Now, Bp. Finn's reasoning is curious to say the least. He begins by citing St. Thomas Aquinas: "The Church’s stance on capital punishment has always been based on the responsibility to protect society. St. Thomas Aquinas says that the legitimate civil authority is obliged to defend people from a dangerous criminal. " But Finn is only telling us part of the truth, which is, as the saying goes, as good as a lie. St. Thomas held that the death penalty is legitimate not simply for reasons of self defense, but with the entirety of Tradition and Scripture supporting his position, and as summarized here by the Catechism of the Council of Trent, he held that:
Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.It is this traditional teaching that constitutes the stumbling block for our contemporary ecclesiastical death penalty abolitionists, because it rests not on social science, but on the recognition that capital punishment is a vindication of the Fifth Commandment and of the requirements of justice.
Recognizing this, most allow, as they must, that the death penalty still may be morally resorted to. Witness Abp. Chaput of Denver who has stated "in Catholic thought, war and capital punishment can be morally legitimate under certain carefully defined circumstances."
Bp. Finn, unfortunately, glibly comments that "legitimate authority can fulfill its responsibility using lesser but sufficient means for protecting the common good." This is an apparent hearkening to #2267 of the contemporary Catholic Catechism, which says,
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
But as we've pointed out before that this passage glaringly fails to identify precisely which "possibilities" exist for a modern state to render offenders incapable of doing harm (it certainly can't be suggesting solitary confinement for life, which would surely be viewed as cruel). And we've cataloged at some length here, in the US at any rate, even life without parole does not render offenders harmless.
So we're left with the conclusion that what we do in this country with the death penalty is in accord with Catholic moral principles: we execute only a "rare" tiny fraction (one-tenth of one percent) of the most serious offenders (murder is the only death-eligible crime in the US) and only after fair trials with extensive appellate review with the safety valve of executive intervention (i.e., commutation or clemency).
Bp. Finn concludes by suggesting that the virtue of mercy should be an even more important grounds for not executing criminals than the mysterious and unidentified "possibilities for rendering offenders harmless."
But surely the good bishop understands that counsel of mercy is directed to individuals not to states, which, as Trent pointed out, are charged with carrying out their divinely appointed duties to ensure the public safety and the common good, to deter future offenders, and to render justice to wrongdoers. A state cannot be merciful or unmerciful, only individual souls can. The bishop's advice is well-taken if directed to victims of these criminals, who should have mercy and forgiveness in their hearts.
But the State may not fail in its primary duty under the rubric of exercizing a private virtue which would result in a failure in deterrence, a failure in justice, and a failure in ensuring the safety and the common good of society.
Sadly, these social evils, far more prevalent and costly to society than the occasional execution of a murderer, do not rate a blog entry by a bishop or a pastoral letter by the Bishop's conference.