Galileo Facing the Roman InquisitionReaders of EP are sure to have seen by now two intriguing cases in favor of the death penalty from a Catholic social perspective: John Zmirak's "When Justice Demands the Hangman," and Aaron Taylor's latest on our pages, "Capital Punishment and Public Safety." In a word (if that's quite possible), Zmirak argues from an historically informed standpoint, citing examples of the death penalty in application even within the Church, and on the basis that natural virtue (i.e., justice) is something indispensable to the well-governed state. Taylor argues not that capital punishment is a requirement of justice, but rather that it is probably far more acceptable, given prudential considerations about state and public security, than some would suggest.

My aim, here, is not to overshadow either of these positions—each of which I take to warrant further scrutiny on its own merits. Instead, I offer another, very brief perspective that may prove helpful in digesting the topic of capital punishment vis-à-vis Catholic social thought, more broadly speaking.

Quite simply, it's this: that the notion of justice—or any virtue, for that matter—is greatly affected by the context in which it is given. This is especially true when we're speaking about virtues practiced on a public level. While natural goods are, conceivably, available to any person, it's only on the basis of some common principle of organization or authority that such goods are available to society, at large. (Society is, after all, a group of people.) Moreover, the quality of this common principle affects the degree to which such natural goods—and many other things—can be understood and secured.

Concerning capital punishment, and Zmirak's endorsement in particular, I'm inclined to sympathize that justice demands commensurate punishment; also, I agree that the desire for mercy should not "short-circuit the natural virtues in pursuit of the supernatural." On the other hand, such an ordering seems to demand a higher arrangement that prioritizes authentic justice in all situations—an arrangement that would likely entail "something more." Put differently, it's hard to imagine that opting for death as a necessary feature of justice (if only in a handful of situations) would do much good in pointing us toward supernatural virtues if they were not already something desirable. For this reason, I don't find it very hard to appreciate the historical fact that Pope Pius X employed a papal executioner, or that the death penalty was only removed from Vatican law in 1969. However, I think there's a big gap between the Papal States and Western liberal democracy, and it can't be overlooked.

While there's no simple answer to the question, "Should we use the death penalty," my strong sense is that our chances of a meaningful answer lie much less with rehabilitating a social order grounded on hopes for mere security and stability, and much more with re-envisioning the state and its duties as but one side of an authoritative coin.

Andrew M. Haines is the editor and founder of Ethika Politika, and co-founder and chief operating officer at Fiat Insight.