
    2) What is the standard for things which preserve the “dignity of the human person”? It is difficult to see how long-term incarceration–reducing the person to something more like a caged animal–could meet the kind of test which the CCC claims capital punishment fails.
    3) If capital punishment violates the “dignity of the human” person, how can can God have ever commanded that it be carried out because of the value humans (the image of God)?

  3. John H says:


    (1) I suspect that’s the point! But conceivably in a situation of war or total social collapse, the death penalty might become appropriate for some crimes.

    (2) Well, don’t treat prisoners like caged animals, then. It’s possible to treat prisoners consistently with “the dignity of the human person” without prison becoming (in that phrase beloved of populist media and politicians) a “soft option”.

    (3) ISTM there are two reasons not to kill murderers: one is because you don’t value the dignity of the human person (and hence murder is no big deal), the second is because you do value the dignity of the human person (and hence alternatives to killing even murderers are to be preferred, where possible). The introduction of the death penalty was to deal with the former, and in so doing to pave the way for the latter.

    (As an aside, if God hadn’t introduced the death penalty for murder, then the Romans wouldn’t have had the death penalty for sedition. Which means no crucifixion. So perhaps we can say that the death penalty has, in the death of Christ, achieved what was actually intended for it, just as the OT sacrificial system achieved what was intended for it in the same event. Just thinking outside the box, here…)

  4. Rev. Chyrst says:

    What about Romans 13, the foundational NT passage for the government’s authority to bear the sword – in which the purpose of which is to “punish” wrongdoer. To me, this purpose of capital “punishment” is not to defend society from the wrongdoer, but to enact civil justice.

  5. OFelixCulpa says:

    1) But, if it was never the only option, then it cannot be claimed that is was acceptable at some time because of that. In other words, saying “it was ok then, but not now” doesn’t work. The dignity of the human person is a constant, those bearing the sword in whatever time they deem capital punishment to have been an acceptable option were not in any different circumstance than those bearing it today.

    2) That’s like saying “then don’t incarcerate them.” No matter how well you treat a prisoner, you have still deprived them of their freedom.

    3) The problem with that is that it reverses what God says: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God says that his image in man is the reason for carrying out capital punishment, not the reason for avoiding it. It does seem strange to us, but it is scripture.

    You make an interesting observation. I can’t think of any scriptures which hint at that; I wonder if any of the church fathers speak of it.

  6. Rick Ritchie says:

    Rev Chryst,

    I have thought long and hard on Romans 13. One thing my reading on the Lord’s Supper got me thinking of was the idea of sedes doctrinae. Some passages are more natural seats of doctrine than other passages. Our guys said that the Words of Institution were more natural seats of doctrine than Pauline commentary, as they were spoken at the institution of the meal. Even St. Paul couldn’t comment until he understood those words. Likewise, the institution of marriage in Genesis was more basic to understanding what God intended even than divine law given later, as Jesus argues. So also here. Romans 13 is not the basic passage. I would argue that Genesis 9:6 is. That passage is echoed in Matthew 26:52 with sword language.

    This may or may not change the nature of your argument.

    But the Genesis passage does bring up a question to me. If Genesis argues the “image of God” as a ground FOR capital punishment, how do we use the concept to another end? Would we have this concept if we didn’t have this text? How would it be argued? “Well, I’ve seen God, and this criminal clearly resembles him?”

  7. Rev. Chyrst says:

    Yes, we do have image of God mentioned in connection with Dominion – Gen. 1:26.

    I don’t see how either Genesis 9:6 or Matt. 26:52 negates Romans 13. I think they all go together, Romans clarifying that it is the government that is given the authority to enact the punishment. Pick your sedes. I think there is a distinction that Romans 13 draws between rightful use of the sword and vigilatee-ism, though.

  8. Rick Ritchie says:

    Well, Genesis 9:6 doesn’t negate Romans 13 any more than Genesis 1:27 negates Deuteronomy 24. But that said, the earlier passages have to be understood to read the later passages aright.

    I’m not sure that Romans clarifies that it is the government that is given the authority. Rather it speaks of something like “over authorities” and how they bear the sword. In most cases I would probably see governmental officials in this capacity. But I’m not sure how it would have applied in all times and places.

    My key quibble here is that if Genesis is the seat of doctrine, and Romans 13 the commentary, I would be more likely to say Romans teaches us that the one who bears the sword to punish murder has been given authority, rather than that the one who has been given authority should bear the sword to punish murder. In my own circumstances, these lead to similar conclusions as to what to do (e.g. “Don’t mouth off to the cop.). In others they may not.

  9. Rev. Chyrst says:

    Romans teaches clearly that the government swordbearer “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer”. All I was saying in response to John’s original post is that this clear purpose of capital punishment – namely, carrying out God’s wrath (i.e. punishment) – is really irrespective of any other purpose, like the “common good of society”.

    Rick, what do you mean by “over authorities”?

    I would also say that while the purpose is made clear, what is not made clear in Romans is exactly what sort of wrongdoing is worthy of the ultimate (temporal) punishment. Still, even the speeding ticket is an extension of the sword. The principle of proportionality would come into play here. Which would lead us to the conclusion, “the harshest punishment for the worst crimes”.

    Interestingly, as I have read and heard, in most times/places murder and rape were capital offenses. Today, the West doesn’t seem to regard rape as a capital offense.

  10. Rick Ritchie says:

    Rev. Chryst,

    You make several points I agree with. If Genesis is primary, then the sword was clearly instituted against murder. Other uses could be termed extensions of it. If the authority was “given” in Genesis, then that is a good place to figure out what it was given for. If a state uses a sword for purposes not stated in Genesis, while failing to use it for the purposes stated in Genesis, I have to wonder whether it is really the same sword.

    “over authorities” was my attempt to offer a literal translation of the Greek UPEREXOUSAIS from Romans 13.

  11. JB says:

    American Orthodox perspective on the death penalty if you are interested:

    May God grant you many years!

  12. OFelixCulpa says:


    You haven’t responded. I hope I didn’t come off aggressively 😦 I am interested in your thoughts.

  13. John H says:

    JB: Thanks for that. I’m currently able to access the audio but I found this, which I assume covers similar ground. It seemed to be implying that Orthodoxy has a long-established opposition to the death penalty: is that right?

    OFelix: Not at all! Sorry for lack of response. Been distracted by a combination of work and the news events over here in the past few days…

    As for Genesis 9, first there is always the question of how directly we can apply such texts today. While my point about the death of Christ was off the cuff, speculative, and perhaps even a little tongue in cheek, the question of what these texts mean for us on the other side of the gospel event always needs to be asked. Lacking time to argue this thoroughly, I just observe for now that RCC, Orthodox (it would seem) and other church traditions have concluded that the command in Genesis 9 does not apply at face value.

    In any event, no country on earth, as far as I’m aware, actually practises Genesis 9 to the letter, or has done in living memory. Only a minority of murderers are actually put to death in the US, for example, even in those states which retain the death penalty. If we’re going to argue Genesis 9 consistently as a basis for current judicial practice, we need to start campaigning for 100% of those convicted of murder, and many of those convicted of manslaughter (and who don’t fit into the exceptions to capital punishment found in the Mosaic law), to be executed.

    Finally, some of the practical implications of acknowledging the dignity of the human person quite clearly do change in different circumstances. To treat someone with what might have counted for dignity in pre-industrial society – “have your own hovel, with a couple of pigs in the yard”*, say – would now count as abject humiliation. Whether that applies to the death penalty is something we will probably have to disagree on, but “it was ok then, but not now” is certainly not an argument we can dismiss out of hand.

    (* I’m not being entirely serious with that example, but you get the gist!)

  14. John H says:

    Oh, and to come back on the final point, re incarceration: it is possible to imprison people, to deprive them of their liberty, without on top of that also making prison a cruel and nihilistic place. That’s what I meant by “treating people as animals”. To imprison a person for a crime is, far from treating them as an animal, precisely to treat them as a human. But, sadly, it’s all too easy to then make prison itself a dehumanising place.

  15. OFelixCulpa says:


    I think we’re missing each other. I’ll try to respond to your new points as well as clarify the ones I was trying to make.

    Of course you are correct that the RCC has taken an official position against the use of capital punishment by societies. I think it should be observed that that is a rather recent development; it has not yet had time to be considered stable tradition. The fact that that position has been taken at all is evidence that those absolute declarations are subject to change. The Orthodox, on the other hand, are a mixed bag. There is no Vatican equivalent that purports to speak for all Orthodox believers, and there are various responses among the various archdioceses. And—if one is going to appeal to such recent developments in Christian history—the thinking of the Protestant wing of Christianity cannot be ignored. Like the Orthodox, it is a mixed bag. But most of that bag has asserted that it is appropriate for governments to exercise capital punishment in certain circumstances. Though I think it is correct—in our theological thinking—to give much weight to solid tradition, I can’t see how this issue qualifies.

    I agree with you that the Bible should not be thought of as a handbook for jurisprudence, but my point about Genesis 9:6 was not that. I was making a theological point in response to the suggestion that capital punishment violates the dignity of the human person. Since that dignity is based upon the fact that God created man in his own image (I can’t think of any other way to establish the principle), and since God explained that his order to carry out capital punishment was because of his image in man, it cannot be that capital punishment necessarily offends against the dignity of the human person. The theological explanation that God gives tells us something about the image of God in man that we should not ignore, even if we conclude that the command of Genesis 9:6 does not apply to those bearing the sword today.

    I think the point about societies not following Genesis 9:6 consistently greatly oversimplifies the matter. Even if a society intends to follow the prescription, it is a very complicated matter. First, it must be decided what actually qualifies as “the shedding of man’s blood.” Obviously we can think of extremely clear examples of guilt (perhaps murder for money) or innocence (someone steps out in front of a bus and the driver cannot stop in time), but most real-world cases are not so clear. Also, there is the matter of establishing what events actually took place, which is very often impossible to do with any degree of certainty. What I am saying is that, even if a society considered itself bound by Genesis 9:6, we should expect that it would be very careful about using such an extreme measure. In US jurisprudence, the mantra is “beyond the shadow of a doubt.” That kind of certainty doesn’t happen very often.

    Your argument that honoring the dignity of a human person is relative to societal norms is surprising. Consistently holding to that would entail understanding the image of God in man as something that is relative to moods in society. Furthermore, if the image of God in man/dignity of the human person is relative to a society’s whims, then you cannot use the principle to proscribe anything. Such a principle ultimately reduces to something like “most of us don’t like the idea,” which—of course—has no moral weight.

    I think my rhetorical mention of “caged animals” has thrown the discussion of incarceration off course. I fully agree with you that a society has the responsibility to ensure that humanity itself is not degraded by the society’s treatment of human prisoners. The point I am trying to make is that long-term incarceration is no safe substitute. I have heard many people argue that imprisonment is not permanent, so it can be undone if it is ever determined that the verdict was mistaken. Society is ‘off the hook’ because it did not put the person to death. I think they are simply wrong about that. Though it is less drastic and than capital punishment, long-term incarceration is not reversible. The years that were taken away—the lives that were destroyed—cannot be returned or set right. Long-term imprisonment is itself an extreme measure, and any society that considers itself somehow guiltless becuase it imprisons but never executes has already, I think, denied the dignity of people. It has said, “the years and events and relationships of a person’s life have no meaning; so long we didn’t end end his or her life, we cannot be faulted.”

  16. Rick Ritchie says:

    I think applying Genesis 9 consistently would allow for exceptions. Remember, the rule is stated after the first exception, Cain, has been made.

    “If we’re going to argue Genesis 9 consistently as a basis for current judicial practice…”

    Before looking at it carefully, this sounds like Two Kingdom Theory. Except that Genesis 9 is the foundation for belief in one of the two kingdoms. So after questioning the foundation of this kingdom, we wish this kingdom to govern itself in light of a text which speaks of heavenly things (the image of God), when we don’t find the text trustworthy in speaking of earthly things (the death penalty)?

    It might be that you have some other way of reading Genesis 9 that will make this more coherent. I could imagine someone seeing some of these things as matters we can see by reason alone but put in mythic dress. But if that were the case, then the arguments from reason might allow their own exceptions. Not just to capital punishment, but to ideas on the nature of the state. This is part of what I would like to get at. The Catholic discussion you mention in the post sounds like certain ideas we would only get from special revelation are brought into a discussion that purports to be a discussion of general revelation ideas available to all. But the discussion is neither in the language of Scripture (sword, blood, shed, judgment, terror, vengeance), nor that of modern politics (rights, probability, statistics, social contract, effectiveness). I prefer a vocabulary either from special revelation or from the current discussion.

    If I could be persuaded that “common good” were the right category, it would only be after being convinced by someone like Peter Singer. In which case I’m still using a totally different set of categories. And baboons and whales and dogs will be given a status comparable to people. And perhaps higher than criminals.

    In fact, I would almost wonder whether a voting block could be created by people to the right and to the left of the Catholic views mentioned above. Execute the criminals and instead of spending the money incarcerating them, buy more land for animals to run free in.

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