“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.”
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?