This column marks my 20th article as Chicago Catholic Examiner, and I decided to do something challenging again and give some perspective on another hot button social issue. The death penalty has been in the headlines again recently, so now is a good a time as ever to comment on it.
As many people may be aware, Illinois recently abolished capital punishment. That went into effect in July 2011, following a bill that Governor Pat Quinn had signed earlier in March. Quinn, a Catholic, had previously said he favored the death penalty during his campaign for re-election in November 2010. He was heavily lobbied to sign the bill by many prominent people, including Sister Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun best-known from the real life account turned anti-capital punishment film “Dead Man Walking” (based on her book), where she was portrayed by Susan Sarandon. Quinn said signing the bill was the “most difficult decision” he has made as governor. Oddly enough, some of the more prominent critics of his decision to sign the bill included then Mayor Richard M. Daley and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, also Catholics.
Of course, the decision to end the death penalty in Illinois didn’t end the debate over capital punishment in Illinois, nor has it toned down any less nationally. Last week, the death penalty was a major topic as the news as two high profile sanctioned executions took place in the U.S. on September 21, 2011. First, Lawrence Brewer, an unrepentant white supremacist, was executed in Texas for a racially motivated crime of murdering a black man by dragging him to his death in 1998. Secondly, Troy Davis, an African American man, was executed in Georgia for murdering a police officer in 1989.
The first case didn’t spark much concern over whether the execution was justified, except for those morally opposed to executions. However, the Troy Davis case was much more troubling, as there were several major questions raised about whether Davis was truly guilty of the crimes he was convicted of, and he requested the opportunity to take a lie detector test prior to his execution, saying he believed he could pass such a test. The request was denied.
Having not read the details of the Troy Davis case, I am not going to speculate on whether he was truly guilty or innocent because I do not feel I have enough knowledge to judge the matter. However, the Troy Davis case does raise important questions about the morality of the death penalty, its justification, and whether it should be allowed in our society, so I’m going to apply some Catholic theology to those questions.
To begin with, few people seem to be aware that the Catholic church is NOT morally opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances, nor does it hold that support for the death penalty is against Catholic teachings. Surprised? Just read what the Catholic Encyclopedia says about the matter: “The infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church“. Individuals and media organizations often state otherwise, and thus we hear questions like “Why doesn’t the Catholic church withhold communion for politicians who support the death penalty like it does for politicians that support abortion?”, or in a recent Republican primary debate, it was asked “How can Rick Santorum, who as a Catholic claims obedience to his Church, defend the death penalty?” or, as a friend recently told me “You seem pretty big into that whole Catholic thing and I thought they are hardcore against it”.
On the other hand, it is not surprising that so many believe the Catholic Church is 100% opposed to the death penalty given recent developments. It cannot be denied that many of the most well-known and beloved Catholic figures in recent history were adamantly opposed to the death penalty, including people like Bl. Pope John Paul II, Bl. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago (not to mention his successor, Cardinal Francis George). Cardinal Bernadin formulated the “Consistent Life Ethic”, which taught that pro-life theology must be a “seamless garment” and include opposition to the taking of ALL human life, whether it involves abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, or unjust war. Furthermore, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which basically acts as the “spokesman” for American Catholics, have called for the abolition of the death penalty in the United States.
While that seems to be a pretty open and shut case, we must remember that none of those officials represent the official doctrines issued by the Vatican for the Catholic Church worldwide. Even the Pope, as powerful as he is within the Catholic Church, is NOT said to be speaking infallibly and proclaiming doctrine unless he issues an official bull from the Vatican on faith and morals worldwide (contrary to what non-Catholics seem to think, official invocation of papal infallibility is EXTREMELY rare and usually involves the naming of saints or theology that goes beyond human understanding like the dogma of the Immaculate Conception of Mary) Indeed, the current Pope, Benedict XVI, said it best when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger. In 2004, he wrote “If a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia”
Throughout the Church’s 2000 year history, statements about the death penalty can best be described as mixed. Early Christian leaders tended to oppose it, especially given that it was the way Jesus died. (by the same token, early Christians often avoiding displaying the cross – now a prominent symbol of Christianity – because in the early days of Christianity the use of crucifixion was still in use as a punishment and that was considered a particularly degrading and humiliating way to die) Later Catholic officials, from the middle ages up until the mid 20th century, tended to support the death penalty – including some of the most well-known and beloved saints in the Church. St. Augustine wrote“Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice.” St. Thomas Aquinas was also a strong supporter of the death penalty, writing “If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended.” During the counter-reformation, the Council of Trent declared “Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life.” The most recent Pope to be named a saint, Pope St. Pius X, wrote “It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defense of one’s own life against an unjust aggressor.” in 1905. More recently, in 1952, Pope Pius XII gave an papal address stating “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.”
The increasing trend of Catholic officials to oppose the death penalty is a fairly recent development that came about in the last few decades of the Church. Indeed, it’s best understood as one of the changes that ushered in the “modern” Catholic era with the change in tone of the post-Vatican II Catholic Church. Vatican City even had the death penalty on the books until 1969, so although an execution was never carried it in the time it meant defacto approval from 1929-1969. As I’ve noted in the past, many faithful Catholics have been upset with the changes instituted by Vatican II. While I generally embrace the Vatican II reforms, I can understand the frustration many Catholic feel when they say their church hierarchy is not representing them. In fact, a recent poll in California asked residents whether they supported the death penalty and was surprised that Catholics had the highest support for the death penalty when the results were broken down by religion.
So does the Catholic Church have ANY uniform teachings on the death penalty worldwide? Yes. The Catholic Church generally affirms four principles regarding the death penalty: 1) It is the right of the state to determine whether the death penalty should be legal, 2) The end result of the act itself MUST result in good. 3) The intention of executing someone MUST be good, and 4) The circumstances MUST be appropriate. As such, the Catholic does not argue the death penalty is “intrinsically evil” like it does with abortion, for example (not can you find any references of saints or early church fathers supporting gay marriage or abortion-on-demand since the church DOES hold these things to be morally wrong). Instead, the Catholic Church is simply stating the government has the right to execute a murderer. HOWEVER, conditions of modern society suggest it is not NECCESSARY in all but very rare cases. It is simply becoming harder and harder to argue that a particular act of capital punishment is circumstantially necessary.
Whether you’re for or against the death penalty, these principles can actually provide a great deal of assistance with this hot-button topic.
For example, the Catholic Church NEVER believes the death penalty should be applied for “revenge” reasons, to respond to violence with violence, or as the Code of Hammurabi put it, an “eye for an eye”. A non-Catholic and well-known Hindu actually explained this principle best. Mohandas Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Pro-capital punishment people do a disserve when they gloat over an execution and yell things like “Kill the thug!” or hold impromptu rallies cheering the death of Osama bin Laden. The purpose of the death penalty should not to be to punish the killer, but to save innocent lives by preventing him from killing again. Also, those who support the death penalty must concede that it’s a mathematical certainty that innocent people have been executed, we need to stop that from happening. There is NO moral justification for killing innocent people, so we should not rush to execute someone whose guilt is in doubt.
On the flip side, those morally opposed to capital punishment must realize there are many dangerous individuals out there that pose an EXTREME risk to society. It seems to me that people morally opposed to the death penalty are prone to claiming EVERY person on death row is “innocent”. Many of the “innocent” people they demand get “freed” from prison go on to kill again (a prominent example being Jack Abbott, who became a celebrity cause). Thus,not only are they responsible for more deaths, they actually do a disservice to those who truly are innocent. Government officials no longer want to listen to pleas about innocence from groups who lack credibility on the issue. Chants like “Free Mumia” and claims that he is a “political prisoner” defy the facts of the case and the liklihood that such individuals are,in fact,cop killers. Furthermore, the “solution” of replacing the death penalty with “life in prison” for murder is not as black-and-white as anti-death penalty lobbyist’s claim. They must realize that so-called “life in prison” sentences almost never result in natural life for the criminals, and many of those sentenced to “life in prison” have in fact been paroled and gone on to kill again. This is also morally unacceptable.
Finally, “12 years of Catholic school and I never knew the church’s teaching on the death penalty” illustrate a lack of good Catholic communication on social issues. Many people will believe that the church is 100% anti-death penalty but “divided” on the morality on abortion, when in fact the opposite is true. The facts of Catholic doctrine need to be explained better. A Catholic Governor Pat Quinn won some applause from some Catholic bishops for abolishing the penalty, and a Catholic Governor like Arnold Schwarzenegger earned some jeers from some Catholic leaders for standing his ground and executing CRIPS gang founder Stan “Tookie” Williams. But before and after those events happened, neither of them was being a “faithful Catholic”, because both of them support abortion. This rarely gets reported. I wonder why.