The final abolition of the death penalty in the 2018 revision of the Catechism1 and follow-up confirmation in the latest Pope Francis encyclical, Fratelli tutti,2 both suggest that an anthropological development has arrived in world history in a way that should give us pause.
For many, the abolition of the death penalty seems “old hat,” like the Church declaring slavery an intrinsically evil act in Vatican II. Who would consider keeping the death penalty these days?
However, there remain significant American voices in favor of keeping the death penalty,3 and, even in the Catholic Church, there are those who, with reverence to past proclamations from the Magisterium, are not sure how the Church can “change her teaching.”4
Although exploring continuity in the tradition is certainly important, I think that, in this case, dissenting from the Magisterial change in approach to civil penal law misses the fundamental issue in the Catechism revision. What underlies these shifts in teaching is the development of the Church’s understanding of the dignity of the human person. Moreover, since this development is based on the Church learning from her 2,000-year past, a theology of history is needed to explain how, today, in the modern world, we understand the human person’s rights in society in a way different from how we did in previous times.
The Death Penalty Is a Failed Sacrifice
The fundamental thesis of this article is that the contemporary understanding of the reality and depth of scapegoating in society is deeply tied to the development of the Church’s understanding of the dignity of the human person; thus, the abolition of the death penalty is the necessary and responsible consequence of the Church’s deepening understanding of this dignity. Moreover, since the Gospel message of self-sacrifice is a perennial challenge to all forms of other-sacrifice, the death penalty today has become a “failed sacrifice” and is no longer admissible.
A New Cultural Understanding
There are three key signs in the larger culture that a “development” of abhorrence for the death penalty is happening in general: a growing fear of false conviction, a deepening awareness of large-scale bias, and an acceptance of the legal policy of presumption of innocence.
Although the publicized number of false convictions probably varies, there remains the obvious problem resulting from our legal system that the innocent might be condemned. Websites such as “Innocence by the Numbers”5 make this case particularly convincing. Why risk killing the innocent? Or, more precisely, if there is a reasonable chance of false conviction, does not one risk breaking the fifth commandment by supporting the death penalty?
Meanwhile, major currents of modern thought attempt to uncover various biases — racial, gender, class, etc. — at work in how we relate to people who are different from us. The baleful history of racist American criminal trials (famously publicized in novels such as To Kill a Mockingbird), the feminist re-readings of the witchcraze hysteria as prejudiced to women, or the hideous racial-ideological victimization of Jews under Nazism have taught us to see that widespread biases are capable of infecting whole groups of people. This awareness makes us skittish when it comes to “fairly” deciding who should live and who should die.
As a further thought, the legal principle demanding that the defendant is “innocent until proven guilty” in and of itself suggests a long process of Western reflection on law demanding that we pause before any accusation in order to discern whether or not it is motivated by evil intent, mob hysteria, or — as above — “groupthink.”
Combining all of these arguments against the death penalty seems to challenge deep-seated justifications of its positive goodness for the collective whole: justice, deterrence, and even utility appear as false justifications for something that once seemed effective.6 Meanwhile, with the growing collective belief that no capital punishment is failsafe, the darker side of public execution is also being revealed. We see movements of the culture in recent history increasingly sympathizing with the victims of capital punishment and horrified at the barbaric cruelty of those who come to cheer and gloat in the face of the condemned.
Executions that might have satisfied society in the past no longer have the capacity to do so. Something has changed.
The Church Responds
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers some help in guiding our historical perspective, explaining where this death penalty “dissent” has emerged: prisons are better adapted to keep people safe, and society has developed its understanding of penal sanctions.7
The first point reminds us that the thrust of Magisterial tolerance of the death penalty has normally been on the side of it being a last resort for judges: as with just war, we should exhaust all other means before killing the criminal. The Church suggests that, today, that last resort is no longer needed.
The second point is more instructive, perhaps. Over time, we have come to understand that there is something wrong with cruel and unusual punishment. Moreover, we have come to see the pedagogical value of juridical consequences as distinct from the principle of just punishment; to a large extent, the importance of rehabilitation and care for the condemned criminal has grown in our collective consciousness.
All of these elements put us in a position where the death penalty looks more and more like a remnant of the bygone past that is being kept alive only by a tradition that no longer speaks to our world.
The Dignity Debate
It is at this point in history, then, that Pope Francis leaves his signature: “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”8
What does this mean? To some extent the link between dignity and non-lethal means of punishment had already been spelled out by Pope John Paul II. In 1995, he wrote that “public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom.”9 Given that killing someone makes it difficult for them to “regain exercise of freedom,” the case seems closed. Moreover, for Francis, the core principle of integration10 would make killing criminals completely inappropriate. He writes, “Fear and resentment can easily lead to viewing punishment in a vindictive and even cruel way, rather than as part of a process of healing and reintegration into society. . . . This has made all the more dangerous the growing practice in some countries of resorting to preventive custody, imprisonment without trial and especially the death penalty.”11
Nevertheless, Steven Long, a leading figure in the American Catholic Philosophical Association and a Professor of Theology, argues that the problem is more complicated. Human dignity, he says, is not an argument for abolishing the death penalty, for the Church has never denied the dignity of the condemned man, even at the foot of the scaffold. “The Church has always affirmed, and has never denied, that the felon executed for a grave crime possesses human dignity, the imago dei ordered to, and specified by, noble goods in nature and grace.”12 The title of his essay, published in First Things, is a striking condemnation of the Catechism revision; he calls it “Magisterial irresponsibility.” For some, it seems, the Magisterium is irresponsible in invoking human dignity as a premise for abolishing the death penalty! Although I disagree with this premise (and, thus, conclusion), the argument makes sense if, in fact, the doctrine of human dignity has not developed.
So we find ourselves at a crossroads at least in the American Catholic Church: Can we say that there has been development in the Church’s understanding of human dignity to end the death penalty, or is such a claim inherently condemnatory of past Church teaching, an influx of “modernism,” if you will?
Cardinal Ladaria, head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, is unambiguous in positing doctrinal development in his explanation of the Catechism revision: “The Holy Father Pope Francis . . . asked that the teaching on the death penalty be reformulated so as to better reflect the development of doctrine on this point that has taken place in recent times. This development centers principally on the clearer awareness of the Church for the respect due to every human life. Along this line. John Paul II affirmed: ‘Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this.’”13 Thus, the center of the development of doctrine on the death penalty is the new understanding of the dignity of the human person in relation to issues that have a “life or death” gravity.
Moreover, Ladaria situates the entire reflection in a reading of the signs of the times “in the light of the Gospel,” a phrase that he borrows directly from the Second Vatican Council;14 thus, the development of doctrine is meant to be seen in continuity with the Council’s development. It should be noted that that the Second Vatican Council in its Declaration on Religious Freedom (Dignitatis humanae) specifically mentioned its own desire to develop doctrine: “The council intends to develop the doctrine of recent popes on the inviolable rights of the human person and the constitutional order of society.”15 Moreover, although focusing specifically on the right to religious freedom, Dignitatis made clear that this right “has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself.”16 Thus, the Council intended to develop the doctrine of the dignity of the human person or at least develop the way in which this principle informs human rights in society.
Notably, Ladaria asserts that the light of the Gospel “helps to understand better the order of creation that the Son of God assumed, purified, and brought to fulfillment. It also invites us to the mercy and patience of the Lord that gives to each person the time to convert oneself.”17 Hence, the Church is aware that the death penalty is more and more against that order of creation and the evangelizing mission of the Church to seek out the lost, convert the sinner, and, ultimately, redeem man from his implication in sacrificing the other rather than the self.
How might the faithful Catholic understand the terms of this development of doctrine regarding the dignity of the human person? How might we conceive of a Gospel-based influence on our understanding of creation and, in particular, humanity that demands — now in a particular way 2000 years after the emergence of Christianity — mercy and patience towards others that is ordered toward conversion rather than condemnation?
At this impasse, I offer that it is essential to consider René Girard’s anthropology, a move that I have shown elsewhere is particularly appropriate in the current pontificate.18 Girard’s historical perspective allows us to see a Gospel-inspired cause for the new understanding of collective violence against victims, and, if taken to its proper conclusion, the deep-seated anxiety we have in the modern world for any kind of collective killing of a victim. His hypothesis opens the door to understanding how in the modern world, we really do have a deepened sense of human dignity, for the demythologized victim continues to burst forth from behind the many layers of archaic sacrifice.
The Girardian Hermeneutic
Girard’s basic premise is that human desire is mimetic. Although we have natural appetites for food, mate, and even Being (or, as Augustine would say, a restless heart for God), it is often still the case that what we want stems from our imitation of what others want. Since that is so, and we desire what others desire, we will end up in good standing if our role models are themselves desiring objects which we can share with them. However, if I desire my neighbor’s ox, cow, sheep, land and /or wife (i.e. any object which cannot be shared), I find myself in a very unneighborly situation. The man whom I once liked and even admired as friend is now my enemy, for I cannot have what he has. The term “frenemy” is particularly Girardian in nature.19
When we look to the large-scale anthropological scene, the problem of conflictual mimetic desire rears its ugly head in the name of mimetic violence: Violence itself can spread contagiously, like a plague, consuming all in its wake. For Girard, the challenge of archaic societies was often nothing other than stopping “runaway” or “feedback” violence that could obliterate the tribe, clan, or totem. Scapegoating and sacrifice were the two ways through which man unintentionally or intentionally channeled his violence onto more or less arbitrary victims to “cure” the group of its catastrophic mimetic violence.20
For Girard, because archaic sacrifice was an attempt to recreate foundational acts of scapegoating, and because scapegoating itself was — and is — a process of victimization that hides the full truth of the victim’s arbitrary selection, the sacrificers did not fully understand what they were doing. Myths and prohibitions often grew up based on a misperception of collective violence that was remembered as good in some way. The scapegoat-become-god was seen as both the cause of violence but also the bringer of peace: “Thank you, Marduk, Osiris, and Ouranos,” says archaic Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Greek. “Thank you, Huitzilopochtli,” says the high priest of Tenochtitlan, as he carves the heart out of his human victim; this sacrifice — he believes — will keep the world in existence.21 And, indeed, from a Girardian standpoint, if the collective violence within the Aztec community is properly channeled by this sacrifice, he might keep his clan alive for a little while longer. But only if he and his group believe in the goodness of this victimization . . .
If Girard’s great breakthrough in anthropology is discovering the scapegoat mechanism at the origins of archaic religion, then his signature for Biblical theology is in showing how the Scriptures slowly unveil the truth about victimization at the heart of human culture and religion. According to Girard, God uses his divine pedagogy to gradually lead men away from projecting their violence onto others (and Him) until they can accept the truth of their own violence. While archaic sacrifice mythologizes and justifies the all against the one, the Scriptures eventually reveal the Innocent One scapegoated by the all. Jesus is the Lamb of God, the spotless victim of the crowd who “does not know what it is doing.” Even Peter, who was certain hours earlier that he would go to the death for His Lord, is swayed by the mimetic forces of the group warming itself around the fire; he denies his Master before the cock crows.22
The Judeo-Christian tradition is, thus, ordered toward helping us finally understand the original sin of collective expulsion of the scapegoat as we look on “him whom we have pierced.”23 Girard frequently draws attention to the Greek words Paraclete and Satan in the New Testament which allow for a kind of “judicial courtroom” in the face of collective persecution. “Satan” means accuser, and “Paraclete” means lawyer for the defense. Girard is able to show that Christianity is, at its origin, about demythologizing the lies that allow groups to expel their surrogate victim. The voice coming to the defense of the victim of collective violence is the voice of the Holy Spirit unveiling the deceitful accusations of the Father of Lies.24
This work of demythologization is both immediate for certain converts and gradual for society as a whole. While St. Paul immediately foregoes violent assault on Christian dissidents of Jewish law for the gospel of loving self-sacrifice, the social norms allowing, say, slavery are not ones he directly attacks. It will take hundreds of years for Christianity to fertilize a culture ready to do away with slavery — and a little more to end the death penalty.25
For Girard, then, the Church is the collection of repentant sinners — those working out their salvation from scapegoating — in light of the call to form themselves in the image of the crucified God. We suffer the violence of others when we work to renounce our own violence; we follow the Cross of Christ so that we will not put anyone else on the Cross. Meanwhile, societies in which this Gospel is “leaven” for the world find themselves more and more “on the side of victims,” more and more able to see through the otherwise deceptive “persecution myths” generated by the fallen scapegoating nature of man.
In particular, in Western history, we see a deepening awareness of the processes of scapegoating in all of its various forms. Girard likes to prove this phenomenon by observing the ever-more-pressing “concern for victims” in the West. “Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up the corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims. The China of the Mandarins, the Japan of the samurai, the Hindus, the pre-Columbian societies, Athens, republican or imperial Rome — none of these were worried in the least little bit about victims, whom they sacrificed without number to their gods, to the honor of the homeland, to the ambition of conquerors, small or great.”26
Huge developments in social institutions that care for victims are certainly one of the key hallmarks of the West’s trajectory in modern times. Girard: “Our society abolished slavery as well as serfdom. Later has come the protection of children, women, the aged, foreigners from abroad, and foreigners within. There is also the battle against poverty and underdevelopment. More recently we have made medical care and the protection of the handicapped universal.”27 And that is just really from the nineteenth century on. If we go back to the Enlightenment, we see the result of a long process of demythologizing the persecution of “witches” and religious dissidents. To some extent, the very origins of Christian history remembering and recounting the martyrs was the beginning of this great demythologization of collective violence for culture as a whole.
Finally, then, it makes sense that penal institutions will evolve. If they are all at least in some way related to man’s dark sacrificial past, the undoing of the scapegoat-sacrifice is bound to undo the sacrificial violence in Western punishment. Girard writes the following: “Since the High Middle Ages all the great human institutions have evolved in the same direction: more humane private and public law, penal legislation, judicial practice, the rights of individuals. Everything changed very slowly at first, but the pace has been accelerating more and more. When viewed in terms of the large picture, the social and cultural evolution goes always in the same direction, toward the mitigation of punishment, greater protection for potential victims.”28 Thus, the abolition of the death penalty is almost a necessary conclusion to the anthropological revelation of the Cross.
Theology of History
Girardian anthropology leans heavily on history, for it traces a gradual unveiling — and even discovery — of scapegoating that moves from archaic religion through historical Christianity to the modern period. Moreover, for Girard, the “Spirit [or Paraclete] is working in history to reveal what Jesus largely revealed, the mechanism of the scapegoat, the genesis of all mythology, the nonexistence of all the gods of violence.”29 Thus, it is fair to say that his anthropology ultimately yields a theology of history.
Are there signs that the Church in the modern world shares this theology? Indeed, John Paul II, in Tertio millenio anneunte, shows the Church learning from the long history of sinful violations of freedom and violent exclusion in a way that supports the approach made in this essay.
In reviewing Western history, and, in particular, the world in which the Catholic Church has emerged over the first two millennia, John Paul II explains:
“Another painful chapter of history to which the sons and daughters of the Church must return with a spirit of repentance is that of the acquiescence given, especially in certain centuries, to intolerance and even the use of violence in the service of truth. It is true that an accurate historical judgment cannot prescind from careful study of the cultural conditioning of the times, as a result of which many people may have held in good faith that an authentic witness to the truth could include suppressing the opinions of others or at least paying no attention to them. Many factors frequently converged to create assumptions which justified intolerance and fostered an emotional climate from which only great spirits, truly free and filled with God, were in some way able to break free. Yet the consideration of mitigating factors does not exonerate the Church from the obligation to express profound regret for the weaknesses of so many of her sons and daughters who sullied her face, preventing her from fully mirroring the image of her crucified Lord, the supreme witness of patient love and of humble meekness. From these painful moments of the past a lesson can be drawn for the future, leading all Christians to adhere fully to the sublime principle stated by the Council: ‘The truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth, as it wins over the mind with both gentleness and power.’”30
In other words, throughout various eras in Christian history, a hideous sin has engulfed whole populations, surrendered as they were to “cultural conditioning,” and this has led them to collective violence against perceived dissidents. This sin is nothing other than the mimetic force that absorbs the all against the one; only “great spirits” were able to “break free” from these events of scapegoating. And so, the majority of people, enslaved as they were to a false understanding of the relation between truth and collective persecution, served violence in the name of truth and, thus, served the lie of “the accuser.” John Paul II is clear that we have learned — we must learn — from history: “From these painful moments of the past a lesson can be drawn for the future.”
John Paul II continues to note that “with respect to the Church of our time, how can we not lament the lack of discernment, which at times became even acquiescence, shown by many Christians concerning the violation of fundamental human rights by totalitarian regimes?”31 Thus, all Catholics are called to repentance based on self-reflection for times when they have surrendered to the will of the group or society in violating human rights, and, thus, attacking the dignity of the human person. The Church is learning from the special recent forms of “totalizing”32 ideology and persecution; she is more aware today than in the past of the way in which we are swayed by whole mimetic forces in the modern world to justify our surrender to the all against the one. The Church’s theology of history is, thus, in line with the findings of Girardian anthropology.
The Gospel-inspired anthropology of the scapegoat mechanism articulated by Girard suggests that the use of the death penalty is, today, participation in a failed sacrifice. No matter the descriptions of a criminal’s horrible actions, no matter the violence erupting in prisons, no matter the manuals of neo-Thomism33 articulating the philosophical beneficence of capital justice, the act of society’s “all” condemning and executing the wayward “one” is even more disturbing to modern man, who hears, more loudly than in times past, the voice of the victim of collective expulsion. Our society can never again be cleansed and purged through capital punishment, for ritual sacrifice-of-the-other has been “taken up” once and for all into the self-sacrifice of Christ.
Thus, without ruling out the validity of previous Magisterial tolerance of capital punishment, the Church can now speak boldly of a development of anthropological doctrine that demands the abolition of the death penalty. Moreover, if in the modern world we have deepened our understanding of human dignity, then it is appropriate for the Catechism to suggest that executions today may be an attack on dignity in a way that they have not been in the past. This is particularly the case with the death penalty if, in fact, the development of understanding of that dignity is intrinsically related to our uncovering of subtle forms of expelling our sins onto others and, thus, reconciling our false unity at the expense of others.
Christ has revealed the sinfulness of man, a certain type of which has remained hidden since the foundation of the world.34 This sin is the capacity in man to cast onto a surrogate victim the blame which he himself shares so that one stands in the place of all. Unveiling the sinful dynamics of scapegoating brings a new vision of the human person always already tied up in the successes and failures, sins and righteousness of his fellow man.
Today, it means abolition of the death penalty, but, perhaps above all, perennially it means an ever-deepening need to turn inward and die to our urge to castigate, blame, and accuse our fellow man. It means that in moments of crisis — when crimes or sins abound — one must choose self-sacrifice rather than other-sacrifice. It means that we go to those on the peripheries, the poor, the outcast, the imprisoned — all those people who are the usual scapegoats of society.35 It means that we seek to integrate the lost sheep of our human family, for each of our brothers and sisters is created with a dignity and nature that finds fulfillment and radiance of glory in and through loving relationship with one another.
Are we up to the demands of the Gospel to love each other — the just and unjust — on whom Our Father sends His rain? Or will we cast the first stone?
*Originally published at Homiletic & Pastoral Review as The Death Penalty Is a Failed Sacrifice
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267.
- Pope Francis, Fratelli tutti, 263–270, accessed March 7, 2021, Vatican.va.
- The Trump administration notoriously brought back federal execution, receiving the strong rebuke from many bishops. See: usccb.org/news/2020/statement-us-bishop-chairmen-federal-executions-scheduled-week.
- See, for example, Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2017).
- See, for example, conservativesconcerned.org/why-were-concerned/.
- CCC 2267.
- CCC 2267: the Catechism quotes Francis in this line.
- John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, 56, accessed March 7, 2021, Vatican.va.
- Tyler Graham, “Integrating Pope Francis,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, October 2, 2018.
- Francis, Fratelli tutti, 266.
- Steven Long, “Magisterial Irresponsibility,” First Things, October 2018, accessed March 7, 2021.
- Luis F. Ladaria, Letter to Bishops Regarding the New Revision to Number 2267 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty, accessed March 9, 2021, Vatican.va, 1 (italicized emphasis mine).
- Ladaria, Letter, 9. He quotes Gaudium et spes, 4, in footnote 13.
- Paul VI, Dignitatis humanae, 1, accessed March 9, 2021.
- Paul VI, Dignitatis humanae, 2.
- Ladaria, Letter, 9.
- Tyler Graham, “Pope Francis and the Girardian Moment,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, February 25, 2021.
- The original text describing this phenomenon was Deceit, Desire, and the Novel; however, Chapter 1 of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning is one of his best presentations for a Christian audience. For extended Girard bibliography, please see girardianlectionary.net/girard-a_bib.htm.
- The great discovery book for this theory is Violence and the Sacred; however, the opening sections of Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World and much of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning are excellent resources for seeing his intertextual proof of this hypothesis.
- See, for example, Lizzie Wade, “Feeding the Gods,” June 21, 2018, accessed March 9, 2021, sciencemag.org.
- Two fundamental works for seeing these themes are Things Hidden and The Scapegoat.
- John 19:37.
- See I See Satan and The Scapegoat (in particular, consider the chapter “History and the Paraclete”).
- Mark Shea has a great piece linking slavery, death penalty, and development of dignity at his Patheos blog: August 8, 2018 (“The Death Penalty Kerfuffle”).
- René Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, trans. James G. Williams, 161.
- Girard, I See Satan, 166.
- Girard, I See Satan, 166.
- René Girard, The Scapegoat, trans. Yvonne Freccero (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), 207.
- John Paul II, Tertio millennio adveniente, 35, accessed March 9, 2021, Vatican.va.
- John Paul II, Tertio millennio, 36.
- To speak of “totalitarian ideology” in Girardian terms is to speak of a kind of archaic mythology which the entire cultus must believe to justify its sacrificial victims.
- See also: Tyler Graham, “Death to the Death Penalty? René Girard’s Challenge to Thomas Aquinas,” The Imaginative Conservative, November 19, 2018.
- This phrase is a reference to both Girard’s book with the same title and the quote from Christ (see Matthew 13:35).
- This is the Pope Francis “ethos.” See, for example, Evangelii gaudium, 20.