Capital Punishment (Part 2)


Last week Straight Answers explicated the traditional teaching of the Church which upholds the right of the state to execute certain criminals. Now, we must address the application of the this teaching in our present society.

While recognizing the traditional teaching of the Church, the United States Catholic Bishop's Conference issued their "Statement on Capital Punishment" (1980) and asserted, "In the condition of contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty." The bishops raised several questions: Does the goal of retribution and the restoration of order justify capital punishment, even for heinous crimes? Does capital punishment successfully deter future crime? Could not imprisonment, including for life, just as effectively protect society from a criminal, provide a chance for his genuine reform, and deter future crime? Can we ensure in our justice system sentences which are fair and not discriminatory? Does not capital punishment constitute a cruel punishment which brings anguish to the criminal and his family? Lastly, the bishops pleaded that by abolishing capital punishment, society would break "the cycle of violence" and make a positive statement about the sanctity of human life and forgiveness.

The Catechism does caution, "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person" (No. 2267). Moreover, Pope John Paul II in "Evangelium Vitae" further asserted, "It is clear that ... the nature and the extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity; in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare if not practically non-existent" (No. 56).

Given this teaching, we as Catholics find ourselves in a tension because of a lack of clear-cut, weighty evidence to support one side over the other. Those who support capital punishment because it deters crime can find corroborating sociological reports just like those who argue that it does not deter crime. While trials should be timely, inmates may be confined on death row for even 12 years as their various appeals are processed — a situation which weighs against the deterrent effect of punishment. Fairness in the trial process is another clear issue. We have seen in recent times that those defendants who can afford the "dream team" lawyers who perform before the media seem to have a clear advantage in the judicial process. Our prisons, reporting atrocious crimes within their confines and recidivism rates as high as 60 percent after release, have failed to reform most criminals.

Most troubling are the types of crimes that afflict innocent human beings. We face each day the actions of the McVeighs, Bundys and Dahlmers. Some crimes are so brutal that one must ask, "What kind of a human being could possibly commit such a crime?" Perhaps some individuals have become so filled with evil, blinded to truth and good, and have no remorse for the crimes they have committed to the extent that, as St. Thomas Aquinas would posit, they must be extricated from society like a diseased organ.

Because we are striving to live in accord with the Gospel and because we value life, we continue to anguish over the death penalty. Archbishop Chaput of Denver in his archdiocesan newspaper presented the following argument: "Let's assume that a person is guilty of premeditated murder, that he or she gets good legal counsel with correct legal process and is convicted by a fair jury after careful and intelligent deliberation. Killing the guilty is still wrong. It does not honor the dead. It does not ennoble the living. And while it may satisfy society's anger for awhile, it cannot even release the murder victim's loved ones from 4their sorrow, because only forgiveness can do that. What the death penalty does accomplish is closure through bloodletting, violence against violence — which is not really closure at all because murder will continue as long as humans sin, and capital punishment can never, by its nature, strike at murder's root. Only love can do that."

Granted, we could accept this argument and confine McVeigh and others to one of our new state-of-the-art prisons. Currently, the Commonwealth of Virginia is building two new "super maximum" security prisons, one at Big Stone Gap and one at Pound. Both will hold 1,267 inmates Those in the special segregated population will be confined individually 23 hours a day in a 7-by-12 foot cell. The narrow slat for a window will have smoked glass so the prisoner cannot see outside the cell. The prisoner will have an exercise period of one hour a day, pacing by himself in a narrow concrete yard. These segregated prisoners will have no group activities and no educational or vocational programs. The worst criminals will have no reading materials. When visitors are allowed, no physical contact will be allowed. Does this hellish existence show love, promise reform or reflect real improvements in our penal system? I personally wonder which is more cruel and vindictive: to confine a person in such a way, for perhaps 50 years in Timothy McVeigh's case, and suffocate the potential for his own reform, or to allow him to make his peace with God now and send him before His Maker where he will find true justice and mercy?

Moreover, each year we hear of how criminals like Charles Manson are eligible for parole and could be allowed to return to society. Can there be true peace when families of victims and other citizens live in fear that the criminal may soon return?

The issue of capital punishment is very difficult indeed. We as Catholics do uphold the sanctity of human life. We also realize that at times life regrettably must be taken to establish peace and protect society — we must go to war, defend our own lives, and stop crime. The concerns surrounding capital punishment are real and must be continually addressed to insure justice. Any good Catholic — as a believer and as a citizen — must wrestle with these issues and decide what will best promote justice.

See part 1 of this discussion, here.




Saunders, Rev. William. "Capital Punishment (Part 2)." Arlington Catholic Herald.

This article is reprinted with permission from Arlington Catholic Herald.


Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Our Lady of Hope Parish in Sterling, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 2003 Arlington Catholic Herald

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