I’ve often wondered why the death penalty was called “capital punishment,” and then it dawned on me that “capital” means “head.” Sure enough, the term refers back to the Roman system of law which deemed certain crimes worthy of death by beheading.
The rise of executions is therefore a chilling reminder of just how vibrant ancient barbarism is in the world today.
Amnesty International recently reported that state authorized executions rose by fifty percent in 2015, the highest rate in twenty five years. According to AI’s annual report, the dramatic increase was fueled by three nations – Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – who together were responsible for nearly 90 percent of executions in 2015.
The United States had fewer executions, but was still in fourth place on Amnesty International’s list. While these nations have bumped up the numbers of executions, China still holds the top place. Amnesty International cannot obtain detailed statistics, but estimates that China executed thousands of prisoners in 2015.
At its primal level, the human spirit demands capital punishment. The desire for revenge is sparked when a horrible crime is committed. The cycle of revenge declines into brutal vigilantism and endless feuds, prompting the remark attributed to Gandhi, “If the law is ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ the whole world would soon be blind and toothless.”
Proponents of capital punishment would argue that the cycle of revenge is avoided by the state administering a just retribution for crime. “The law is objective” they argue, “certain crimes have certain consequences.”
The gospel of Jesus Christ, however, sets an even higher standard. In Matthew 5:38-39 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.”
Is it possible to live by such a high ideal? The Catholic Church teaches that no standard of the gospel is impossible, and this is why Catholic teaching on the subject of capital punishment has developed.
While the Catholic Church traditionally permitted the death sentence, it did not demand it. Since the pontificate of John Paul II, official Catholic teaching has moved closer to the gospel ideal.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes John Paul’s encyclical letter Evangelism Vitae saying that while the use of capital punishment is not excluded, in modern societies the need for it is “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
Catholic social teaching outlines the objectives of criminal punishment as being retribution, protection of the innocent, rehabilitation and deterrence. Therefore some would argue that retribution demands capital punishment, but this equates retribution with revenge. The two concepts are different.
Retribution is the just consequence meted out by the state for a particular crime. If a life is taken in murder, for example, a life must be given. However, this does not demand the death penalty. A life is also given by the offender receiving and serving a life sentence.
With a life sentence the retribution is fulfilled, but the other objectives of justice are also fulfilled: society is adequately protected, crime is deterred and the offender has time to be rehabilitated and repent.
It is the mark of a civilized and Christian society that all four objectives for justice be pursued, and it is a disgrace that the United States is not only fourth highest on the list of countries with executions, but that the prison population in the United States is far higher per-capita than every other country in the world but one.
What does it say about modern day America that we top the list of executions with Communist China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia?
Despite the upturn in executions worldwide, Amnesty International also reports that an increasing number of countries are moving towards abolition of the death penalty. In 2015, four countries—Madagascar, Fiji, Suriname and Congo— joined the 102 countries that have abolished capital punishment, and Mongolia adopted a new criminal code outlawing the death penalty which kicks in later this year.
Catholics famously lead the pro-life battle against abortion. Certainly it is not right to equate capital punishment with abortion, because abortion is the premeditated killing of an innocent and defenseless child.
Nevertheless, pro-life Catholics who oppose abortion should also oppose the death penalty and campaign for mercy, remembering the standard Jesus set in the gospel and the words from the prophet Ezekiel: “I do not take any pleasure in the death of the wicked” says the Lord, “Rather that he should turn from his ways and live.”