The Last Word: Living By Our Wits

Among several of my friends, Sheldon Vanauken’s essay on capital punishment in our September issue [“The Death Penalty: What Should Be the Christian Attitude?”] has stimulated some sharp and passionate comments. This is as it should be. For — let’s be blunt — we are talking about deliberately putting human beings to death. Is that ever permissible?

I raise this issue again because it bears on the more general question of what role our Christian commitments should play in forming our judgments on issues of social policy. That question is, it seems, always with us. Capital punishment is a particularly helpful illustration of the limitations of those commitments. To explain what I mean, I will draw on the essay by C. S. Lewis which Vanauken cited in his article (“The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” in God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper).

Lewis has articulated with characteristic clarity what is decisive regarding the morality of capital punishment and what is not. Briefly, his argument is as follows. In thinking about punishment three factors can be considered: (1) will it deter? (2) will it be rehabilitative? (3) is it just? For Lewis, only if the punishment imposed is just, that is, if it fits the crime done, is it appropriate to punish someone. If we do not determine that a person deserves the proposed punishment first, then we are not acting morally; we are acting merely from utilitarian considerations.

We can in fact do all sorts of nasty things to people which might well deter others from committing crimes, or which “rehabilitate” the doers of crime: we can cut off the hands of thieves or castrate rapists or lobotomize child molesters. The question is, do these constitute just ways to treat other human beings? If not, then we have no warrant to treat people in the way proposed. If so, then we do have such a warrant. The issue of justice is morally prior to that of deterrence or rehabilitation. It’s not that deterrence and rehabilitation are irrelevant, only that they are secondary. They may be rightly considered only after the question of justice is confronted and settled.

Notice that Lewis frames the question in a non-theological manner. I think he was correct to frame it thus. Why?

There are some kinds of actions which the Judeo- Christian tradition clearly, directly, and consistently forbids: adultery, killing innocents even in just warfare, abortion, and others. To be sure, there are non- theological arguments which can be brought to bear here as well. But for those who wish to be faithful to their religious commitments, the theological prohibition is clear, sufficient, and incontrovertible.

However, no specifically Christian consideration rules out capital punishment. Indeed, insofar as we have any guidance from our heritage here, capital punishment seems allowed. Not mandated. Not required. Allowed. We are vouchsafed a space within which to make the determination of whether, in given cases, the penalty of death is a just response to a crime: just to the offender, as well as for the community of which he is a member. We may decide after all that capital punishment cannot be equitably carried out (see the letter from James Hanink on page 1), or that the possibility of inadvertently killing an innocent person outweighs all other considerations, or that humane methods of execution cannot be had. We may even decide that there are no crimes for which death is a fitting penalty. (To see how one would maintain this would be interesting, and a contribution to our understanding.) Such arguments, however, are not drawn from Christian premises. They arise instead out of considerations of justice.

To disentangle the several strands of argument which are bound up in the discussion of the death penalty is helpful, I think, because it enables us to see that we face, as members of political communities, what I will call “institutional” problems which cannot be solved simply by adverting to Christian principles. When attempting to answer such questions as “What is a good polity?” or “What sort of economic arrangements ought we to support?” or “What should civil society do with murderers?” one has no clear Christian injunction to serve as a platform from which to descend to an obvious and specific answer. Some of course attempt to derive a Christian solution from Scripture. But apart from very general considerations, the New Testament doesn’t speak to such institutional preoccupations. Its focus is on the interpersonal and on the situation where “two or three are gathered together.” In other words, Scripture cannot be made to serve as a primer on political morality or economics or any of the institutional arrangements of civil society.

To summarize: The claim that capital punishment is unjust is a pertinent claim in civil discourse — as is the contrary claim. Both have standing in the arena of public deliberation. But the claim that capital punishment is impermissible on Christian grounds is without warrant. Consequently, its standing in the arena of public debate is deeply problematic.

I want to be careful here. The operative phrase in the last sentence is public debate. One may still feel compelled to oppose capital punishment on the basis that it is inconsistent with his own understanding of Christ and the obligations he has as a Christian. (“I can’t imagine Christ,” he may say, “throwing the switch to the electric chair.”) This is a purely personal stand. It may elicit our respect. (It seems to me a legitimate stand for a Christian to take.) Yet it represents not so much an argument as a declaration, a bearing of witness. If we find ourselves in disagreement, such a stand cannot persuade us, though it may, possibly, convert us.

Not a few issues with which the contemporary world confronts us are like this. They are “messy” not neat, complicated not simple. (Should we be socialists or capitalists? Should we favor or oppose affirmative action?) And in any case they are not such that we are obligated by our religious fidelities to embrace only one practical conclusion. The relation between our Christian faith and our political commitments is, more often than not, not a one-to-one correspondence. The route we must travel here is not nearly so direct and straight.

Have I not, then, sealed off faith from “politics,” Christ from Caesar? No, I’ve simply explained how that relation should be understood. Some things we are forbidden, as Christians, to do. (Do not kill innocents.) Other things we are obliged to do: love our neighbor, be merciful. (But doesn’t being merciful rule out capital punishment? No. It does bear on how that punishment should be administered.) There are, that is, Christian proscriptions and Christian prescriptions. The latter admit of considerable, though not unlimited, discretion, the former none at all. Where we are permitted discretion we must judge according to our God-given natural wits.


In 1983, Terry Hall became the managing editor of Catholicism in Crisis.