The Death Penalty Dilemma

One prison's lethal injection room.

For nearly 15 years, I’ve been married to a police officer. So I’ve grappled with the concept of capital punishment more than most, because my husband’s death at work could lead to his murderer being charged with a capital crime.

I’ve found most Catholics hold one of two perspectives on the death penalty:

  1. The death penalty is state-sanctioned murder and it’s always wrong, or
  2. Some people deserve to die for the terrible crimes they commit.

You can find good, faithful Catholics on both sides of the issue. In my opinion, however, neither of these positions provides a balanced and authentically Catholic response to the thorny issue of capital punishment. Why? Because ironically, both neglect a foundational principle: that every human being has an inherent dignity that must be recognized and protected.

Is capital punishment ever justified? How should society handle intractably violent predators? What is the proper balance of mercy and justice in our treatment of those who commit the most heinous crimes? What does the Church say about the death penalty? Whether you would happily flip the switch on the electric chair yourself or work tirelessly to abolish the death penalty, I invite you to join us in a series of articles that will explore many of these issues.

To give our discussion the right foundation, we need confirm one vital truth: Every human person has an inherent dignity because he was created in the image and likeness of God (CCC, 1700). What does that mean, exactly? It simply means that you are incomparably valuable because for the simple reason that God made you. And all those other things like whether you’re a man or woman, Catholic or atheist, American or African, rich or poor, illiterate or have a PhD, an embryo or 90 years old, Republican or Democrat…NONE of these factors have one iota of bearing on your value as a person. Your dignity is inalienable—you have it because you are human. And because of this, no one can give it to you and no one can take it away, either.

In short, the most valuable thing on this planet is not a thing at all—it is a person: you.

Oh, it’s easy to pay lip service to this truth: “Well, sure, we’re all God’s children.” But deep down it can be an uncomfortable truth to truly internalize because it forces us to confront our lack of humility. Admit it: don’t most of us balk a little at the idea that Kermit Gosnell, Ted Bundy, and Osama Bin Laden are just as important and loved by God as we are? If we really believe the truth about human dignity, we must accept that even abortionists, serial killers, and terrorists possess the same God-given dignity we do. They don’t forfeit their dignity because they committed heinous evil. I know, I know: “This is a hard saying, who can accept it?” (John 6:60). But nothing—not even mortal sin—can take away our dignity.

We live with the reality of capital punishment in this country. And regardless of our perspective, does our response to those who are executed reflect the loving heart of God? Do we rejoice in the destruction of our condemned brothers and sisters or do we mourn the tragic loss of their goodness and gift of life? We need to check ourselves when we’re tempted to join in with the “Fry ‘em!” jokes and “Good riddance!” comments when someone is executed. As Catholics, we must never give the impression that human dignity can be dismissed, even and especially for society’s most “unwanted” persons. We can’t fight the Culture of Death if we join the secular world in dehumanizing a subset of human beings.

I know viewing the most violent criminals through God’s eyes can be excruciatingly difficult, especially for families whose loved ones were murdered. Yet so often, even those of us who are not affected by their crimes can’t extend compassion to those on death row. Our Lord loved his murderers even as they tortured him to death. And if Jesus himself maintained the value of even the most depraved among us, can we do any less?

In our next article, we’ll explore what the Church teaches about capital punishment and how this teaching evolved under the pontificate of John Paul II. We’ll also look at arguments for abolishing the practice, as well as death penalty opponents’ insistence that capital punishment must be viewed through the same pro-life lens as abortion.



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