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CATHOLICISM/ Tollefsen: God, Death, and Capital Punishment

It is philosophically and theologically defensible for Catholics to believe that the death penalty is intrinsically wrong. A debate on capital punishment. By CHRISTOPHER TOLLRFSEN

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Four Catholic journals, from a notably broad array of the political and theological spectrum, have joined together to urge that “Capital punishment must end.” I am greatly sympathetic to their effort: I believe capital punishment to be wrong, not just for prudential reasons, but in itself. For I believe it is always wrong to intend the death of a human being, whether oneself or another, and execution of a criminal, when undertaken in order to punish, seems to involve precisely that intention.

That sympathy is not universally shared among Catholics. Edward Feser asserts that “capital punishment should not end.” The always excellent canon lawyer Edward Peters likewise demurs. And Steven A. Long accuses the four journals of holding a “mutationist” and doctrinally “antinomian” position. Long also, in a separate essay, criticizes a journal article of mine in which I sought to shore up my view by arguing that God Himself cannot, and does not, intend the death of any human being, even as punishment.

That position is disputed by many, and I do not claim to speak for other “new” natural law theorists in defending it (though Joseph Boyle has also defended it). But it seems plausible to me as a conclusion of the following argument: human life is a basic good of human beings, a constitutive aspect of their well-being, and God loves each human being always. To love someone is to will the good for that person. Thus God, in creating and maintaining in existence each human person out of love, can no more intend the death of a human person—the privation of that person’s life—than He can in any other way act contrary to His nature as all good. St. Paul tells us in his letter to Titus, “God does not lie.” I assert the same as regards God and intending death.

Moreover, I argue in my essay, my view has roots in the thought of St. Thomas, who holds (a) that God “does not will death as per se intended,” meaning that God does not will death as an end or a means; and (b) that “God in inflicting punishment does not intend the evil for those punished but intends to imprint the ordination of his justice on things, just as water’s privation of its form results from the presence of fire’s form.” The privation of water’s form is, for Aquinas, per accidens, a side effect, of the presence of fire’s form. In a similar way, it seems, God, though intending to impose a punitive order on sinners, does not intend their death.

How does this claim contribute to the discussion of the death penalty? One argument made by Christian defenders of capital punishment since St. Augustine is that God has delegated authority to kill to those with political sovereignty. But if God does not Himself intend to kill, then this is an authority He would no more delegate than He would the authority to lie. As I say, my view about God is disputed, and faces a weight of difficult Old Testament texts suggesting the contrary. Some of those texts, in which God commands the Israelites to slaughter men, women, and children, are difficult for defenders of more moderate views as well. I cannot address those difficulties here. Rather, I hope to address two objections raised by Long, one to the joint authors of the declaration on capital punishment, and one to me.

Can a Catholic Hold My View About Capital Punishment?

The statement by the four journals suggests, as Long rightly points out, something stronger than mere prudential opposition to the death penalty. Calling something “abhorrent” rather indicates that they think, as I do, that execution of convicted criminals is intrinsically wrong.