Concentrating the mind

The erudite Fr. George Rutler gently puts capital punishment in perspective with respect to Catholic doctrine in his latest article for Crisis Magazine, “Hanging Concentrates the Mind”:

“It is not my concern here to take a position on capital punishment which the Catechism (# 2266) acknowledges is not an intrinsic evil and is rightly part of the state’s authority. This is nuanced by the same Catechism’s proposition that its use  today would be ‘rare, if not practically non-existent. (#2267)’  As a highly unusual insertion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical formula, this would seem to be more mercurial in application than the doctrine of the legitimacy of the death penalty.  What is oddly lacking, however, is reference to capital punishment as medicinal as well as punitive. Tradition has understood that the spiritual aspect of the death penalty is to ‘concentrate the mind’ so that the victim dies in a state of grace.  Simply put, the less I believe heartily in eternal life, the more disheartened I shall be about entering ‘a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.'”

Fr. Rutler proceeds to recount the history of sainted popes who imposed capital punishment in the Papal States, surrounding it with ritualistic dignity for the condemned man, making the sacraments available to him, even exhorting the citizens to fast and pray for him. The very antithesis of cruel bloodlust, it seems to me. It’s also worth remembering that a pope as recent as Pius XII was eager to see justice done in this way.

Earlier this week, the Catholic bishops of Louisiana lobbied governor Bobby Jindal, also a Catholic, to stop the execution of Christopher Sepulvado (on Ash Wednesday!), another Catholic whom they said is repentant and active in his faith. Governor Jindal declined, which was well within his rights, his office responding that the “trial was handled appropriately, and the punishment decided on by a jury of Mr. Sepulvado’s peers is proportional to the crime he committed.” I can’t help but think it unfair of the bishops to place the governor in a position of seeming to oppose the Church on a question of prudential judgment legitimately belonging to the state. Would that Governor Jindal of Catholic Louisiana also exhorted his fellow citizens to fast and pray for the soul of Mr. Sepulvado!


4 thoughts on “Concentrating the mind

  1. I should add that the confusion on this point, among many Catholics, is truly scandalous. The erroneous opinion expressed by this deacon is widespread, even among the clergy:

    “Simply put, killing his killer does nothing. And it certainly violates Catholic teaching. We will never truly Pro-Life until we understand the totality of the Church’s teaching on the death penalty.”

    It’s one thing to argue against the application of the death penalty on the basis of mercy, or prudence, or political strategy. It may well be the case that capital punishment is counter-productive in our time, which is a question of wisdom and prudence rather than doctrine. But to say that capital punishment “violates Catholic teaching” is beyond the pale and dangerously misleading – dangerous because it calls into question the unambiguous teaching of sacred scripture, 2000 years of catechesis, and the orthodoxy of countless saints and doctors of the Church.


  2. “We will never [be] truly Pro-Life…”

    And if the deacon can’t see that executing the guilty and executing the innocent are two very different kinds of acts, there’s not much help for him.


  3. I’ve always favored this quote when it comes to the death penalty: “A Sanhedrin which imposes the death sentence once every seven years is too hotheaded.”


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