The Death Penalty Dilemma

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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.



9 Replies to “The Death Penalty Dilemma”

  1. I love that there is an acknowledgement of the “fry ’em” jokes as being wrong.

    How many people, who I pray are well-meaning individuals, make these callous comments to others when news erupts that Bin Laden is dead or Dahmer was killed in prison?

    When we peel back those emotions, WHO is truly rooting on death? Does God want us to rejoice in death? Or is it the hand of Satan, who would love nothing better than to see us destroy ourselves from the inside out?

    God does not rejoice in death, not for ANY of us. We have to first understand the scope of God’s love for *each* of us in order to realize that we are to want heaven for *everyone*, especially those who appear to deserve hell.

    The measure we judge others by is the measure by which God will judge us.

    No, we need to be quick to prayer, and slow to true judgment of others’ souls.

    Thank you, Misty, for this sobering look into the death penalty. I can’t wait for the next article!

  2. The movie Dead Man Walking did a very good job of impressing me with exactly the same point you are making here: each of us is a child of God, created in His image and likeness. But if I were the parent of a child who was harmed…I can only pray that God would be merciful to me, because I would want to inflict revenge with my own hands. I think the subject becomes more difficult when we see civil justice failing (ie, repeat offenders released, etc). Thanks for the tackling the topic!

  3. Robbie, I think it takes nothing less than divine grace–and copious amounts of it–to help a person forgive the murder of their loved one. Especially a child. I can’t even fathom it.

    I do think, though, that some people almost view the death penalty as something that is “owed” to the families who lost a loved one. And I’ve heard some family members express the “eye for an eye” as why they push for the death penalty for their loved one’s murderer. I think they have an unrealistic expectation that the death of the murderer will somehow make their own loss easier to live with, but it never does. There is little doubt that the death penalty is used punitively in this country and that most people are okay with that, even pro-life Catholics. I will be discussing that in the next article.

  4. While I wholeheartedly agree that we should never rejoice at the death of another, I can see the perspective of the death penalty being permissible in that very ‘rare’ instance when it is for the good of society – if allowing an Osama Bin Laden to live means that he can continue his evil, terrorist works. I think that a major problem in perception arises when the death penalty is used/intended for revenge rather than for a rare instance like the aforementioned where the intent is prevention of more evil acts.

    I pray that our American justice system will move in a fairer direction where convictions for crimes are weighed justly and sentences are dealt out in proportion to the crime. We have a sadly distorted distribution of justice now. Even the enforcement of laws as they stand would make a huge difference in this – I pray that this happens soon and that the death penalty can be all but abolished. We have civil recourse that is a much better solution by fairly administering sentences fitting the crime.

  5. It seems my previous related comment is in permanent moderation.

    Recent conversation on the death penalty heavily focuses on only protection of society. Often left out is the topic of Retribution, which is a valid Catholic reason for punishment. Retribution for capital punishment is not valid between one person and another, but it is valid between the offender and a legitimate civil authority.

  6. Misty, as you know my husband is a police officer too. We’ve had lots of talks about this very subject as we are on the opposite sides of the fence regarding the DP. He sees the worst of the worst and is exposed to those who want to harm HIM. Maybe my perspective might be different if I worked in his job but I don’t think so. I am eager to show him your article and can’t wait for the upcoming ones as well. While I’m normally very good with words sometimes when we talk about this subject I can’t find just the right words to help him understand what I believe. You’ve given me those words. Thank you 🙂

  7. My husband is a police officer too, and he is even more against the death penalty than I am. He is surrounded by so much cynicism at his job that I’m a little surprised by this fact. I think it’s because he’s a great admirer of JPII… and probably was not exposed to the total history of Catholic thought on this issue (including Aquinas, and the idea that retribution is an aspect of morally using the DP), so I think he thought that Catholics had to be totally opposed to it. There is a lot of confusion among Catholics about this issue. I can’t wait for Misty’s future posts.

  8. I think some folks forget that because “every human being has an inherent dignity that must be recognized and protected” is the foundation for why we provide sanction for wrongdoing, inclusive of the death penalty.

    2260: “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning…. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” “This teaching remains necessary for all time.”

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