Brian Johnstone. The execution of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

The deaths of these two men now appear to be inevitable.  The key argument of President Joko Widodo is that this lethal means (death by firing squad) is justified for the purpose of saving his people from the addiction and death caused by drugs. The Indonesian government claims that, in that country, approximately 50 victims of drugs die every day.  The number of persons who die each year as a consequence of drugs in Australia is around 1,500.  The damage to lives from drugs is amply documented by the recent book by Dr. John Sherman and Tony Valenta, Drug Addiction in Australia (Melbourne, 2015). There can be no denying the harm caused by drug trafficking; the moral question is whether capital punishment is an effective and morally acceptable way of dealing with it.

It seems that most Australians strongly oppose this execution. In the case of the Bali bombers of 2002, the then Prime Minister John Howard did not oppose their execution by Indonesia, nor did the then leader of the opposition Simon Crean.  As Prime Minister Kevin Rudd declared the Bali bombers “deserve the justice that will be delivered to them.”  These statements open Australia to accusations of inconsistency.  The present Prime Minister Tony Abbott has been forthright in his opposition to the execution of Chan and Sukumaran.  But to counter the charge that we are only defending our own we need to base our arguments on principles that transcend individual and national interests and are universally applicable.

The main line Christian churches have traditionally supported the right of the state to inflict the death penalty for serious crimes, but in recent times they have adopted much more restrictive positions.

The present position of the Catholic Church was spelled out by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical letter, The Gospel of Life, par. 56.

“[Legitimate defence] is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”. 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. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.”

“It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

Pope Francis sought to narrow further the range of exceptions on this ground. In a meeting with representatives of the International Association of Penal Law on 23 October 2014,   the Pope said “It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend people’s lives from an unjust aggressor.”

There are three arguments that can be applied to capital punishment: retribution, deterrence and defence.  The argument for retribution comes in two main versions. The first appeals to a notion of a moral order of justice in the world. According to this way of thinking a crime damages the order.  Justice requires the criminal to pay a penalty to repair the damage or, as is said, to “expiate” his crime.  Where the crime is serious the state has the right and duty to compel him to pay by imposing on him the penalty of death. Many now find it hard to understand how death that is inflicted on the criminal can serve this purpose.

The second version appeals to feelings of satisfaction.  Relatives of the victim sometimes claim they cannot feel “closure” until the criminal has been executed.  Critics would argue that this is more like revenge than true justice.  Revenge means seeking the harm of another who has harmed one for one’s own individual satisfaction rather than for the sake of justice. As for deterrence, it is now generally accepted that capital punishment is not effective.

The third argument is based on defence; there are two key points. The first point is the value to be defended; this is no longer an abstract moral order in the world, but the intrinsic dignity of human persons.  Intrinsic dignity refers to the capacity of the person to flourish.  The role of the state is effectively to defend and promote the dignity of the persons for whom it is responsible. The second point is the appropriate means of this defence.  There could be circumstances in which effective protection of persons requires force, and the application of force may cause the death of the aggressor.  In such a case the aggressor is responsible for his own death.  But in modern conditions there are adequate means of protecting persons against an aggressor, namely imprisonment.  Furthermore, respect for the intrinsic dignity of the person of the aggressor requires that he not be treated in such a way that he can no longer flourish as a person.

The state ought to allow him to redeem himself by contributing to society, for example, by counselling others as Chan and Sukumaran have been doing.

Brian Johnstone is a Catholic Priest who taught moral theology in Rome for nearly 20 years. Currently he teaches at the Catholic University in Washington. 

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