Death for Gosnell? Or Mercy?

Robert George addresses something that’s been on my mind as well. As surely as I know that the sun rises, I know that, if found guilty, Kermit Gosnell deserves the death penalty for his crimes.

We know very little about the psyche of Dr. Gosnell. His keeping of souvenirs certainly suggests that he took some psychotic kind of pleasure in what he did, but the motivating factor appears all too mundane. Gosnell brutalized women and murdered babies because it was easy and profitable. He did it because he could, and the pro-abortion culture told him he could, because it wasn’t actually a real “life” between the blades of his scissors. The only thing separating his actions from the stated positions of the abortion lobby is that the abortion lobby–and the president–thinks its okay to kill infants born alive as long as the facilities are sanitary. Sen. Barbara Boxer even seems to suggest that babies can be killed up until their parents take them home from the hospital.

The courts gave him a licence to kill, the politicians gave him the leeway to do it without supervision, and the activists and media tried to make sure no one observed his murders.

In other words, there are hundreds of unindicted co-conspirators involved in the crimes for which Gosnell is on trial, and they will never be brought to justice.

That doesn’t mitigate his culpability at all. The man preyed on the poor, the weak, the defenseless. The man is, in any reasonable definition of the word, a monster.

I know that, and yet…

The death penalty has two aspects: retribution and public safety. The state’s execution of Gosnell would not seem to be a matter of public safety. If found guilty, he is unlikely to ever get out of jail, and even if he did, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which he could return to his particular crimes.

It’s tempting to think that justice can only be satisfied by retribution: that the magnitude and outrageous cruelty and callousness of these crimes can only be served by the death of the perpetrator.

But Catholics have an opportunity for a more powerful witness: the witness of mercy. When you meet cruelty with cruelty, you just get more cruelty. As Professor George says:

Kermit Gosnell, like every human being, no matter how self-degraded, depraved, and sunk in widkedness, is our brother—a precious human being made in the very image and likeness of God. Our objective should not be his destruction, but the conversion of his heart. Is that impossible for a man who has corrupted his character so thoroughly by his unspeakably evil actions? If there is a God in heaven, then the answer to that question is “no.” There is no one who is beyond repentance and reform; there is no one beyond hope. We should give up on no one.

If our plea for mercy moves the heart of a man who cruelly murdered innocent babies, the angels in heaven will rejoice. But whether it produces that effect or not, we will have shown all who have eyes to see and ears to hear that our pro-life witness is truly a witness of love—love even of our enemies, even of those whose appalling crimes against innocent human beings we must oppose with all our hearts, minds, and strength. In a profoundly compelling way, we will have given testimony to our belief in the sanctity of all human life.

Do we really oppose the culture of death in all its manifestations, or do we harbor a little corner of our hearts that cries out for blood?

I can answer that one easily for myself: yes, I do have that desire for vengeance in my heart. I want blood. I hear of violence and I want it to be paid back with violence, because that would seem satisfy justice.

I know that desire exists me, but I don’t trust it. A powerful voice that calls for death–even the death of the guilty–is very rarely the voice of the Holy Spirit.

Everything we do–even unto sacrificing our own lives–must be done for the greater glory of God. As I’ve written before, God makes it pretty clear what he demands, and it is not sacrifice.

In a case that so clearly proves the pro-life position on the horror of abortion and the sanctity of life, we do well to reject death. Our nation is saturated in casual cruelty. Death is easy: flick of a switch, it’s over. Little is gained except abstract and outmoded notions of retributive justice. At some point, our most powerful witness to Christ will be to oppose cruelty with something far more powerful: the merciful love of God. The world could use that right now more than it could use another body in a case that already has far too many.

About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Tomas Diaz

    May I recommend this article by Fr. Rutler? http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/hanging-concentrates-the-mind

    It’s something that’s been in my mind a lot whenever the death penalty comes up. I’m still not completely sure what to make of these ideas and haven’t yet looked more deeply into the sources, but it definitely pushes the boundaries of today’s typical thought.

  • http://www.parafool.com victor

    It’s also questionable as to whether or not the State is even entitled to retribution, given — as you note — that the State did their best to enable him for so many years.

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  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    You’re right, the “medicinal” argument is valid and powerful, and I should have included it. I’m not advocating a wholly abolitionist position on the death penalty. I do feel, however, that society at this moment (ie, post-Roe) is better served by a witness of mercy. Do we need another stark witness to the folly of crime and immorality? Our ruined culture is awash in evidence of both.

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  • Jaydub

    The Catholic position, reflected by the previous two (at least) pope, the USCCB, and the Catechism state that, in our place and time, there is nearly no instance where the death penalty is a just recourse. Not adhering to this teaching is tantamount to Protestantism (creating a Church in your own image rather than the image of the Church fathers).

    This mans actions are beyond horror. True strength lies in not seeking retributive justice, for true justice is Gods alone. We can keep this man in a cell for the rest of his days. Time on this earth is the only time we have where we are able to repent and turn to God; we should not take that away, even from someone who committed atrocities so ghastly.

  • http://awindowonthewest.blogspot.com Maggie

    I do submit to the Church’s teaching that in our situation, the death penalty should not be used, but I think your calling it “cruelty” may not necessarily be accurate–it doesn’t seem to fit the other things which you say in your blog post, anyway. Kind of a minor quibble. Overall this post is very good.

    @Victor: interesting point, which I hadn’t considered before.

  • Harry Piper

    That article is a tremendous example of how not to argue for the death penalty. Did you read the bit where he cites, with approval, the pontiff who had a mentally ill man executed for chasing another man with a fork? A FORK, for goodness’ sake! It’s grotesque.

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  • Theodore Seeber

    A far better punishment in this case would be life sentences served consecutively.

    As soon as he’s pardoned for one, it’s time for another.

    At age 76, he won’t survive the appeals anyway.

  • SuchLife

    Romans 13 4-5 (below) are God’s answer to this question of death penalty or not. As individuals we must be pro-life and show mercy, but a government is instituted by God to carry out punishment on the wrongdoer. If we do not follow God’s plan, we will most assuredly reap the consequences. Our court system must decide whether this man is guilty of a crime(s) for which our law demands the death penalty. If yes, as a believer in Jesus Christ, I do not see delivering this death penalty verdict as showing a lack of mercy but in fact adhering to the scripture.

    4)”For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5)Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

  • chris wiclern

    “For the one in authority”; “submit to the authorities”, and here in the U.S., we the people are the jurors, we are the authority.

  • http://davidgriffey.blogspot.com/ Dave G.

    The Catechism seems to suggest that it’s because the State can now prevent crime. I’m still getting my mind around that. In just the last month or so, there have been at least three people murdered by criminals or convicts (one in a prison down the road from my town), who apparently didn’t get the memo regarding the State’s new-found ability to prevent crime. And like the article says, if heaven is a sure thing (or if you’re an atheist/secularist, a non-thing), then this life becomes the greatest importance. It’s not dumb cosmic coincidence that the overwhelming majority of Protestant traditions that have abandoned the death penalty (with a few exceptions) also reject such notions as Hell, or the old time view that God actually sent Jesus to be executed for our sins. Plus, universalism of some sort is also common. Though a recent conversation across Catholic blogs showed that not a few folks are also moving past the hell-fire view to a more universal notion of salvation. Which would, again, be consistent with recent trends. All in all, a more complex topic than I think is sometimes admitted, and the article, far from being ghastly, actually reminds us that there was a time when people really, really, really took seriously the idea that we should worry more about losing body and soul than just body.

  • Bill Russell

    In 1945, the Servant of God Pope Pius XII, urged the prosecutors at the Nuremburg trial to hang the convicted Nazis, and to do it quickly. He even offered one of his staff to supply incriminating evidence. Hwe can it be that his understanding of the death penalty (and that of so many saints) suddenly is morally wrong? Just asking.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald

    It’s not morally wrong and I did not say it was. I said the opposite. However, as a matter of prudential judgement, I believe there should be few cases in which it is applied.


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