The Death Penalty in Our Times

John Allen Muhammad is scheduled to die today by lethal injection. Muhammad terrorized the Washington D.C. area back in October 2002 when he and Lee Malvo, the DC Snipers randomly shot 13 people, killing ten of them. It was a time of great terror. It was especially frightening since it seemed so random and unpredictable. They covered almost the entire DC area and struck at odd intervals of time. No place or time seemed safe. The simple act of pumping gas or coming out of a store might get you killed. Few of us are emotionally sympathetic to John Allen Muhammad’s fate. He caused great harm and terror.

But what of the use of the death penalty? What, if anything, should a Catholic consider as John Allen Muhammad likely dies today by the hand of the State?

It is not my purpose here reconsider Catholic teaching on the death penalty. That has been done by far greater scholars than I. I would like to recommend to your attention one of the best articles I have ever read on the subject. It is by Cardinal Avery Dulles who published on the topic in the journal First Things. The article is fair and quite thorough and you can read it here: Catholicism and Capital Punishment. After carefully setting forth the traditional Catholic teaching Cardinal Dulles concludes by appealing to concept of pastoral judgement:

In coming to this prudential conclusion [of negatively assessing Capital Punishment], the magisterium is not changing the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine remains what it has been: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes. But the classical tradition held that the State should not exercise this right when the evil effects outweigh the good effects. Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied. The pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position.

It seems that the key phrase is “prudential judgment.” Catholics often like to get in protracted discussions and debates about whether or not the death penalty is allowed. Acutally the answer to that question is not unclear. It is allowed, but strongly discouraged by the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.  If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (CCC 2267)

So, in the end we are dealing with a prudential judgment by recent Popes and most of the worlds bishops who conclude that the Death Penalty is allowable under certain circumstances but it is not expedient since it does more harm than good. It is not a question of orthodoxy per se but of pastoral judgment. Catholics are not absolutely bound to follow prudential judgments of the bishops or even the pope. But let me ask you to ponder why we ought to follow such a judgment.

  1. Addressing the Culture of Death effectively – We are living in what Pope John Paul called a “culture of death.” In this culture,  the death or non existence of another human being is increasingly proposed as the “solution” to problems. Is the baby inconvenient, unhealthy or conceived in adverse economic conditions? Well then, abort (kill) the baby. Is a person suffering a poor quality of life at the end of their days? Well then, euthanize (kill) the patient. Are children difficult to raise and costly too? Well then, contracept (veto the life) of such children. The death penalty too manifests and promotes death as a solution to problems. One of the ways to contravene the culture of death is to live prophetically and to consistently call for an end to such thinking across the board. While it is possible for us to make distinctions between the death penalty and other forms of killing, the world may not always understand our message and its nuance. What if the Pope and bishops are asking us to accept this fact and, as a pastoral strategy, to battle the culture of death across the board? It is a pastoral strategy that seems reasonable given the fact that we live in a culture of death.
  2. So instead of debating what is doctrinal or not, what if we considered what is most effective? What if we allowed our shepherds (the Pope and bishops) to establish a pastoral strategy? What we we trusted their charism to lead us in this matter? Some Catholics have doubted the pastoral judgements of bishops in recent decades. But consider this is not just one bishop, not just one bishops conference, it is recent Popes and the vast majority of bishops worldwide in a collective pastoral judgment, a judgment that is written right in the Catechism. What if we trusted them and the charism they have received to lead us not just in absolute doctrinal matters but also in significant pastoral matters?
  3. Unity is essential in war – We are in time of war culturally speaking, and in such times strategies are necessary. It is also necessary to stand together. What if we set aside all the debates about the Church’s teaching on the death penalty and simply accepted our Pope’s strategy and that of the bishops? In war the troops may sometimes wonder as to the strategy at the top but in the end teamwork and obedience to the chain of command wins the day a lot more effectively than 10,000 soldiers all doing their own thing. Unity around a reasonable strategy seems best. Our Pope and the bishops have asked us to stand unified, strong and consistently against the culture of death.
  4. Religious submission extends beyond defined dogma– Hence it seems that the pastoral judgment of the Pope and bishops in this matter should not simply be considered as one opinion among many. We ought to give special emphasis to what they teach in this matter and other moral issues of our day. There is a lot of legalism among Catholics today about what we “have to believe.” There may well be technical distinctions worthy of discussion but there is also a general teachability (docility) we ought to manifest as well. Lumen Gentium # 25 encourages a submission and docility of the faithful that extends beyond merely defined dogma: Bishops who teach in communion with the Roman Pontiff  are to be respected by all as witnesses of divine and catholic truth; the faithful, for their part, should concur with their bishop’s judgment, made in the name of Christ, in matters of faith and morals, and adhere to it with a religious docility of spirit. This religious docility of the will and intellect must be extended, in a special way, to the authentic teaching authority of the Roman Pontiff, even when he does not speak ex cathedra, in such wise, indeed, that his supreme teaching authority be acknowledged with respect, and that one sincerely adhere to decisions made by him conformably with his manifest mind and intention

In the end we are invited to stand together with the Pope and Bishops in their prudential judgment on the matter of captial punishment. We may be emotionally glad to see the likes of John Allen Muhammad ushered out but in the end we should have serious questions about what we are really doing here. Our Pope and bishops ask us to ponder such things and to stand with them against such death oriented solutions. Why not, in time of war, stand with them in their strategy?

16 Replies to “The Death Penalty in Our Times”

  1. Often it is stated that our value as a society will be measured by how we treat the weakest among us. While I think that’s a good measure, how we treat those with whom we are at odds surely must be another.

  2. May the Lord have mercy on the souls of all he killed and on his soul. It saddens me to know his appeal was turned down by the majority-Catholic Supreme Court and permitted by the Catholic governor of Virginia. Lord, have mercy and deliver us from evil.

  3. Why the surprise about Catholic support for the death penalty? Are there any consequences to me as a Catholic if I support the death penalty? Non, unless you love Him. When a politician pardons a murderer, there are concrete consequences. More over, one of this days we may again condemn Jesus, out of habit, very prudently! Would we be surprised?

    Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.

  4. While the anti-death penalty position may be a prudential teaching of the Church, as Cardinal Dulles pointed out opposition to the death penalty seems to be a radical departure from previous church tradition, and its strength in Europe probably has more to do with secularization and the loss of faith in a life after death than any sort of moral revolution. (And I would add that opposition to the death penalty is largely an elite opinion among the media and policymakers; Polls show that slight majorities in European countries favor the death penalty).

    To be sure, I have many problems with the way the death penalty is applied in this country, particularly in Texas, which accounts for the lion’s share of executions in the U.S. (I am a law student; one of my professors is a former federal public defender who represented many Texas death row inmates who were appealing their sentences in federal court; he can tell some horror stories). And there are many procedural and substantive reforms that need to be made to the way capital trials are conducted, particularly when it comes to providing capital defendants effective legal representation, giving them broad access to evidence that could be exculpatory evidence (particularly physical evidence and DNA evidence), and restricting prosecution use of kinds of evidence known to be unreliable (jailhouse snitch confessions, identifications across racial lines). But even so, I still believe that death needs to be available as a sanction for the deliberate, premeditated taking of innocent human life.

    The entire point of the death penalty for premeditated murder, from a Catholic perspective is that the person knew they were committing a sin and a crime, and did so of their own choosing. This is what John Muhammad did. This is guilt. To seek to abolish the death penalty to create a “consistency” with positions seeking abolition of abortion and euthanasia – where the victims are innocent – is to blur the distinctions between innocence and guilt, and between vengeance and justice.

  5. Later in my spiritual journey I may change my mind about the death penalty. But as it stands today, I am inclined to agree with you Jon Zimmer. Pray for me, we both maybe wrong.

  6. The reality is that someone else has to perform the dirty deed. Someone else has to pull the switch or insert the needle. That someone lives in our towns, is our neighbor, is behind us in line at Lowe’s, sits next to us at Mickey D’s, and watches his or her kid play baseball in the local ball diamond. It is a real person who will perform the act of capital punishment, and a real person who will live with that on his or her conscience. If we are not willing to do the dirty deed ourselves, then why should we expect others to do it?

  7. My main concern AGAINST life in prison w/o parole is WHAT is to stop one of these murdering mutts from taking out a corrections officer or fellow inmate??? What would we do, give him/her a 2nd life sentence without parole??? They have nothing to lose by killing someone on the inside.

  8. I oppose the death penalty. We have more humane ways in western civilization to deal with criminals. To say it’s ok to kill people because they might at some point kill a fellow inmate seems a little ridiculous. Has that been a problem?

    If you all haven’t heard of Kurt Bloodsworth, I’d recommend reading up on him. He was sentenced to death in Maryland, but later was exonerated because of DNA. He also became Catholic while on death row because, if I recall correctly, the compassion of the Catholic chaplain and others seeking to help him. The USCCB has put out some great info on the death penalty, including interviews with Bud Welch whose child was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing:

  9. I had to explain to my 13 yr old why it was okay to feel sick about all this. We turned off the T.V. and simply prayed. We spent so much time around the election focusing on the dignity of life. Please pray with us that we all value the dignity of all human life.

  10. I positively despair when I hear support for the death penalty, especially from Catholics! The death penalty has NEVER been an effective deterrent and given the enormous numbers of miscarriages of justice that occur in societies throughout the world how, could anyone even countenece just ONE innocent person being put to death?
    The church’s position re the state, it seems to me, is akin to saying it is acceptable to take the life of someone who poses a real and imminent threat to the life of an innocent person when no other option exists. In effect this means that any civilised society would never impose the death penalty when gaols are available.
    The Law should be about justice and protecting the innocent; not vengence.

  11. Wow. We Catholics are so good at giving reasons for our positions. We are still chasing after utopia and I do not recall our Lord talking about utopia but about dying to ourselves. My concern is that with the same measure that we measure, we will be measured and our failings will continue to pop up in public view. When mercy is needed, who gives it to us Catholics? Then we remember our Lord and Savior, our merciful God and the rest of the deeds He accomplished among us. But for now, we are so cool, we are the acquaintances of the God of reason, the Messiah of the Pharisees. I bet some of us can even put a revengeful smile on our Lords face as the executions are taking place or a bunch of papers in His hand explaining His position. There is absolutely no need for the death penalty in the USA today other than to please the revengeful and the traditional crowds. I cannot see our Lord blessing this position or in other words I cannot see order as the fruit of violence.

    Remember David and how sad he was when Absalom, his treacherous son died. It was the decision of his officers to kill Absalom, to keep things manageable, to save face with his army and the people. King David had a heart after God’s heart but he did not have the resources we have today. Later king Salomon the Wise ruled and Scripture tells us what he accomplished with his wisdom!

    So here is a question for us Catholics: Will wisdom or mercy be a requirement to participate in Gods kingdom? Will the Lord be there at the gates blurring the criteria for entrance? Or has He made it clear and died for His position on forgiveness?

    And the crowd said: “Crucify Him!”

  12. As a Catholic deacon, I minister to men on death row and am very saddened by the favorable response many (including our clergy) give to capital punishment. In the case of the execution of John Allen Muhammad, I, too, was perplexed (although I guess not really surprised) that Governor Kaine went against his “professed” anti-capital punishment ethical sense and refused to grant clemency to this man. I wonder how is this different from Senator John Kerry being “personally opposed” to abortion yet supporting it in his public life – for which he was vehemently chastised!

    As we all know (c’mon think about this seriously) – in today’s society we really do not need capital punishment to protect us when we have so many super-max correctional institutions to house “life without parole” inmates. If Lee Malvo had been 18 instead of 17 at the time of these killings, no doubt he, too, would have been executed. Instead, in a congratulatory sense, he we pride ourselves on our “so-called compassion” in sparing him from the death penalty because he was a youth – well he now is 24 years old and is being held for life in prison. If we were really fearful for our safety from the perpetrators of these crimes (the only rational purpose for capital punishment according to the Catholic Church and JPII), why should we now feel safe that J. Muhammad is no longer a threat to us – when we have his accomplicw still behind bars?

    Finally, we often pray for the protection of all life “from conception through natural death” – especially so all last month during Respect Life Month for all of October. So I pose this question do we REALLY believe and mean that last part about “…through natural death”?

    1. The arguement posed to me for his being put to death is that society, as a whole, is safer for capital punishment because it is a powerful deterent for futur crimes of that sort. It doesn;t make sense to me, though, honestly, I’ve read no studies, because I would think a criminal of such a caliber would likely have sociopathic tendencies and practical reason doesn’t often work that way in people with such afflictions.

  13. I think Msgr. Pope is right to urge people to spend less time arguing about whether the death penalty is “allowed” by the Church. However, I am disappointed that his lengthy disucssion seems to center around such concepts as “submission to authority” and “pastoral strategy”. These discussions have their place, but they must all be subordinate to the central principle of our faith (which is not mentioned once in this post): love.

    Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”

    Can anyone who advocates the death penalty tell me how executing someone is loving them?

    1. Bravo! This is how we are to be known, this is supposed to be our strategy and no doubt it is still the Holy Spirit’s strategy. The Love of God is pure; our human love compromises the truth. God will not abandon us in the lies – God will continue to guide us to the truth, through the wisdom of the Cross. Sorry!

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