In an online dispute about the morality of capital punishment a few days ago, my interlocutor pressed me to declare flatly whether I consider it an intrinsic evil or a prudential matter.
I hesitated, because neither category quite fits my position. Maybe we can use an analogy with food. There are more categories under the sun than "poisonous" and "healthy." For instance, "junk" and "unhealthy." If junk food is all that stands between us and starvation, then we'll eat it. We should eat it. But if we fill our diet with in normal circumstances, we'll be ill and fat and weak.
Capital punishment is definitely not an intrinsic evil, as abortion and murder, say, are. There are circumstances under which it is justified, perhaps called for. And certainly one who commits terrible crimes objectively forfeits his right to life and freedom in society.
But I still stand with the editors of the Catholic journals who recently called for an end to capital punishment in our country. Like them, I find it at odds with the dignity of the human person and the common good.
First, here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says on the subject:
2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
To be a person is to deserve love and to need love. You don't have to be a liberal or a relativist to notice that love is something notably absent from the formative experiences of most criminals. That doesn't abolish personal responsibility for crimes, but it does condition and ameliorate it, in my view.
We should always approach the sinner from an attitude of solidarity, loving concern, and hope in the possibility of his redemption. We too are sinners. We too have been wounded by wrong. We stand in need of help and grace.
And the most important dimension of the common good in any given society is the common good of the moral atmosphere we share and the values that comprise it. Persons thrive best in a society that prizes mercy along with justice and solidarity together with individual rights.
I've just submitted an article on this subject to the National Catholic Register, which I'll link when it appears.