There are some believers – especially some Catholics – who seek to argue that the Christian should be “fully” pro-life and oppose all killing – certainly things like capital punishment, along with things like abortion. Sometimes this is referred to as a “consistent life ethic” and the like.
But is this a fully biblical position to hold to? And is it morally and mentally coherent? I and many others – including many Catholic ethicists – believe it is not. I have discussed this matter before, but it keeps arising. So let me give it another hearing.
Here I want to just look at capital punishment and how it differs from abortion. One person recently came to my site seeking to make the “seamless garment” case. I get folks like this quite often. In this recent case, I told the person:
I – along with so many others – am a social conservative and biblical Christian who fully agrees with the rightness of capital punishment. I strongly differ with those who want to push the claim that we should oppose abortion AND capital punishment. The two could not be more different: Abortion involves the unjust murder of the innocent while the death penalty involves the just killing of the guilty. So there is no moral equivalence here whatsoever. See here for more on this.
What I said there should really suffice, but let me tease it out further. First, as I have argued often enough, killing and murder are NOT the same. The Sixth Commandment proscribes the latter, but not the former. I have in some detail made the case for three biblically and morally licit forms of killing in previous pieces.
On self-defence, see this.
On just war theory, see the many articles featured here.
And here are 23 articles making the biblical, moral and social case for the death penalty.
Second, as I have sought to argue elsewhere, there most certainly is a place for the death penalty in Catholic social teaching. Even some supporters of the seamless garment recognise this reality. See here.
Third, much of this has to do with the biblical concept of justice. Too often folks – including many believers – think that love and mercy somehow trump justice, or are more important. See the piece on James 2:13 above that looks at one such passage they appeal to. But let’s look at justice further.
One brilliant thinker who specializes in philosophy, politics and ethics, and strongly appeals to the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and natural law theory, J. Budziszewski is well worth appealing to here. He has penned many important volumes that could be drawn upon, but let me restrict myself to his vital 2009 work, The Line Through the Heart. In his chapter on capital punishment, he writes:
Justice is giving each what is due to him. So fundamental is the duty of public authority to requite good and evil in deeds that natural law philosophers consider it the paramount function of the state, and the New Testament declares that the role is delegated to magistrates by God Himself….
So weighty is the duty of justice that it raises the question whether mercy is permissible at all. By definition, mercy is punishing the criminal less than he deserves, and it does not seem clear at first why not going far enough is better than going too far. We say that both cowardice and rashness miss the mark of courage, and that both stinginess and prodigality miss the mark of generosity; why do we not say that both mercy and harshness miss the mark of justice? Making matters yet more difficult, the argument to abolish capital punishment is an argument to categorically extend clemency to all those whose crimes are of the sort that would be requitable by death.
I ask: Is there warrant for such categorical extension of clemency? Let us focus mainly on the crime of murder, the deliberate taking of innocent human life. The reason for this focus is that the question of mercy arises only on the assumption that some crime does deserve death. It would seem that at least death deserves death, that nothing less is sufficient to answer the gravity of the deed. Revelation agrees. As Genesis instructs: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Someone may object that the murderer, too, is made in God’s image, and so he is. But this does not lighten the horror of his deed. On the contrary, it heightens it, because it makes him a morally accountable being. Moreover, if even simple murder warrants death, how much more does multiple and compounded murder warrant it? Some criminals seem to deserve death many times over. If we are considering not taking their lives at all, the motive cannot be justice. It must be mercy.
The questions to be addressed are therefore three: Is it ever permissible for public authority to give the wrongdoer less than he deserves? If it is permissible, then when is it permissible? Is it permissible to grant such mercy categorically?
Society is justly ordered when each person receives what is due to him. Crime disturbs this just order, for the criminal takes from people their lives, peace, liberties, and worldly goods in order to give himself undeserved benefits. Deserved punishment protects society morally by restoring this just order, making the wrongdoer pay a price equivalent to the harm he has done. This is retribution, not to be confused with revenge, which is guided by a different motive. In retribution the spur is the virtue of indignation, which answers injury with injury for public good. In revenge the spur is the passion of resentment, which answers malice with malice for private satisfaction. We are not concerned here with revenge.
Retribution is the primary purpose of just punishment as such. The reasons for saying so are threefold. First, just punishment is not something which might or might not requite evil (as, for example, it might or might not rehabilitate the criminal); requital is simply what it is. Second, without just punishment evil cannot be requited. Third, just punishment does not require any warrant beyond the requiting evil, for the restoration of justice is good in itself. True, just punishment may bring about other good effects. In particular, it might rehabilitate the criminal, it might physically protect society from him, or it might deter crime in general. Although these might be additional motives for just punishment, they are secondary. In the first place, punishment might not achieve them. In the second place, they can sometimes be partly achieved apart from punishment. Third and most important, they cannot justify punishment by themselves. In other words, we may not do more to the criminal than he deserves – not even if more would be needed to rehabilitate him, make him harmless, or discourage others from imitation. If a man punches another man in the nose, we may not keep him in a mental institution forever just because he has not yet become kind in spirit, nor may we kill him because we cannot be sure that he will never punch again, nor may we torture him because nothing less would deter other would-be punchers-in-the-nose. For these reasons, rehabilitation, protection, and deterrence have a lesser status in punishment than retribution.
I encourage you to read his entire chapter – indeed, his entire book. But I note that there is a fairly similar version of this chapter online.
Let me finish with four more quotes on this (three of them from Catholics). They once again highlight the very real differences between the taking of life in capital punishment and in abortion:
“Capital punishment is obviously a ‘right-to-life’ issue. But it is often misunderstood. One could legitimately argue against both abortion and, on prudential grounds, capital punishment. But the two cases are not the same since the unborn child is innocent and the convicted murderer is not. One could therefore also legitimately argue against abortion and in favor of capital punishment. The liberal chic position today, however, is to oppose the killing of convicted criminals but to approve the killing of innocent children in the womb. It is a symptom of debased humanism to protest a murderer’s deserved punishment while acquiescing in the killing of innocents through abortion. The prudent use of the death penalty can emphasize, as no other penalty can, that malefactors are responsible for their own actions and that the deliberate, willful taking of innocent life is the most abhorrent of all crimes precisely because the right to life is the most precious of all rights.” (Charles Rice, “The Legitimacy and Prudence of Capital Punishment”)
“As Christians, we are not contradictory when we support the death penalty yet oppose abortion. Yes, both actions will end the life of a human being. But while the death penalty ends the life of a convicted murderer, abortion ends the life of an innocent baby. It is immoral for us to fail to see the difference between these two categories of humans. When I proclaim, ‘I am opposed to abortion”, what I am really saying is, ‘I am opposed to the unjustified killing of innocent human beings.’ This is the difference between taking the life of a fetal human and taking the life of a convicted killer. If I believed convicted murderers were innocent human beings, I would be opposed to taking their lives as well.” (J. Warner Wallace, “How Can We Be Pro-Life and Pro-Death Penalty at the Same Time?”)
“The failure of the ‘Seamless Garment’ was that, despite the explicit words of its founder, it was turned into a one-size-fits-all pro-life tee shirt that would fit those who were for abortion and euthanasia but be used to strangle actual pro-lifers who disagreed with others on what the Compendium calls ‘contingent questions.’ If there was consistency in the consistent ethic of life, it was largely political.” (David Paul Deavel, “A Seamless Garment That Fits”)
“Seamless Garment enthusiasts also state flatly that one cannot be truly pro-life if he is not both anti-abortion and anti-death penalty. This is worse than a comparison of apples and oranges; it is literally a comparison of grapes and watermelons. Once again, Seamless Shroud supporters ignore the central points of the comparison;
The preborn baby has committed no harm against anyone, while those who receive the death penalty have been found guilty of the most heinous of crimes in most cases, many heinous crimes. Pro-aborts may argue that the preborn baby commits harm against the mother just by existing, but this heartless argument totally neglects the fact that intent is missing. Nobody who kills another person unintentionally will be sentenced to death – the crime may instead be manslaughter.
The criminal has been tried by a jury, in front of a judge, and both ‘sides’ have presented evidence. The preborn has no jury, no judge, not even a charge (other than existing), and he is simply sentenced to death. He does not have the slightest chance of defending himself.
Execution of a killer is a matter of utmost seriousness. It is true that some innocent people may have been executed, but it is also true that the ‘system’ has expended great efforts in discerning his guilt. On the other hand, almost all abortions are committed for the most trivial of reasons, as described in Chapter 87, “Statistics on Abortion.” If the same philosophy was applied towards crime, all of our jails would be empty, because the death penalty would be automatic for such petty crimes as larceny and DUI.
As evidence of this last point, every day in this country, more innocent unborn babies die than all the criminals executed in this country’s history! Abortion and the death penalty cannot logically be compared.” (American Life League)
For further reading
I will need to post a separate reading list on this, but let me mention just one important volume on this:
Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment. Ignatius Press, 2017.