The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes its position on the death penalty unequivocal:
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."
Yet, in my life's struggle to reason my way to the truth, I find this near-complete ban on the death penalty wanting.
My reasons, in the order that I came up with them.
1) That's what heaven is for
One of the rationales for sentencing criminals to life in prison rather than to execution is the possibility that they could be redeemed while incarcerated. Redemption is the reason that images of martyrs burned at the stake often show a lone monk holding a crucifix before the eyes of the condemned. Somehow, in their final torments, the image of Christ's suffering might cause a last-second conversion that would win them a reprieve from eternal damnation. Life imprisonment gives pious people a longer chance to win the same kind of conversion from condemned criminals. Abolishing death gives us a chance to win another soul for Christ.
But does this rationale really hold up anymore? It is currently being pounded into our heads (and I believe it) that God is merciful. Would a truly merciful God hold it against someone if they did not happen to be converted before their death -- even if conversion only meant a momentary deep and honest sorrow for the pain they had caused? If you take the most radical view of mercy, the answer would have to be no. God knows the limitations of human culture, pride, intelligence and empathy. You don't think that an all-powerful God can a way to keep working on sinners -- even after death?
Not to mention, who but the most spiteful of Christians sincerely and enthusiastically believes in hell anymore? What kind of a stone-cold deity "loves" his children into eternal punishment? If we don't really believe in hell, then why do we spend time trying to save people from it?
1) The bigger picture
As with abortion, the teaching about the death penalty works best if you severely limit the scope of your empathy. With abortion, as long as you draw your a moral circle around the fetus itself, it seems that tampering with its life is sacrilegious. But if you draw your circle around the fetus
the mother, or the fetus-mother
immediate family, the answer becomes less clear. It would be cruel to snuff out the life of a harmless fetus; but what if the fetus threatens the woman's physical health or the family's fiscal health? Does saving a fetus allow you to imperil the lives of the siblings? Families? Communities?
So it goes with the death penalty. If you draw your circle around a lonely, perhaps mad convict in a concrete cell, it seems heartless to back them into a corner and snatch away their life. But if you widen your vision a bit, things become more complex. What of the prison staff that must deal with the effects that life imprisonment has on a human being? Or do we expect our wardens and guards to become inhuman, having no fellow feeling for people sentenced to life in a box? What of the families of the victims, who must cope with the fact that their loved one's killer or maimer continues to live while their own loved one is dead, perhaps after suffering horribly, or struggles daily with injury, recovery and their own sense of lives brutally thrown of course?
The story of the Richard family in interesting. Their 8-year-old son Martin was killed by the bomb that Dzhokhar detonated. Yet they wanted to spare the killer the death penalty. But their reason was interesting. It wasn't because they opposed capital punishment. Or they did not say so publicly. They opposed death for Tsarnaev because they wanted the closure of knowing that they could move on with their own lives. They wanted Tsarnaev to disappear from the headlines and the courts. Anyone who argues for death has to account for the pain that families like the Richards will endure for the years or decades it takes to appeal the death sentence in the courts.
Does anyone think that the church's bishops are to be believed when they say they oppose the death penalty? Until fairly recently, they were perfectly fine with it. In the Middle Ages, the Church happily sent heretics and other malefactors to the stake or the gallows.Our Church still sends priests to the battlefield. As recently as the Vietnam War in the 1960s, bishops like Cardinal Spellman were cheerleading for the war and the defeat of Communism, and collecting awards from the military for their efforts.
Far from being moral giants, the bishops seem more interested in echoing the Church's official positions than in speaking to the concerns of their consciences or their flocks. These same bishops can't figure out that the Church's teaching on contraception is ridiculous, or that its exclusion of women from the priesthood is vacuous and scripturally bankrupt. Both positions harm the Church's reputation for intellectual rigor and have been driving Catholics away from the Church for decades. The Church has just come off a years-long, pointless and punitive investigation of US nuns. There are more than a few stories of nuns being kicked out of their convents for questioning priestly prerogatives.
And yet we think these same prelates have the intellectual depth and consistency to take on an issues as complex and fraught as capital punishment? How many of these guys have ever visited a prison -- other than to bless the guards and their manacles? How many have ministered to a condemned inmate -- or spoken to anyone who has? No. The bishop's pronouncements against capital punishment have the same weight as their many others -- they speak out on topics that will earn the plaudits of their leaders, and ensure their own advancement through the ranks of the episcopacy.
Seems to me that the Church's best argument against the death penalty is hanging in churches and school rooms all over the world: the image of the bloodied and crucified Christ. Christ was good, Christ was executed. Therefore, to prevent a repetition of his tragic death, we must abolish the death penalty. But is that what the crucifix tells us? At best, the image of the Crucified tells us that the state's power against the people can be misused. Powerful interests can conspire to torture, condemn and deprive people of life. But that's an argument against excessive and unchecked state power -- not against executions.
Because the Ten Commandments
For anyone who has read the Bible, the 5th Commandment -- though shalt not kill -- cannot apply to capital punishment. The Bible is replete with passages that apply death to various infractions: adultery, Sabbath breaking, cursing your parents, having sex with animals or being a witch.
Also, ask the Edomites, Ammonites and Jebusites whether the Bible condemned killing!
And ask the Lord himself, who reserved the right to kill those who molested widows or orphans.
Whatever the Fifth Commandment meant, it was not a proscription against capital punishment.
I have yet to write about this at any great length, but I have been nursing a thought about the secret rational behind some of the Church's strangest teachings, which often come with unconditional bans. Contraception, abortion, divorce, capital punishment, assisted suicide, cohabitation and gay sexuality come under this heading, which I call the Clean Hands theory. The theory is not complicated, but comes down to this: the Church never wants to be implicated in any complex moral situations, and so hones its teachings to be absolutely against any activity that might leave it with blame. When it comes to divorce, the Church can wash its hands of the messy marriages that its children find themselves in. No divorce, it proclaims! So if they do divorce, the Church can say it was not involved. Abortion? By ruling all abortions immoral, the Church can absolve itself of involvement in the real-world crises that occur to families and pregnant women. If you get an abortion, it's your own doing, no matter how damaged the fetus was or how threatened the mother was or how devastated financially the family would be.
Capital punishment falls under Clean Hands as well. Rather than trying to wrestle with the topic and whether it might be right in one circumstance and wrong in another, the Church plays Pilate, washes its hands of the matter, and moves on in imagined innocence.
Some might call that a highly developed moral sense. I call it an abdication of moral responsibility. I am far more impressed with the nun in a Catholic hospital in New Mexico than in a thousands bishops thumping the pulpit against abortion. Sister Margaret McBride sat on her hospital's ethics committee. When faced with a pregnancy whose continuation would kill the mother, she gave the OK for doctors to abort the fetus. Of course, the bishops came down on her like a ton of bricks. She was excommunicated. But I admire her ability to see nuance, and to make an informed and compassionate moral decision. Too bad that the consequences attendant on her decision will deter others from making the same call.
So where does that leave us?
The best argument against the death penalty is that it is arbitrary and political. The poor and people of color are disproportionately subject to arrest and are sentenced to death at higher rates than are whites for the same crimes. Whites have better access to good legal representation and can count on the sympathy of the majority white jury pool. There is also the problem that prosecutors and judges can be beholden to their privileged communities in ways that affect their judgments, whether consciously or not. Any judge or prosecutor who has to run for his or her office, or who has ambitions for higher public office will think twice about showing compassion to a criminal. You gain far more votes than you lose by being tough on crime. And ultimately, the conditions that breed crime -- poverty, lack of social mobility, racism and corporate greed -- come back to decisions that were made by the very prosecutors and jurors who are willing to impose death upon a member of an unlucky class of people.
It's these disparities and scrambled judgments that make justice so difficult to apply fairly. And we'll probably never get away from the possibility that defense attorneys can be inadequate or prosecutors corrupt and unwilling to share exculpatory evidence. Maybe the best reason to keep the condemned alive is on the off chance that exonerating evidence will emerge 5, 10 or 30 years in the future. There should be no lethal "Oops!" in our legal system.
I have not made a final decision as to whether I would have, as a juror, chosen death for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I did not see the most lurid evidence. But what I did see -- mangled limbs, an unperturbed post-bombing purchase of milk, an attempt to steal of slain officer's gun, a bomb-throwing shootout in Watertown --makes me open to thinking that death should definitely have been on the table for him.Whether the law would have allowed me to consider my objections is another matter. Once the bobsled of death has started its run, there's little that can divert it from its appointed conclusion. But luckily for my moral equilibrium, I have been spared that choice.
For the moment, my hands are clean too.