Archive for the ‘Death Penalty’ Category

Capital Punishment and the Culture of Death

Monday, July 29th, 2019

The battle against the Culture of Death has many front lines. The most important, of course, is the struggle to extend full legal protection to human beings who happen to be still within their mother’s womb. Every year, more unborn children are killed in the womb than all U.S. combat deaths in all our wars – combined. This horrendous injustice is a blight against our nation and we can never tire until it has been rectified.

As Catholics, we follow the leadership of our Church and promote what St. John Paul II called “the greatness and the inestimable value of human life” (The Gospel of Life 2) against all manners of threats. While we are particularly alarmed by the recent legislation in our own state and elsewhere that eliminated virtually all limits on abortion, we also see the growing threats in many other areas. St. John Paul, quoting the Second Vatican Council, condemned a legion of attacks on the dignity and value of human life:

any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed… (The Gospel of Life 3)

Each of these attacks on life cannot be isolated as merely individual acts, but they must be seen as part of a broad assault on human dignity. They not only affect their direct victims, but they have a corrosive effect on all of us. As John Paul said, “They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” ( The Gospel of Life 3).

It is in this context that we must express our disappointment and opposition to the recent announcement that the U.S. government will soon resume executing prisoners. Obviously, there is a grave moral difference between intrinsically evil acts like abortion or euthanasia that can never be acceptable, and capital punishment, which may be permitted under certain circumstances. It is also clear that one of the primary duties of governments is to protect its citizens from violence and crime, and that those who transgress the law should be appropriately punished and isolated until they can safely be returned to society.

But the execution of prisoners is plainly unnecessary to achieve those goals, and it has the direct effect of reducing respect for human life as a whole. America has the most sophisticated criminal justice and penal system in the world, and can easily remove dangerous people from society and keep them separate until they are no longer a threat. Studies by scholars continue to show that capital punishment has no deterrent effect against future homicides. It just isn’t necessary to kill prisoners to protect society.

Fortunately, our society has been gradually phasing out judicial killing. Public opinion polls have shown growing opposition to executions. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have outlawed capital punishment, thirty-seven states have had no executions in the last five years, and thirty-one have had none in the last ten years. The federal government has executed only 3 people in the last twenty-five years and none in the last ten years. Most of the executions are taking place in only a handful of southern states: Texas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Missouri. Executions around the world are also falling, and over 70% of countries have eliminated capital punishment.

There has been a lot more attention in recent years to the possibility that innocent persons are being convicted, particularly due to the use of DNA evidence. The risk of executing innocent people is thus becoming more difficult to ignore. Earlier this year, for example, two men in Texas were exonerated for a murder they didn’t commit, after serving over fourteen years in prison. Just a few years ago another man was exonerated in Illinois after serving twenty-eight years for a murder he didn’t commit. And last year a man was exonerated for a rape he didn’t commit after serving thirty-eight years!

In a way, though, what concerns me most about capital punishment is the effect it has on the hearts of people. If there is anything clear from the New Testament, it is that an attitude of retribution, retaliation or revenge is absolutely forbidden. The law of charity commands us to see that even a person who has committed the most heinous act may be punished but still retains his human dignity and must be loved unconditionally. Any argument that appeals to the effectiveness or usefulness of executions, or any sense of proportionality of punishment, is thus irrelevant to Christians. The early Church understood this very well, and forbade Christians from having anything to do with executions (and military service as well). Church teaching has been evolving in a way that is actually a return to the early Christian understanding that Our Lord explicitly replaced the Old Law of retribution with the New Law of mercy.

Yet when the issue of capital punishment is raised in public, far too many Christians seem to be unaware of or even in opposition to the clear Gospel teaching. Just look at the comment section of any article or Facebook post that states the Church’s opposition to executing prisoners. You will see a shocking callousness and hardness of heart – repeated assertions that we are speaking of “animals” and not humans, an almost voyeuristic description of crimes that can only be intended to enflame hatred, desires that opponents of execution become victims of grievous injuries, greater concern about the cost of incarceration than the value of life, and an uncritical citation of Old Testament penal provisions such as “an eye for an eye”. Some comments by people who consider themselves to be pro-life and Christian display an undisguised bloodthirstiness that is truly appalling.

This is ultimately why the Church opposes executing prisoners, just as she opposes dismembering unborn children. Acts of violence do harm not only to the victim, but to the perpetrator and anyone who supports or justifies them. The Culture of Death is not something that is “out there”, or an abstract concept existing among the  Platonic ideals, or in some law book or court decision. The root of the Culture of Death in our own hearts, in our disordered desires and thoughts that see violence as the answer to problems (see Mt 15:10-20).

That is where the ultimate battle is taking place. It is only in the human heart, with the conversion that comes from faith in Christ, that we can lay the foundation of a true Culture of Life. That is why we defend the dignity of every human person, no matter what they have done, how old they are, or what their condition may be.

A Travesty of Justice in Arkansas

Friday, April 28th, 2017

Last night, the State of Arkansas executed Kenneth Williams, the fourth man they have executed in just over a week. The other three men’s names were Ledell Lee, Marcel Williams and Jack Jones Jr. Four other men were supposed to be killed, but they recieved stays of execution from courts.

All of these men were convicted of heinous murders and had served many years of incarceration awaiting execution. But the sole reason that the state scheduled so many executions over such a short period of time was that the state’s supply of one of the drugs used in its lethal injections expires at the end of April. In a statement calling for cancellation of the executions, Bishop Frank Dewane, Chair of the US Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, described this twisted scenario in very clear terms:

The schedule of executions was not set by the demands of justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment. The state’s supply of a sedative is expected to expire at the end of the month, and so, in a dark irony, a safeguard that was intended to protect people is now being used as a reason to hasten their deaths.

The family of Mr. Williams’ victim wrote a moving letter to the Governor, asking him to grant clemency. They related how they had arranged from Mr. Williams’ daughter and granddaughter to come and visit him, and asked to see him themselves so they could tell him that they forgive him — a request that had been denied. And they said this:

You often hear stories of men who go into prison and become bitter, angry and hateful. I do not believe Mr Williams is one of those men. He found God and I believe his redemption is genuine. Mr Williams is not the same person who killed my father on 4 October 1999. It is the changed man; the new Kenneth Williams that we are asking you to save.

Mr. Williams and Ledell Lee both received Communion before they were executed. Mr. Lee even opted for Communion instead of a last meal. There were significant doubts raised about the mental capacity of some of the men who were executed, and about the innocence of one of them.

None of that mattered. The courts stepped aside and the Governor ordered their execution before the artificial deadline set by the “sell by” date of the deadly drugs.

In his great encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope St. John Paul said this:

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and 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. (56)

It is difficult to justify the necessity of any executions in the United States today. Our massive prison system is surely capable of detaining potentially dangerous offenders so that they no longer pose a threat to society. We are also well capable of removing convicted murderers from the general population for extended periods of time. A recent report stated that over 150,000 people are currently serving life sentences in the United States, with over 50,000 of them ineligible for parole. There are fewer than 3,000 people who have been sentenced to death and are awaiting execution. It’s hard to see how the fast-track execution of these four men contributes anything positive to the common good, or any way in which it was necessary.

But even if one accepted the argument that the death penalty was justified in these cases, it is still hard to justify the circumstances of these executions. The State of Arkansas displayed a callous disregard for the dignity of those prisoners by treating them — and not just the deadly drugs — as objects to be used up and discarded prior to their expiration date.

The Culture of Death is already far advanced in the United States. Abortion is routinely done for any reason — including eliminating handicapped babies — and is applauded by many influential people in our society. Adherence to abortion on demand is being required as a mandatory condition for being an active member of the Democratic Party. Human trafficking for commercial purposes is permitted in the form of gestational surrogacy and assisted reproduction. And ideologues are seeking to legalize assisted suicide and euthanasia as a way of disposing of lives they consider no longer worth living.

The death penalty is not in the same category as those offenses against human life. They are all intrinsically evil, while the Church still maintains that capital punishment may be morally justifiable under some limited circumstances. But that’s not ultimately what’s at issue here.

The dispensation of justice is a fearsome and profound matter, and should be treated with great caution and seriousness. It is appalling to turn it into a travesty where the executioner is heedlessly racing to beat the clock. Every human life, including that of convicted murderers, deserves more than that.