Concentrating the Mind


September 30, 2011

Catholic opponents of the death penalty sometimes seem to lose sight of the primary purpose of punishment. The Ca­techism of the Catholic Church (final text) says, “Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense.” If I commit a serious offense against society, I bring about a disorder, and the point of punishment is to reestablish the lost order. If I willingly accept my punishment, “it assumes the value of expiation.” And it can protect you from future crimes I might commit. The Catechism thus gives three purposes of punishment: defending public order, protecting people, and moral change in the criminal.

Paragraph 2267 reminds us that “the traditional teaching of the church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” but then adds, “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” This appears to make a secondary purpose of punishment override the primary. That appearance has led to some fuzzy thinking. The correct meaning must be that the primary aim of punishment can be achieved short of exacting the death penalty. A single means—say, life imprisonment—restores the order lost by the crime, protects society against future crimes of the incarcerated, and gives the prisoner a chance to repent.

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The paragraph should not be read as making the protection of society trump everything else. Why? Because imprisonment protects society against future possible crimes. But the criminal cannot be punished for what he might do; he is in prison because of what he has already done. If life imprisonment is to serve the primary purpose of punishment, it must, like the death penalty, be primarily justified as sufficiently “redressing the disorder introduced by the offense.”

Paragraph 2267 is concerned exclusively with a secondary purpose of punishment: protecting society. Unless, as suggested, “protecting society” be taken to comprehend “redressing the disorder.” (Paragraph 2266 distinguishes “defending public order” from “protecting people’s safety.”) One sometimes hears in the clamor to end the death penalty that retribution is no longer the aim of punishment. But if there is no cause for retribution, punishment is unjust: All that would excuse it is the fear that someone might in the future harm us and that solitude might better his soul.

Enthusiasm sometimes obscures the fact that the Catechism “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty.” However rare such recourse might be, even if it were only once in a millennium, it would have to be justified. The long and rich tradition of Catholic morality has made clear what that justification is. That doctrine is what would justify capital punishment, however rarely exacted. Which is why that doctrine must not be, however implicitly, trashed. We should not preen ourselves, as we join the somewhat motley parade of opponents of capital punishment, that we have advanced beyond our tradition to a higher plane of morality.

Actually, the Holy Father’s campaign against having recourse to capital punishment is a corollary to his evaluation of dominant trends in modern culture. Ours, he has said, is a culture of death. We live in a country where, as Russ Hittinger puts it, the state whose primary purpose is to protect the lives of its citizens has farmed out the right to take innocent life to abortionists. Such a state loses the moral authority to exact the death penalty. It is not because we are so nice but because we live in such a bloody society that we might oppose having recourse to capital punishment.

Neither should we invoke human dignity as if our free actions do not specify us morally. A murderer and an innocent babe are poles apart morally. To talk about capital crimes as if they do not touch the moral essence of the agent is to trivialize human behavior and adopt the outlook of most others who oppose the death penalty. They are against punishment as such. They will go on from capital punishment to campaign against life imprisonment—it is already happening in Europe. In the all-too-familiar modern twist, it is the one who exacts just punishment, not the criminal, who is condemned.

Catholics must never forget how countercultural they are, even when they oppose the death penalty. Of course the liberal establishment opposes it but for essentially different reasons. They do not believe in moral responsibility. They do not believe in a life beyond this one. We should not even have words in common with the Gentiles, someone advised. That would be hard to do, but surely our thoughts have little in common with theirs.


This article originally appeared in the October 2000 issue of Crisis Magazine.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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