A few days ago, a Connecticut jury voted to invoke the death penalty for convicted “home invasion” murderer Steven Hayes. Within minutes of the announcement, on news and commentary sites across the liberal/ conservative spectrum, Americans celebrated the verdict. I watched as 200, then 300 and more “likes” popped up on Fox News’ Facebook report.
But why? What satisfaction can be gained by the taking of yet another life?
Granted, Hayes’ crimes were heinous. In the deadly home invasion, Hayes had brutalized Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her daughters, 17-year-old Hayley and 11-year-old Michaela—sexually assaulting them, then dousing their wounded bodies with gasoline before setting their house ablaze. A comment heard frequently during the trial phase was that if ever a crime was deserving of death, this was it.
In the face of such abject evil, public rage catapulted toward revenge, fostering an “eye for an eye” retributive hatred.
Such vengeance, while understandable, does nothing to restore the victims to life; but it does potentially impede the action of God in the heart of the offender. As Jesus asks that we turn the other cheek; likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists that capital punishment not be used unless there is no other recourse.
In a nutshell, the Church asserts that:
- The State has a right and responsibility to protect the human rights of its citizens, and to preserve the common good.
- Legitimate public authority (a police force) may inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. This penalty serves the purpose of redressing the disorder, and—as much as possible—should help in restoring the offender.
- In certain situations (such as during wartime), when capital punishment is the only practical way to defend human lives against the aggressor, it is not wrong to employ the death penalty.
- However—and this is most important—if bloodless means are available to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means.
- In contemporary American society, when the option of secure imprisonment is available, cases of absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
The Church hopes with Christ that the sinner—even the very great sinner—will freely repent and be reconciled with Christ. To forcibly take the life of a criminal, thereby taking from him the opportunity for repentance, would be wrong.