The Death Penalty Dilemma–Part 3

In my second article on capital punishment, I explored why death penalty alternatives for the intractably violent do not work. Life sentences do not ensure violent inmates won’t escape to kill again and upgrading prisons still exposes inmates and employees to threats against their own lives. Supermax prisons aren’t a solution, either, since the extreme isolation is a form of psychological torture not in accord with human dignity.

Is it our right to decide that a person’s behavior merits death as an appropriate punishment? Christian tradition would say, “Yes.” The Fathers and Doctors of the Church are almost unanimous in their support for capital punishment.  It has only been in the past 50 years or so that the tide began to turn, with many prominent Catholic clergy declaring the death penalty all but immoral in Western nations. John Paul II was perhaps the most outspoken opponent of capital punishment, even going so far as to add that the need for executing criminals is “practically non-existent” in Western countries in the 1992 revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The longstanding teaching of the Church is that the death penalty can be used morally. Yet we have our leaders working to abolish capital punishment, agreeing with John Paul II that the practice isn’t actually needed. No wonder there is so much confusion among Catholics that some now equate the death penalty with abortion and euthanasia.

The consensus seems to be that for more than 1900 years, the Church supported the death penalty only because it failed to truly penetrate the truth about man’s God-given dignity. Jews and Christians of the past supported execution out of ignorance, but now, modern Catholics have the benefit of appreciating the incomparable dignity and inalienable rights of the human person. Man has spiritually matured, so now we must work to abolish the death penalty, which we now know to be barbaric and wrong.

In an outstanding article tracing the history of Catholic teaching on the death penalty, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles suggests that the moral progress we imagine we’ve made is more likely due, in part, “to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to the biblical religion and Catholic faith.” The abolishment of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries probably has more to do with secular humanism than with a deeper understanding of the Gospel, he says.

Dulles pointed out that the “moral progress” banner has been flown over countless alleged rights claimed by modern man, such as contraception, divorce, abortion, homosexual relations, and the ordination of women to the priesthood. If the Church remains bound by Scripture and tradition in these other areas, “it seems inconsistent for Catholics to proclaim a ‘moral revolution’ on the issue of capital punishment.”

In other words, we modern folk aren’t nearly as “enlightened” as we imagine ourselves to be.

The real issue for Catholics, Dulles says (and I agree) is to determine the circumstances under which the death penalty may be morally applied. One of the most important questions that is rarely if ever asked in death penalty cases is, “What is the likelihood that this person will injure or kill another person, either inside or outside of prison?” It is stunning to me that we invest so little energy into determining if the person convicted of a crime poses an ongoing threat. Shouldn’t that question drive our decision to put the person to death or not?

Even if we have spiritually evolved and can now appreciate the inherent dignity of the accused, there is still a need for execution—as a protective measure, not a punitive one. And this change would cut both ways. Not only would death penalty opponents have to admit that some criminals are intractably violent and do pose a continuing threat to human life (and thus, ought to be executed), but many pro-death penalty folks would have to concede that not every murderer deserves to die. Many criminals, after all, do not have a history of predatory, incorrigible behavior. The person who shoots and kills a store employee during an impromptu robbery does not pose the same ongoing threat as a child molester or serial killer. Exercising a moment of egregiously bad judgment that ends a person’s life is not the same as premeditating a person’s murder.

One of the biggest criticisms of the death penalty is that falsely accused people have been put to death. This is an unspeakable tragedy when it happens, which is why there ought to be the most stringent criteria for condemning someone to be executed. At the very least, we ought to have a confession or DNA evidence linking the person to the crimes. Consider this, too: if we did thoroughly assess whether a person poses a persistent threat, the likelihood of him being wrongly executed virtually disappears. Using the death penalty as a protective measure would reserve the practice for criminals with a history or pattern of committing violent crimes.

Finally, few death penalty opponents are willing to admit that a condemned person has a decided spiritual benefit over the rest of us: the person knows exactly when he is going to die. Sometimes I wonder if we remember what the ultimate goal is: repentance and going to heaven. Is it really better for a person to languish in prison for decades, having his heart hardened toward God by violence, loneliness, and despair…or is it better for him to face his mortality and use the time he has left to make amends, repent, and go humbly to God? We see this all the time in life–faced with his impending death, a person with a terminal illness or fatal injury reaches out to his Creator, sometimes for the first and last time. Death has a way of forcing us to face our spiritual destiny. Which is especially important for those who approach death with mortal sin on their souls.

The death penalty has been called a “necessary evil.” It’s not evil, but it is necessary at times. May God gives us the grace to use this tool with prudence, compassion, and justice, in a way that upholds our condemned brothers’ and sisters’ dignity, as well as our own.

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