Human Dignity, Justice and the Death Penalty

We should maintain that God's truth in inviolable, and let it form our understanding of justice.

With regard to justice, there is a whole conceptual change indicated in Pope Francis’ position. A traditional conception of justice regarding murder or similarly heinous crimes is that death is a just penalty, and to give a lesser penalty is mercy. This is no slight to mercy, for God is both just and merciful, and mercy is to be commended. But mercy and justice must not be confused.

 

Pope Francis’ recent and much-publicized change of the Catholic church’s position on the death penalty presents a challenge in the realm of theological and ethical reasoning. His rationale for denouncing the death penalty, according to the Vatican statement, is that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”1 On the contrary, we should maintain that God’s truth in inviolable, and let it form our understanding of justice. Pope Francis’ argument is problematic because it runs contrary to the Scripture’s witness on the connection of justice and anthropology.

With regard to justice, there is a whole conceptual change indicated in Pope Francis’ position. A traditional conception of justice regarding murder or similarly heinous crimes is that death is a just penalty, and to give a lesser penalty is mercy. This is no slight to mercy, for God is both just and merciful, and mercy is to be commended. But mercy and justice must not be confused.

The conceptual change necessarily implied by Francis’ stance is that capital punishment is unjust; justice must then be found at some lesser punishment, and mercy (presumably) at a punishment less severe than that. For it is assuredly unjust to “attack…the inviolability and dignity of the person.” If that is, indeed, the nature of the death penalty, then it is a sin to execute a criminal for any crime, an act of profound injustice. However–as I have already noted–this understanding runs into insurmountable problems in light of the biblical witness.

Regarding theological anthropology, we need to first recognize that the pope’s opposition to the death penalty is grounded in a concept of human dignity built on a premise of inviolability–meaning that the human life must not be taken as penalty for a crime. The human person is the central concern, and justice is determined based on anthropology. But is this the correct approach, and is the implicit anthropology sound?

Certainly, human dignity is a factor of tremendous significance in ethics. Humans are made in the imago Dei and have a blessed standing at the height of God’s creation. The Fall had a cataclysmic effect on human life, but did not obliterate the dignity with which we were invested by God’s creative work. So the problem is not with applying human dignity to the question of criminal justice, but with how that application is made. In the case of Francis’ ethics, we see a secularization of the imago Dei, where theological anthropology becomes anthropocentric instead of theocentric.

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