Thanks to a Lampstand member, this excellent article from Crisis Magazine was brought to my attention.
It is one of the very few that discusses one of the most important foundational reasons behind the traditional Catholic support for capital punishment, the medicinal.
“Capital punishment does not inspire roaring humor in healthy minds, so wit on the subject tends to be sardonic. Two of the most famous examples, of course, are: “In this country it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others,” and “Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
“The first, “pour encourager les autres,” is in “Candide” where Voltaire alludes to the death by firing squad of Admiral John Byng in 1757 for having let Mincorca fall to the French. The second was Samuel Johnson’s response to the hanging of an Anglican clergyman and royal chaplain William Dodd for a loan scam. Byng’s death was the last instance of shooting an officer for incompetence, while Dodd’s was the last hanging at Tyburn for forgery. Dodd’s unsuccessful appeal for clemency was ghostwritten by Dr. Johnson.
“It is not my concern here to take a position on capital punishment which the Catechism (# 2266) acknowledges is not an intrinsic evil and is rightly part of the state’s authority. This is nuanced by the same Catechism’s proposition that its use today would be “rare, if not practically non-existent. (#2267)” As a highly unusual insertion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical formula, this would seem to be more mercurial in application than the doctrine of the legitimacy of the death penalty. What is oddly lacking, however, is reference to capital punishment as medicinal as well as punitive. Tradition has understood that the spiritual aspect of the death penalty is to “concentrate the mind” so that the victim dies in a state of grace. Simply put, the less I believe heartily in eternal life, the more disheartened I shall be about entering “a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”
“That finale to “A Tale of Two Cities” appeared thirteen years after “Pictures from Italy” in which Dickens described an execution he watched in Rome during the pontificate of Gregory XVI with its chaotic judicial system: “It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle, meaning nothing but butchery,” But Dickens noted the presence of monks accompanied by trumpets holding a crucifix draped in black before the twenty-six year old highwayman who had killed a Bavarian countess making a pilgrimage to Rome. The execution was delayed until his wife was brought to him and he at last received absolution. Back in London three years after writing that account, he witnessed in Southwark the hanging of Fredrick and Marie Manning, the last husband and wife jointly to be executed in England. His reaction was similar to that in Rome save that he thought the crowd of 30,000 more unruly and there was no mention of a religious tone.
“In Rome in 1817, Pius VII reigning, Lord Byron saw three robbers beheaded in the Piazza del Popolo, and he also noted the priests attending those about to die, with banners and prayers in procession. The swift fall of the guillotine was an improvement upon the “vulgar and ungentlemanly” gallows in England. Although Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin had promoted the use of the “Guillotine,” first called the “Louisson,” for its relative painlessness, a precursor was in use in Edinburgh in the mid sixteenth century. Regarded as a humane improvement, it was common in many European countries and was used in the Papal States for 369 executions from 1814 to 1870. Giovanni Battista Bugatti was the official papal executioner from 1796 to 1865, having used an axe before the French introduced the guillotine during their occupation of Rome. Under papal rule, there were three normal sites for executions: the Piazza di Ponte Angelo, Piazzo del Popolo, and Via del Cerchi. Shooting was a common form of punishment in the brief Austrian receivership of Rome under the Hapsburg Queen Maria Carolina. Thus we have the firing squad scene in the last act of “Tosca.” While the harshest punishment, hanging and drawing and quartering is often thought of as peculiar to England, it was more common in the Papal States. The last to be killed that way in England were some Jacobite officers in 1745. The sentence was imposed on several Chartist rioters in 1839 but they were given the option of transportation to Australia, which they accepted. When the pope regained possession of the Papal States in 1814, hanging, drawing and quartering was imposed eleven times until it ended in 1817. For particularly heinous crimes, crushing the head with a mallet, the “mazzatello” continued until 1870.”