The Executioner…

…who became a death penalty opponent.

When the Church says, “Don’t do it” and the Pope calls for its abolition and you look around and find such backward despotisms as Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, and North Korea as your closest intellectual allies on the matter, it’s time to put the death penalty to bed.

"I notice that your examples of God breaking into people's lives in "dramatic", overt ways ..."

Part Two of my Series
"Today is the birthday of Emma Lazarus, who wrote the following. How far we have ..."

Finding Fellowship in Innocent Sufferings
"The statement from the National Catholic Register described your removal as follows: "The Register is ..."

Finding Fellowship in Innocent Sufferings
"You are blubbering to an orthodox Catholic who was fired from his job at the ..."

Finding Fellowship in Innocent Sufferings

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • It’s not the first time this happens. If I remember right, the famous English executioner Albert Pierrepoint ended up saying that the death penalty was pointless and useless. Nothing like being up at the sharp end.

  • Although, by that logic, the intellectual allies of death penalty opponents seem to variously support abortion, gay marriage, even euthanasia. Not to mention that it’s worth noting the intellectual allies in many Christian traditions that reject the death penalty also allow for some of those things, while rejecting such horse and buggy thinking as the actual existence of hell, or the somewhat ludicrous notion that God physically and literally sent his son to die on the cross for humanity. Not many Christian traditions have a sign saying ban the death penalty in one hand and a prayer that says ‘save us from the fires of hell’ in the other. So there is that connection to think about.

    • Well, call me “not many” then. Me and pretty nearly every Catholic in Italy.

      • I meant the non-Catholic traditions that have already decided on this. Won’t be many in those traditions who find the ‘death penalty bad/God sending his Son to die’ to be compatible. Nonetheless, my point was the ‘wrong by association’ argument. I might suggest that not all countries that have death penalties adhere to the Communist China/Saudi Arabian approach to good living.

    • Mark Shea

      I’m sure you imagine you are making some point here, but I can’t parse what it is beyond something like, “Ignore the Church and stick with our irrational death penalty system, because you might become a hell-denying librul.” Or something. WTH?

      • My point is that if you’re going to say ‘let’s look at all those nasty countries that do what the Church allowed for 2000 years’, then it’s logical to look at countries that have abolished the death penalty and see what they are like. That is, assuming the argument is actually trying to say something.

        Oh, and please dispense with the whole Falwell inspired ‘people who don’t agree with me clearly don’t love the Church like I do’ arguments. I heard enough of that in my evangelical days (except you substitute ‘Love Jesus’ for ‘Ignore the Church’).

        • Mark Shea

          Except that you are, in fact, suggesting that we ignore the Church, are you not? After all, the Church does, in fact, urge that the death penalty not be applied if possible and both the Pope and the bishops urge it abolition, while you are suggesting that they be ignored and that, in fact, to follow their guidance here is somehow to risk becoming a godless, hell-denying liberal. If you don’t want to be taken for saying, “Ignore the Church about the death penalty” then why write things which boil down to saying, “Ignore the Church on the death penalty”?

          • I suppose if I supported the death penalty it might suggest that. Though I do get confused over the whole ‘it’s not official yet/this is what they really mean/you can disagree/it’s not official but you have to listen/it’s clear what this really means’ approach to Catholic living. It seems to change given the moment. Last I heard, the Church still allowed for it in certain circumstances, and good Catholics could disagree in good faith. Last I heard, nobody was saying the Church has ruled and there’s only one acceptable opinion for Catholics who really love Jesus. But then, that’s last I heard. Maybe I missed the memo.

            For me, opponent of the DP that I am, the fact that the Church is changing 2000 years of teaching on some pretty shaky grounds – IMHO – is enough to give pause. And arguments like ‘if you support the DP, then look at the company you keep’ are valueless, because it’s not for no reason that many cultures that outlaw the DP likewise wholeheartedly support such things as abortion, gay marriage, and yes, even in some cases, euthanasia. As a form liberal agnostic DP opponent, I can say it’s all very consistent. Just like mainline Christians who tossed out the DP along with that silly old stuff about fires of hell and God sending his son to die and all. Very consistent. Probably more consistent than the suggestion that to use the DP makes one into the likeness of a country like China or Saudi Arabia.

            • Blog Goliard

              It does feel trendy and unsafe, to take a position for which one is applauded by the same people, and in much the same manner, as one would be applauded for embracing some other left-liberal piety such as same-sex marriage.

              It also feels overly Zeitgeisty and unsafe to take a position which breathes so deeply of the “everybody in all of human history before the mid-20th-century was less enlightened” air.

              The thought and teaching of John Paul II and Benedict XVI have drawn me away from being pro-death-penalty. But I still believe it is a legitimate choice of the State in some cases, even if the number of such cases is vanishingly rare in our society. (It’s impossible to argue otherwise, and remain in harmony with tradition and orthodoxy, isn’t it?) I don’t get the sense that most death penalty opponents agree with this; and for this reason, along with sensing danger in the same way that Dave G. does, I am left being generally anti-execution, while also generally anti-anti-death-penalty.

            • The Deuce

              …it’s not for no reason that many cultures that outlaw the DP likewise wholeheartedly support such things as abortion, gay marriage, and yes, even in some cases, euthanasia.

              Indeed. What has driven the demise of the death penalty in most places has not been a growing respect for the dignity of man, but rather the increasing prevalence of the idea that man is just a material machine conditioned by his genes and environment, and not a moral agent who is culpable for his actions and beholden to an objective moral law. Seen that way, it makes perfect sense that the people rejecting the death penalty on those grounds would support abortion and euthanasia.

  • ivan_the_mad

    God bless him and his work!

  • The Deuce

    I don’t see how it’s possible for an orthodox Christian to reject the possibility that the death penalty can be justifiable *in principle* without contradicting existing doctrine, but I can certainly see how it can be rejected *in practice*, on the grounds that the risks of injustice by the state outweigh the benefits in the modern day, or something to that effect. I’m guessing that this is what B16 and other faithful Catholics who oppose the death penalty are getting at?

    • I don’t know if that’s what they mean. I’ve heard some argue that way. One of the biggest problems I have is this: “as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime…” That’s from the Catechism about why it might be time to put the DP to rest for good. And yet, how can something so potentially inept and unjust be trusted to prevent crime? Despite the anal-reaming I get for asking these questions on Catholic blogs, I’ve opposed the death penalty for most of my life. Being a good liberal agnostic, it was the thing to do. Becoming Christian didn’t change that. I just find some of the arguments, well, puzzling.

      • The Deuce

        I guess what raises hackles for me is what Mark said here:

        Namely, that the Faith is not the Pope’s personal property or plaything, or anyone else’s. Nobody is free to just come out and say “Oh, God just changed his mind about this piece of doctrine, so now all the stuff we used to teach on this matter doesn’t count anymore.” When people do that, it shows that they don’t actually believe in God’s authority at all, but actually see their Faith as a human invention (or, possibly, that they believe in a capricious deity who can change his mind and contradict himself, as in Islam).

        If you can just about-face on death penalty doctrine to match modern sensibilities, then why not on gay marriage or women priests? Great care needs to be taken, or so it seems to me, to harmonize such developments with existing doctrines and previous teachings, otherwise you risk communicating the message that you don’t really believe your institution or your teachings to be divinely inspired, thus creating confusion and undermining your authority on other matters as well.

        Again, my impression (so far) of the views of faithful anti-death-penalty Catholics on this matter is that they are prudential. That is, they think that modern developments have reduced the necessity of the death penalty to the extent that the downsides of giving the growing state that power outweigh the upsides, or something to that effect, without denying that there are times and places where it can be justifiable in principle. But I’d like a bit more clarification on that.

        • I absolutely agree, and I think most who oppose the death penalty are trying to take the religious high road, and I applaud that. I also, without trying to sound arrogant, always felt it was a more spiritual path for me to oppose the death penalty no matter what. My problem is, I met far too many proponents of capital punishment to have any notions that they thought any less about the sanctity of life than I did. In fact – anther fun fact – when I remember the seminary professors I had, those who *supported* capital punishment were most likely to speak to the sanctity of life, while several I had who *opposed* capital punishment actually scoffed at the idea of the sanctity of life. In all, a more complex topic than I think we may care to admit.

        • Mark Shea

          The Church’s teaching on the death penalty has always had the character of a concession to human weakness, not a positive and vital part of the Tradition. Thomas’ argument for the death penalty is largely concerned with the good it does the sinner, directing his mind toward making his peace with God and repenting his sins. That is exactly *not* what the secular state is concerned with. It is concerned with vengeance. Since the application of the death penalty is no longer ordered toward redemptive ends but is, in fact, ordered toward vengeance and toward giving the post-Christian state the power to kill, the death penalty does not make much sense. Why secular death penalty opponents oppose the death penalty is irrelevant to the Church’s teaching and the habit American death penalty proponents have of saying “This is because bishops are Euroweenies trying to look good to effete Swedes” is long past its sellby date.

          • The Deuce

            Thanks Mark, that makes a lot of sense. My own thoughts on the death penalty are along the same lines. Namely, I think it has a legitimate place in a well-ordered society, but I’m uncomfortable with that power being in the hands of a society that has rejected the whole concept of the dignity of man as a morally responsible agent made in the Image of God in the first place, and is therefore administering the penalty for the same reasons that it eliminates other “undesirables”. I’d just assume that such a state have as few abilities to eliminate “undesirables” as possible.

          • Alypius

            In addition, I would suggest everyone read JPII’s encyclical Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”. Although he never addresses the issue of the death penalty, JPII does, based upon the revelation of Christ’s life, plumb the depths of what “mercy” actually is, and he addresses the point of mercy not being opposed to justice in any way but actually being a way of FULFILLING the demands of justice.

            Like I said, he doesn’t actually mention the death penalty, but the way this encyclical framed the mercy/justice question really helped in reconciling some of the older firm talk of justice (from Aquinas & others) with the mindset of JPII & others today as it relates to this issue.

            • Alypius

              missed a word in the above… reading the encyclical helped “ME” in reconciling the issue in my mind.

          • Only irrelevant if there’s not an attempt to lump all nations who allow the death penalty into one pile. As for the idea it’s all about vengeance, I’ve not heard that from most advocates of the death penalty. I suppose if it’s all about a completely corrupt and wicked society with no redeeming values slaughtering hapless hordes for the joy of killing and lust for revenge, then yeah, it’s time to do away with the death penalty once and for all. Though how that society of killing and revenge will then be able to prevent crimes and protect the innocent is beyond me. If not, then while I may disagree with the conclusions of those who support capital punishment, I’m not going to be quick to say there’s only one clear approach to this complex issue, or suggest those who question these reforms to traditional teaching are somehow best linked to the likes of Middle Eastern despots and communist dictators.

            • Mark Shea

              I’m sure glad you aren’t resisting the Church’s teaching on the death penalty every step of the way and looking for reasons to minimize, ignore and discount it. Because anyone would think, from what you write, that this is exactly what you’re doing, Dave.

              • Just asking questions and admitting to struggling with where the Church is changing its teachings, or pondering the reasons it gives. Also suggesting that the idea of comparing states that allow the DP with brutal dictatorships is a flawed argument because the same could be said about states that oppose it.

  • Kenneth

    Appealing to our sense of horror at being in league with despotic governments is problematic. We have already fully embraced (or aspire to) the same doctrines of executive power, pre-emptive retribution, income distribution and due process as Saudi Arabia, China, Iran and North Korea.

  • “When the Church says, “Don’t do it” and the Pope calls for its abolition…”

    This is simply dishonest. Either you’re too stupid to understand the documents, or you don’t care what they say.

    It’s one thing to be deliberately abrasive. It’s another thing to lie about Church teaching. There are plenty of people already lying about what the Church teaches. We don’t need you to as another.

    • Mark Shea

      I’m not lying about the Church’s teaching. The Church, at a practical level, says there is basically no reason to inflict the death penalty, practically speaking. It acknowledges that, in remote circumstances, it might still be necessary in order to protect innocents from harm. But in nations with adequate prison technology, this is very rarely the case. Meanwhile, the Pope and the bishops of the US call for abolition. Really. Google Pope and death penalty abolition.

      I’m sure you will apologize, won’t you, Howard, since my point is so easily and clearly documented.

  • But in nations with adequate prison technology, this is very rarely the case.

    Could someone please point me to any data that supports this claim? I mean, does it protect all innocents, most? How about inmates? Do they count? Do we care? What about prison workers? Are there some studies or something we can look at with numbers? Just wondering.

    • Mark Shea

      Don’t know. I’m simply restating what the Catechism says:

      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 are 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 non-existent.”

      Howard calls me a liar or stupid for pointing out that the practical upshot of this teaching is “Don’t inflict the death penalty” and for noting that both Benedict and the American bishops support abolition.

      No doubt Howard will write to apologize very soon for calling me a stupid liar.

      • I can’t speak for Howard. I wouldn’t call you stupid or a liar, because I know better. But as for the passage above, I’m fine with it for the most part, and where I understood things to be when I came into the Church: Don’t do the DP unless absolutely necessary. But it’s this line:

        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

        That is the mischief. Especially if we now call for the outright abolition of all capital punishment because of it. It’s one thing to say in the name of mercy, grace, forgiveness, redemption, or whatever. OK. It still does have some practical issues (what about the chance for redemption that could be stolen from an innocent person murdered?). But when you say ‘because now things are just so darn perfect in our prisons, it’s time to do away with capital punishment altogether’, that’s when we need to see some facts and figures. Because aren’t just worried about Bonnie and Clyde, we also care about Ozzie and Harriett, it’s worth asking questions and wanting to see some figures, at least IMHO.

  • An inmate just wounded a chaplain and two guards in my home town and that was at a maximum security prison. No, prisons aren’t safe. Inmates escape all the time.

    • That was a different take. And it brought up things I haven’t heard discussed at all.

      • Yes, it appears that up until the twentieth century it was seen as a medicinal punishment and in Catholic countries a way to get the perpetrator to convert and go to heaven.