Capital Punishment and Mercy Unmoderated

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The late Russell Kirk may be numbered among my favorite political philosophers. Not everything which he wrote was good, but much of what he did write which was good was excellent [1]. But even among his greater works I find the occasional essay (or chapter) which causes me to cringe. His essay on the death penalty, Criminal Character and Mercy (found in his book, Redeeming the Time) is such a work.

In this essay, Dr Kirk presents his case for capital punishment based on three broad points:

  1. It is more merciful to the criminal to kill him than to suffer him to live.
  2. The death penalty serves as a deterrent against the worst crimes.
  3. The death penalty is necessary to protect innocent people from violent criminals, who may after all escape (or be released) only to terrorize another victim.

The latter two points I will not address here. If they are true, then they are valid reasons for supporting the death penalty—they have, at the very least, a good end as their goal (e.g. the protection of innocents) [2].

It is the first point which I find particularly troublesome: that killing those guilty of violent crimes is the merciful way to treat them. The logic of equating capital punishment with mercy for criminals is ultimately distinguished only by the existence of guilt from the logic of euthanizing terminally ill patients. Indeed, the parallel may be taken a step further given that the “terminal illness” is so often that the elderly are merely inconvenient to their caretakers (whether family or the state) [3].

The electric chair: invented to kill more mercifully.

For his part, Dr Kirk explicitly [4] provides three examples in which he views the capital punishment as being “merciful” to the prisoner. The first comes from a novelette by the German writer Stefan Andres, We Are God’s Utopia, which is a story about the Spanish Civil War. In the story, one faction has confined hundreds of prisoners of the other faction in an abandoned convent; the prisoners are eventually massacred under the direction of the first faction’s commandant, Don Pedro. Pedro has previously committed several atrocities, the memory of which haunt him and make him unable to sleep; he goes so far as to describe himself as dwelling in himself “as though in a grave.” After describing a scene in which Don Pedro seeks out a former priest among the prisoners to hear his confession—and the priests advice that he ought to pray for death, which alone can grant him comfort and peace—Dr Kirk writes that

“To Don Pedro, death would bring relief from his ghastly sadness and the moral solitude in which he had suffered since childhood; relief from the tormenting memory of his atrocious crimes; relief from the depravity of his own nature. Like most murderers, Pedro is not totally corrupt: he is capable of some kindly acts and of gratitude. But there is no way in which he can be redeemed or relieved of the torment of being what he is, in the flesh—except through death. To such a one, capital punishment would be an order of release.”

Don Pedro is a monster “in the flesh,” who death can release from being what he is: this hardly sounds like orthodox Catholic [5] (or even Christian) thought. After all, we will one day be reunited with our bodies during the general resurrection, so if it is out flesh which makes us evil, then Don Pedro’s death will not redeem him no matter what the state of his soul, but will rather grant him but a temporary reprieve, assuming that he is not placed among the damned. It will, moreover, deprive him of any further chance to repent and reform himself (granted, he is contrite during his confession); he may make an act of contrition during his repentance, but this is only the beginning of the work of contrition and the fullness of conversion. That many sinners never do repent is not justification for ensuring that none do, or even that none of the greatest do, by cutting their lives short in the name of mercy.

Lest we object that Don Pedro’s account be only fiction and not “real life,” Dr Kirk offers us the experiences of two of his real-life acquaintances, both of which are mean to give veracity to the fictional account. These two acquaintances—one referred to only as “Eddie,” the other known as Clinton Wallace—were both sentenced to prison for relatively minor crimes (armed robbery committed “under the influence of a kinsman and possibly drugs” for Eddie, petty offenses for Clinton). Both men related that they feared for their own safety when flung behind bars with men of a more violent character. Clinton in particular told Dr Kirk that the worst aspect of life behind bars “was not the boredom, or even the loss of liberty, but the foul language of the convicts—their every other word an obscenity.” This was used as a set-up for a later statement which he made to Dr Kirk’s wife, when she asked him how many of the convicts were innocent: “They’re all innocent…You only have to ask them….They’re all guilty, really, guilty as sin. Many of them are animals, brutes that ought to be put out of their misery.” Hardly a sentiment which recognizes the dignity of all men, that [6].

True, they have committed crimes (or even atrocities) which are not befitting their dignity as men. But might we not observe that every sin is a crime against God, and an offense to our dignity as men? Might we not note, with Chesterton, that an atrocity is not so appalling because we could never commit it, but rather because it is possible that we could under a slight change of circumstances? We are, after all, a race of sinners, and even of hardened ones. Saint Augustine, in recognizing his own particular sins during the process of his conversion, prayed to God, “Make me chaste, but not just yet.” But for the grace of God, there go I.

True mercy recognizes that we are all sinners, and that we all are in need of some reform and repentance which must come in this life if there is to be any hope for us in the next. This does not mean, of course, that in the name of mercy we ought to let those convicted of violent crimes (and especially the most atrocious ones) to go free and risk their harming another innocent, however much they appear to have reformed their lives; nor for that matter should they be confined with criminals of a less violent nature. However, an execution is not an act of mercy for the convict (nor for us) any more than is euthanasia an act of mercy towards the infirm. To insist that it is is to deny that the suffering of the criminal (or the infirm) has any meaning—and thereby ultimately to deny that suffering itself has any meaning.

And in the case of the criminal, to deny that he might yet repent and convert is to deny the efficacy of grace, that is to despair on the criminal’s behalf. It is to say that his depravity goes deeper than God’s grace can penetrate, at least so long as he is alive, so that he will make no progress in truly overcoming this particular sin [7]. Indeed, every person who struggles with or has struggled with some sin while knowing that it was sinful (and that includes the great mass of mankind) has had a taste of what these hardened criminals suffer. An execution is not the answer to overcoming those sins: else it is my neck and yours which fits the noose next.


[1] I had an acquaintance who said that the remark of Chesterton concerning Dickens could be applied to Dr Kirk: some of his writing was great, other writing was mediocre, but he was well worth the read for the sake of the good writing. There is easily enough wheat among the chafe to make him a worthwhile read. I largely mention this because although I am taking exception to something he wrote in this article, it is an exception and not necessarily the rule. I hope that this posting does not dissuade people from reading Dr Kirk’s works.

[2] For example, we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2267) that

“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.'”

Thus, the good end of the death penalty for these two points is the protection of innocents, not the killing of the guilty. The attitude here should be the regret-filled “In order to protect the lives of the innocent, we are forced to kill this guilty man,” and not the more gleeful-sounding “Since he may remain a threat even while imprisoned, we get to kill this criminal.”

[3] One argument I have heard time and again for the death penalty is the expense of keeping a person in prison. It is argued that this becomes too great a financial burden on the state to keep a man in prison for 20, 30, 40, or even 50 years. This is, of course, a problem which would ironically go away if the state would limit itself to its legitimate duties (e.g. of maintaining order in society, of which imprisoning the guilty is a part) and would cease attempting to conduct social engineering projects at home or abroad.

[4] He perhaps inadvertently provides a fourth example, one which is a bit ironic. That third example is the case of his convict friend, whom he refers to as Clinton Wallace. He writes parenthetically that “Like Don Pedro [the first explicit example], though, Clinton dwelt in himself, like a grave.” These haunting words are the same used by the character of Don Pedro to describe his own misery with life.

[5] Russell Kirk was, in fact, a convert to Catholicism.

[6] Also, the coarseness and foulness of their language may be awful, but it is hardly confined only to prisoners. I’ve known fishermen, dockyard workers, lumberjacks, and indeed soldiers and sailors whose language might fit this bill of containing an obscenity in every other word. It makes for less pleasant conversation, but hardly is evidence that they are little better than animals, let alone ” brutes that ought to be put out of their misery.”

[7] Note that I am not saying that a person becomes sinless (or ceases to sin entirely) when he cooperates with God’s grace; but rather I am saying that he might overcome a particular sin, that he might repent of this particular sin so that he would not act upon any temptation to it, even if he were so free to act.


[author] [author_image][/author_image] [author_info]JC Sanders, OP is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He is currently a physics Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas, where he studies high-intensity laser-plasma interactions and Raman processes. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers, with a three year commitment to the Order. He has been happily married since June of 2010. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?” His websites are Equus Nom Veritas and The Nicene Guys.[/author_info] [/author]

Nicene Guy

Nicene Guy

JC is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep south. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He and his lovely wife have had two children born into their family, one daughter and one son; they hope to have a few more. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”

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4 thoughts on “Capital Punishment and Mercy Unmoderated”

  1. Pingback: Mother of mercy, angel of death « One Thief to Another

  2. Pingback: Chen Guangcheng Homeschooling forced abortions | The Pulpit

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    This is a wonderful article. I am quite the avowed Protestant, perhaps even “anti-Catholic” – I realize both Kirk and Buckley were Catholics, that’s always been a thorn in my side lol – but for all believers in Jesus Christ this article nails it on the head. I ran across your article after reading views concerning the grisly execution in Ohio that went awry. Being a death penalty advocate, I found the execution quite unacceptable and uncivilized. It seems however, that many of the “Conservative” bunch, with whom I usually agree, have thrown all observance of laws, all rationality of thought out the window – and only wish the convicts suffering could have lasted LONGER. There is something very base in that which brings us down to the level of the murderer himself. I wonder if you agree?

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