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The Virtues of Concentrating the Mind

by BARTON SWAIM

news that Pope Francis has revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to designate the death penalty “inadmissible” was greeted in the American media as evidence that the church is at last catching up with the times. That assessment, superficial though many Catholics will consider it, isn’t altogether wrong.

The Catechism, published in Latin and an English translation in 1992 and largely the product of Pope John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), had already been altered in various ways on the question of capital punishment. In this instance the pope altered note 2267, heretofore a sentence affirming that “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (my italics). Now it reads,

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” [a statement by Pope Francis from 2017], and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

John Paul II accepted the validity of the death penalty but wished to minimize its application; indeed the previous note in the Catechism, 2266, had been altered by him in 1997 in a way that sidestepped the death penalty completely. The original text had acknowledged the propriety of the death penalty “in cases of extreme gravity,” but the updated text excluded that statement.

A hint of John Paul II’s deference to tradition and scripture still remains—why the word “inadmissible” rather than wrong or sinful?—but the Catechism’s new position seems unambiguous: It’s hard to see how the church can work with determination for the worldwide abolition of a practice without considering that practice morally reprehensible. Francis’s explanatory letter calls the change an “authentic development of doctrine.”

The pope, if a hidebound Protestant may be permitted to say so, hasn’t done his church any favors. The death penalty is warranted in the Bible. Nearly all the church fathers (Tertullian, typically, is an exception) accepted its validity. So did the doctors of the church, including Thomas Aquinas. Clement of Alexandria (150-215), who lived at a time when Christians had little or no influence on the laws of nations, argued in The Stromatathat “when one falls into any incurable evil—when taken possession of, for example, by wrong or covetousness—it will be for his good if he is put to death. For the law is beneficent, being able to make some righteous from unright­eous, if they will only give ear to it.”

By taking such an overt stance on a position held by church authorities for centuries, and by alluding vaguely to an “increasing awareness” of human dignity, Francis makes it sound as though the secularist philosophies of postwar Europe and North America were right all along, and that Christianity, after 2,000 years of callous unconcern, has only just caught up. In that way, at least, Francis sounds a little like the young liberal-minded clergy of mainline Protestant denominations in America who declare their support for same-sex marriage and thus concede that they and their entire religious tradition have embraced a bigoted and unjust proscription for centuries. Maybe the updated view is the right one, but it’s no great enticement for the heathen to consider the benefits of Christianity.

I wonder, though, if the newer Catholic attitude to the death penalty doesn’t overlook something important. I don’t know why atheist or nonreligious people oppose the death penalty (though many do), but Christian opposition seems motivated mainly by two thoughts: first, that taking life is morally risky (e.g., what if you execute the wrong person?); and second, that no one is beyond redemption (consider Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment).

Neither apprehension is unreasonable. Both are in separate ways responses to the modern state’s inability to acknowledge metaphysical claims about intrinsic right and wrong. The older view held that the man who committed deliberate and malicious murder forfeited his right to life. That’s a claim about justice, whereas citizens of modern liberal democracies are in most cases prepared to talk only about utility—what works, what discourages criminality, what contributes to safety and public order. The Catholic Catechism, even from its first iteration in 1992, seems to accept that more utilitarian logic.

But the newer attitude brings its own very practical problems. One is the victim’s—and sometimes the general population’s— sense of injustice when a vicious killer gets to spend the rest of his days fed and housed at public expense. I’ll use an extreme instance, but a real one. From July 1963 to October 1965 Ian Brady and Myra Hindley murdered five children near Manchester, England, and murdered them in ways so unspeakably vile as to make it difficult for me even to write their names. The Moors murders, as they became known, were carried out while Britain still practiced the death penalty, but the trial occurred after its abolition in 1965. Brady and Hindley lived the rest of their lives in relative comfort. Hindley died in 2002, aged 60, of bronchial pneumonia. Brady died last year, aged 79, of heart disease. Neither expressed anything like genuine sorrow for their crimes, and the parents of the victims lived out their days in the knowledge that their government kept the pair alive and tended to their health. The sense of injustice rankled many.

Those sentenced to capital punishment, by contrast, do often die penitently. “Depend upon it, sir,” Samuel Johnson famously remarks in James Boswell’s Life, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Those who die by execution under lawful governments are almost the only people on earth who are permitted to know the exact moment of their deaths before they die. The terminally ill have an idea, but usually an imprecise one. Everyone else—including those imprisoned for capital crimes where the death penalty is inoperative—has to guess. For us, the incentive to consider death’s reality and meaning is significantly diminished.

Jon Ozmint, head of the South Carolina prison system from 2003 to 2011, confirms Dr. Johnson’s observation. Of the 15 inmates whose executions took place during Ozmint’s time in office, 12 had confessed their crimes, embraced some form of Christianity, and faced their end with poise. “Most of the guys who show up on capital convictions are full of piss and vinegar, full of anger,” he says. “Once their appeals are exhausted, they grow up very fast. The reality of the death penalty forces most guys to examine themselves, forces them to think about what they’ve done and what comes after.” Ozmint seems to have genuine affection for the 12 who died at peace. “I saw them grow up. By the time they died, they were good men.”

That consideration won’t change the minds of most of those who oppose the death penalty on principled grounds, but one would think it might give Catholic authorities some pause. Surely they wish for the condemned what the psalmist asked for himself: “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am.”

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