According to Haag, "Trials are more likely to be fair when life is at stake - the death penalty is probably less often unjustly inflicted than others" (192).
As I observed at the beginning of this essay, Pope Francis (like so many of his predecessors) has a high regard for Thomas’s judgment in doctrinal matters. One way that he has defended the soundness of the teaching of is simply to claim that it is Thomistic. But the Pope’s views on the death penalty seem to be profoundly at odds with Thomas’s. It may be, however, that the Holy Father has failed to express himself properly or that I have just misunderstood him. Regardless of whether either of these is true, I’m sure the Holy Father would agree that he could only benefit from a careful review of what Thomas has to say about the death penalty and from reflection on the extent to which his personal views may depart from Thomas if they do at all.
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Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.67 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.
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"It is not the penalty - whether death or prison - which is unjust when inflicted on the innocent, but its imposition on the innocent", writes Haag (192).
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It’s important to notice that none of the motivations that Pope Francis attributes to previous Catholic proponents of the death penalty can be attributed to Thomas in any obvious way. Does Thomas propose the death penalty because the political community of his time had few other means of defense? That consideration doesn’t explicitly enter into his reasoning. The burden of proof, therefore, would be on people who want to claim it as determinative of his thought. As we have seen, if life imprisonment were suggested to him as an alternative to the death penalty, it’s not evident that he would see it as a wise or even just alternative.
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That the death penalty is permissible and in some cases even required by civil authorities is part of the human moral law, just as killing in self-defense. To say a Christian must regard these things as inherently wrong is like teaching pacifism as required of all Christians. Pacifism can in some times and places look that way but it is not and cannot in practice be held to by all upright persons at all times. Perhaps that fact doesn’t matter to those disposed to regard moral absolutes as unattainable ideals anyway.
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The papal Magisterium since John Paul II has restricted the possible use of the death penalty to cases when there is no other possible way of defending human lives against the unjust aggressor (CCC 2267). This is not the same as pacifism. Both John Paul and Pope Francis have affirmed the possible use of military force. They both have also spoken out against the use of capital punishment in today’s world. Their reasons are not merely prudential. This, though, would take too long to explain in this setting.