of Death: Catholic Teaching
on Capital Punishment
Many Catholics find the Church's teaching on capital punishment confusing. While Christian faith affirms the sanctity of human life, the Church also affirms the legitimacy of executing a duly convicted criminal in particular circumstances. To eliminate this confusion, two distinct but related questions need to be considered: 1) Does society have the right to put a criminal to death for a heinous crime? If so, 2) Do today's circumstances justify the exercise of this right?
The Public Debate
Certainly, recent developments have prompted public officials to reconsider these two issues. For example, last year the State of Illinois released Anthony Porter after more than fifteen years on death row and officially reversed his conviction. Another man had confessed on videotape and was charged with the double murder for which Porter had been convicted and sentenced to die.
On one level, extraordinary circumstances mark Porter's case. In 1998 Porter came within two days of his execution before the court spared him on the grounds it wanted to examine his mental capacity. Porter has an IQ of fifty-one. Nor was the new case for his innocence uncovered in the usual manner. It did not come through the work of attorneys, but through the efforts of an independent investigator collaborating closely with a professor at Northwestern University and his journalism students. In the course of their investigation, they found a witness at the trial who had been pressured by police to testify against Porter.
On another level, Porter's case is not extraordinary at all. Too frequently the administration of justice comes dangerously close to what Illinois governor George Ryan calls "the ultimate nightmare, the state's taking an innocent life." According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973 almost ninety people have been freed from death row after the discovery of exculpatory evidence.
For this reason, public officials in jurisdictions supporting capital punishment have begun recently to question whether it can ever fairly be put into practice. On January 31, 2000, Governor Ryan--a death penalty proponent--inaugurated a moratorium on Illinois executions for an indefinite period. His move was prompted by the exoneration of thirteen Illinois death row inmates since 1977--one more than the number actually executed in that state.
Others have followed Ryan's lead. Although the governor vetoed it, the Nebraska legislature passed a moratorium bill last year. At the time this article was being written, the New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a bill abolishing the death penalty and sent it on to the state Senate for further consideration.
At the national level, doubts about the death penalty have spurred legislative efforts. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont has introduced a bill to preserve biological evidence in capital cases for later testing while making that testing more accessible. It would also establish defense counsel competency requirements, inform juries of alternative sentencing options, and limit the federal government's seeking the death penalty in non-death penalty states. In the House of Representatives, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Illinois has introduced a bill requiring a minimum seven-year moratorium on all executions. Its purpose is to allow all death row inmates the opportunity to explore potentially exculpatory evidence. The executive branch has been involved in this issue as well. Many have recently called upon President Clinton to suspend federal executions, while the Justice Department has announced it will conduct an internal study on whether bias exists in applying for capital sentences.
The changed attitude about the death penalty among public officials seems to mirror a change in the general population. A recent Gallup poll showed support for the death penalty at its lowest level in nineteen years. At sixty-six percent, it represents a drop of fourteen percentage points in six years. Moreover, only fifty-two percent support the death penalty if there is an existing law allowing life without parole. Ninety-one percent (an eleven percent rise from the previous year) said they believed innocent people have been sentenced to death.
Other factors have raised questions about how fairly the death penalty can be applied. Racial bias is one of them. Since the federal death penalty was reinstated, seventy-six percent of those sentenced to death in federal court have been members of minority groups. In the cases where the Attorney General has authorized the government to seek the death penalty, twenty-four percent of the defendants have been white, nineteen percent Hispanic, five percent Asian/Indian, and fifty-two percent African American. At present, seventy-four percent of the nineteen inmates under active federal death sentences are non-white. Of the 127 homicides for which ninety-eight convicts were executed in 1999, 104 were committed against whites, while only twenty-three were committed against African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians.
Another factor has been the growing importance of DNA testing. DNA evidence is responsible for reversing at least eight capital convictions over the last twenty-five years. Of the thirteen Illinois inmates freed from death row, five were freed on these grounds. Unfortunately, DNA testing is difficult to attain even in non-capital cases. Clyde Charles, for example, was freed from a Louisiana prison in 1999, after eighteen years for a rape conviction, when DNA testing proved his innocence. His attorneys and family requested this testing as early as 1989, but were blocked by the state for nine years.
Inadequate representation is a final element casting doubt on the fairness of the death penalty's application. Defendants charged with capital crimes often cannot afford expert counsel and must rely on overworked public defenders or inexperienced, low-paid, court-appointed attorneys. The Chicago Tribune found in a study that attorneys who were later disbarred or suspended represented thirty-three men convicted of capital crimes in Illinois. The lawyer for Betty Lou Beets, a grandmother recently executed in Texas for killing a physically abusive husband, was himself later convicted of a felony.
The Church Asks: Can We?
The Church has also asked whether society may take the life of the guilty. In answering, the Church has always turned first to what God reveals to us in Sacred Scripture and Tradition. Yet Scripture alone is not conclusive on the matter. In the Old Testament, the first murderer's punishment is not death. God cursed and banished Cain for slaying Abel, but also threatened a sevenfold vengeance on anyone who harmed him (Gen 4:15). However, when Noah leaves the Ark, the Lord blesses him and says to him: "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image."(Gen 9:6).
When God gives Moses the Ten Commandments, the prohibition against killing is not absolute. The ordinances given to Moses in conjunction with the commandments prescribe death for murderers and others. Despite this, God occasionally calls for restraint and mercy. As He says to Ezekiel: "I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn back from his ways and live"(Ez 33:11).
Like the Old Testament, the New Testament is not conclusive about capital punishment. On one hand, Jesus certainly stresses the need to be merciful. Consider the parable of the wheat and the tares (Mt 13:24-30). In this parable, the wheat and the tares represent the righteous and the evildoers. Both are allowed to coexist. Unrepentant evildoers will be punished only at the end of time. The point is that ultimately God alone punishes grave offenders.
On the other hand, Jesus seems to tolerate the practice of capital punishment. When Pilate tells Jesus he has the power to release him or have him crucified, Jesus answers: "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above."(Jn 19:11) Jesus refers only to the divine basis of civil power, and does not judge the morality of capital punishment. Nor does he contradict the good thief crucified next to him: "We are receiving the due reward of our deeds...."(Lk 23:41)
St. Paul addresses the issue of capital punishment in his Letter to the Romans. He writes: "Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer." (Rom 13:3-4, emphasis added) Here St. Paul simply tolerates a ruler's authority to carry out capital punishment, without commenting on its morality. Certainly his toleration need not imply his approval.
Neither does the Church in the post-apostolic age establish a clear consensus regarding capital punishment. The views of this period range from accommodation to limited acceptance to outright prohibition of the practice. St. Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215) was the first Christian teacher to attempt to devise a theory accommodating capital punishment. He justified his position from the standpoint of self-defense. He suggested that one could become evil beyond any expectation for reform or "cure." In this case the evildoer may be removed by death to prevent further evildoing. He was the first to argue that an evildoer is like an infected limb that plagues the body. If it cannot be cured, the physician (the judge and executioner) must remove it to prevent the infection from harming the rest of the body (society). Others like Tertullian (c.160-220) and Origen (c.185-220) accepted capital punishment as a civil reality, but condemned Christian participation in it. St. John Chrysostom (349-407) and St. Augustine (354-430) recognized the Christian emperor's "power of the sword," even while they thought its application severe on occasion. Still others like Lactantius (d.317) believed that the Fifth Commandment's prohibition against killing allowed no exceptions, even civil.
By the Middle Ages, Christians widely accepted the civil power's right to put evildoers to death. Even so, the Church was quick to condition this right. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), for example, points out that only a public authority may judge and execute a serious offender where the society's defense is at stake, and where the offender's reform is not expected. St. Thomas leaves no room for private vigilantism.
Following St. Thomas, Catholic moral theologians down to our own day continued to qualify the situations where the death penalty may be applied. Eventually, they formulated three general prerequisites:
- For the defense of society, only a public authority may impose capital punishment. This condition excludes both individual and mob acts of vengeance.
- Capital punishment may be imposed only if it corresponds to the gravity of the crime. In peacetime, capital punishment is chiefly reserved for the crime of murder.
- Capital punishment may be imposed only if the accused person's guilt is morally certain. In normal circumstances this means the accused has the right to a fair trial and a reasonable defense.
The Church Asks: Should We?
Up to this point, we have only examined whether, according to Catholic teaching, society has the right to impose capital punishment. There is another pertinent question Catholic teaching considers, namely, "Should society exercise that right?" Those answering in the affirmative traditionally appeal to three arguments:
- Capital punishment as retribution. It restores the balance of justice by inflicting punishment in exchange for the harm done to an individual and society. Opponents of this argument criticize it for being vindictive. They argue capital punishment cannot be applied in degrees. Yet a convict's culpability for a capital crime often does admit of degrees.
- Capital punishment as deterrence. The threat of death discourages someone from committing heinous acts against individuals and society. Critics dispute the deterrent capability of capital punishment. They say capital punishment may even harden a criminal, who, to avoid arrest and the prospect of execution, is driven to further acts of desperation. Nor will capital punishment effectively deter murders committed "in the heat of passion,"or by the mentally ill or those under the influence of drugs. Finally, critics wonder how executions performed in the presence of just a few witnesses can publicly deter potential wrongdoers.
- Capital punishment as reform. The threat of imminent death can spur the conversion and repentance of the convicted, aptly preparing him or her for the next life. Yet, execution poignantly eliminates a converted criminal's period of earthly grace and penitence, since one's lifetime is the only period of "probation" one can enjoy.
Various national conferences of Catholic bishops have defended this teaching. The U.S. bishops have observed how the abolition of capital punishment would reaffirm the Church's teaching on "the unique worth and dignity of each human person from the moment of conception, a creature made in the image and likeness of God" (U.S. Bishops Statement on Capital Punishment, Nov. 1980). Along this line, the Filipino bishops have rejected the classic notion comparing a criminal execution to the removal of a diseased organ. They note that a "human being is not only a member of society as an organ is a member of a living body...". A human being has a value in himself/herself and is not...a limb or organ..." ("Restoring the Death Penalty: 'A Backward Step,'" Catholic International, 15-31 Oct. 1992, Vol. 3 No. 18, pp. 886-887).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, published during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, remains a definitive source of recent authoritative Catholic teaching on capital punishment. It states that the "defense of the common good requires that the unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm"(CCC 2266). The Catechism is clear about what this implies: "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" (CCC 2267).
Thus, the right of civil society to inflict the death penalty is affirmed. In explaining the right, however, the Catechism adds an important caveat: "If...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 with the dignity of the human person" (CCC 2267).
Papal teaching also plays a most instructive role in elaborating Catholic teaching on capital punishment. In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul writes:
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 nonexistent (Evangelium Vitae, 56, emphasis added).
According to the Holy Father, a society's inability to protect itself by any other means is the determining factor in the decision to execute a criminal. Since our society can remove those guilty of serious offenses by means of life imprisonment, the Holy Father judges as negligible society's need to use the death penalty. Inflicting capital punishment when it is not necessary would transgress Catholic teaching. The pope's opposition to the use of the death penalty is therefore a legitimate exercise of his pastoral leadership as the Vicar of Christ on earth.
Finally, Catholic teaching on capital punishment is an opportunity to examine our own attitudes. While we must show compassion for the victims of crime and support society's legitimate and just self-defense, in Christ we are not free to direct revenge or hate toward anyone. This includes those guilty of criminal wrongdoing. To aid the new evangelization in the new millennium, we must take the words of the American bishops' 1999 Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty to heart:
Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes all of us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life. We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.... Through education, through advocacy, and through prayer and contemplation on the life of Jesus, we must commit ourselves to a persistent and principled witness against the death penalty, against a culture of death, and for the Gospel of Life.