Catholics must set aside feelings and oppose the death penalty

The state just executed Wesley Purkey, the second federal inmate executed this week after the Supreme Court declined on Monday to hear challenges to the federal death penalty

I used to favor the death penalty — enthusiastically, even. It felt right, bracing, and perfectly just. When people commit intolerable crimes, they should be removed from society, cleanly and permanently, restoring the balance of justice in the world. It just feels right.

Those were my feelings. Here are the facts about the death penalty in the United States:

It does not deter criminals.

It does not bring closure to most families of victims.

It is not the only way to ensure the safety of other citizens, when life sentences are possible (and cheaper).

It is often administered barbarically.

It is administered unfairly, and minorities, the poor, and the mentally disabled are executed more often than others who are convicted of similar crimes.

Still, it is legal, and long-standing. A deep part of me felt unwilling to dislodge something that had been the law of the land for so long. If you uproot something so deeply seeded, I thought, what else might you disrupt in the firm ground of our legal system?

Then my husband interviewed Kirk Bloodsworth. Bloodsworth was convicted of raping a nine-year-old girl, strangling her, and beating her to death with a rock. Five witnesses placed him at the scene, he matched the description of the killer, and he made statements to police which seemed to incriminate him.

Bloodsworth spent nearly nine years in prison, two years on death row. And then, after urgent demands from the defense team, investigators discovered the physical evidence for the murder case, which had gone missing. It was in the bottom of a judge’s closet, inside a paper bag inside a cardboard box, and it had never been tested.

The state did a DNA test, and discovered that Bloodsworth was innocent. Another inmate, who looked nothing like Bloodsworth or the description given by the five witnesses, had raped and murdered the little girl. 

And there’s the final pertinent fact about the death penalty: About one in ten of the inmates sentenced to death are found to be innocent

The interview my husband did is no longer online, but it in it he wrote:

A bad prosecutor, a bad judge, bad police work, bad forensics, and shaky witnesses all contribute to death penalty cases on a regular basis. Bloodsworth said one in every eight death row cases are overturned because the person convicted is innocent, and yet all of those cases went though trial and appeals and were reviewed by investigators, lawyers, and judges. In his case, at least 50 people looked at the supposed facts before he was sentenced to death.

To all appearances, the legal process was functioning properly to bring about justice on behalf of the citizens of this country. But an innocent man lost nearly a decade of his life, and the state almost murdered him.

And he was one of the lucky ones. 311 others have been exonerated after they were executed by the state

This is intolerable.  This fact in itself should be enough reason for us to demand a halt to the death penalty in this country. The legal system as it stands simply does not deserve the faith we place in it. If this is the ground in which the death penalty is so deeply seeded, it should be disturbed. 

But what about the guilty? Don’t they deserve to die, when they commit heinous crimes?

Not according to Catholic teaching. Back in 2015, The National Catholic RegisterOur Sunday Visitor, the National Catholic Reporter, and America magazine simultaneously released an unusual joint editorial statement calling for an end to the death penalty in the United States.

The Catholic Church in this country has fought against the death penalty for decades … The practice is abhorrent and unnecessary. It is also insanely expensive as court battles soak up resources better deployed in preventing crime in the first place and working toward restorative justice for those who commit less heinous crimes.

The editorial quotes Archbishop Chaput’s statement on the reprieve of death row inmates in PA, and challenges us to face our moral responsibility as citizens:

Archbishop Chaput reminds us that when considering the death penalty, we cannot forget that it is we, acting through our government, who are the moral agents in an execution. The prisoner has committed his crime and has answered for it in this life just as he shall answer for it before God. But, it is the government, acting in our name, that orders and perpetrates lethal injection. It is we who add to, instead of heal, the violence.

The National Catholic Register and OSV lean right, and the National Catholic Reporter and America lean left. They are competitors; but they made a point of making a joint statement. The clear message is this: opposition to the death penalty should unite Catholics, rather than polarizing them. It is not a political issue; it is a moral one.

The teaching of the Catholic Church is that the death penalty in 21st century America is almost never just, nor moral, nor necessary:

2267 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 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 nonexistent.”68

This is the teaching of our Faith. If we only conform to the faith when it feels right, then that is not faith; that is playacting. If this teaching feels wrong to us, then we are the ones who must set aside our feelings and come into conformity with the mind of the Church, because it’s not about feelings. 

Just as pro-lifers rightly demand that we set aside our feelings and confirm the factual humanity of the microscopic zygote, we must demand of ourselves that we set aside our feelings and confirm the factual humanity of the inmate on death row. 

It’s not about feelings; it’s about facts.  We have the facts, and we have the clear guidance of the Church. Catholics should be leading the charge to end the death penalty in this country.



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9 thoughts on “Catholics must set aside feelings and oppose the death penalty”

  1. Catholics espouse the doctrine of the sanctity of life, that it is always a grave wrong intentionally to kill an innocent human being.
    The innocence or guilt of the person matters for Catholic advocates of the death penalty. For the maximal class of crimes, there logically ought to be a maximal penalty. The crimes worthy of the death penalty usually are murder and rape; the death penalty is dispensed BECAUSE life is precious, and has been so violated by an action, the argument goes. That is an argument from RETRIBUTIVE JUSTICE justice you will find in the Aristotle’s ethics and Catechism itself, and has nothing to do with DETERRENCE or REHABILITATION; really, the recent Popes who have argued against the death penalty are arguing for an exception to be carved out to the rule of retributive justice which is deserved, because the circumstances can allow it. That’s how the catechism reads anyway; see the part about “gravity of the crime”; that’s the maximal class, retributive justice argument.

    Read paragraph 2266 just before the one you quote: “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. ”

    It is logic, not feelings.

    That said, Pope Francis in 2018 did change the Catechism to include a judgment on our circumstances, that they don’t allow for the application of the death penalty.

    Read Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette’s “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed: A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment” for the best case against your arguments.

  2. Of all the teachings I have had to embrace as a Catholic convert, this one has been the most difficult. But ultimately, as I tell my government class, when it comes to life, “you didn’t make it, you don’t get to take it.”

  3. It has always seemed very obvious to me that a religion that worships history’s most famous falsely accused criminal should oppose the death penalty by default.

  4. I was raised Catholic but never really knew the church’s position on the death penalty. I was basically indifferent until I read The Green Mile by Stephen King in my 20’s. That, coupled with the idea that I can’t ask an executioner to kill a man if I’m not willing to do it myself, changed my position completely.

  5. The death penalty is one of the few issues in my adult life that I’ve done a complete 180 on, mostly for the reasons you listed. The fact that we as a society are just fine with accepting such a high rate of error when it comes to convictions that end in executions is unconscionable.

    Bryan Stevenson from EJI said on a podcast (and I paraphrase) that he spoke about the death penalty in Germany and at the end of his speech someone stood up and said that not a single person in the room would consider letting the state determine if someone should live or die. Why that is not America’s thought on this issue, I have no idea. Nothing about the history or structure of our justice system (or government) instills confidence that it should be allowed to decide who dies.

  6. Thank you for this post. Not too long ago, I attended a talk given by Helen Prejean. She suggested that if a person would not personally administer the means of death, how can we support the State acting on our behalf? ‘Thou shalt not kill.

  7. Christians know, more that anyone else, how wrong death penalty is, not just because we know God is always willing to give us another chance, not just because we were commanded by God not to kill, but because we have the best example of how badly things can end: Christ’s execution.

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