Friday, September 9, 2011
Many thanks to Rob, Robby, and Marc for their contributions regarding the death penalty and public reactions to the exercise of this penalty in particular cases or circumstances.
By way of making a small contribution to the development of Catholic legal theory regarding this method of punishment, the following might be considered.
One place to begin is to contemplate what is expected from the punishment of one who has clearly committed a great wrong that has threatened individuals, the common good, and perhaps the entire human family? Retribution? Rehabilitation of the convicted? Protection (self-defense) of the society from further harm from a particular person who has been justly convicted of grievous crimes? Some combination of the preceding? All of the preceding?
With regard to any punishment, there is a need to consider the principles of proportion, the justification, and the discriminating use of the sanction. In this context, is the offender’s permanent removal from society the wisest approach to achieving all the legitimate goals of punishing the offender who has committed the most heinous actions against others? If so, does not perpetual incarceration become attractive if the rehabilitative element of punishment includes giving the offender the last possible chance for making a good and sincere act of contrition that would aid in his or her own salvation? Even if society has been forced to suffer a great evil at the hands of this person, should society respond in kind? Or should it take stock of St. Paul’s counsel, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans, 12:21)
It would appear that life’s imprisonment is the only way in which the convicted can reflect on the wrong or wrongs perpetrated and the means for reconciling with those who have suffered as a result.
Providing this opportunity to the convicted would not preclude or minimize just punishment. By the same token, it would provide the longest period of opportunity for the offender to reconcile with the neighbors who have been harmed. In a Catholic context, the notion of reconciliation is not complete unless the wrongdoer has been reconciled with both God and the neighbor.
The redemptive power of God, through Jesus Christ his Son, ought to be available to the wrongdoer for as long as it may take, which could be a natural lifetime. We must always be mindful of the words of Jesus: “the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” For how long God chooses to seek and save is for God, not for us, to decide.
Inevitably the justly convicted person’s premature death accelerated by capital punishment will terminate the possibility of reconciliation with God and the neighbor and the wrongdoer’s salvation. Reconciliation with God and the neighbor is, for all of us, a vital element of God’s plan for the sinner to seek forgiveness. The Christian sense of reconciliation enables even the most egregious wrongdoer, whose penitence is sincere, to become a “new creation in Christ.”
However, with the imposition of capital punishment, this possibility is denied. When the wrongdoer can no longer reflect on his or her transgressions because of premature death through execution, God’s plan has been interrupted.
But, with a life ahead until natural death, the thinking of the convicted goes on for as long as God wills.
A need for clarity about the concerns of society and the wrongness of the incarcerated person’s actions must be addressed at this point. Abstaining from capital punishment does not entail eliminating a just and severe punishment. Only a particular form of punishment that interferes with God’s plan for salvation and redemption is abandoned. The justifications for punishment based on deterrence, rehabilitation, and even retribution can be served with a life sentence of imprisonment. In the meantime, the wrongdoer is given the maximum opportunity to make amends for the crimes and sins committed. The lifestyle of imprisonment can be simple, even stark, but not inhumane. Such a penalty contributes to justice and all legitimate interests of society and those, in particular, who have been harmed by the wrong committed.
On a different yet related matter, the sentence of life imprisonment provides all persons who are concerned with the opportunity to rely on emerging scientific technologies that could well demonstrate that the convicted person did not, in fact, perpetrate the crime allegedly committed. Recent cases have demonstrated that some persons condemned to death, with the introduction of appropriate and reliable post-conviction evidence relying on breakthroughs in forensic science, were, in fact, not responsible for the heinous crime with which they were accused and convicted. Avoiding the death penalty in such cases does not inhibit justice; rather, it enhances it.
Heinous crimes are usually sins as well, and no person is without sin. However, neither is anyone excluded from God’s plan of redemption. If it is God’s will that redemption is available to anyone who seeks it, then it is not the role of any person to interfere with His merciful plan. To interfere with this salvific plan is not a proper human activity. Even if the condemned were to give consent, should anyone interfere with God’s justice and God’s reward or denial of His plan? Even the justly convicted person ought to be given the opportunity for redemption. To reduce by human means the time in which the convicted person’s redemption might take place is to place a human judgment before God’s.
Are we our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers? The answer to this ancient question is clear: yes, we are. If society abstains from the death penalty, it would seem to be avoiding another evil and embracing an important good—the mercy of God to those who seek His forgiveness. And for those who don’t, they will never again taste the freedom that we often take for granted.