"We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. We cannot defend life by taking life," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick told a news conference last week in Washington, D.C. You remember Cardinal McCarrick, of course. He's the one who gave such a, shall we say, creative interpretation of Cardinal Ratzinger's letter regarding denial of communion to pro-abortion Catholic politicians. One might be tempted to wonder if Cardinal McCarrick is accurately representing the USCCB now, except for the fact that the bishops have, in every area throughout the years from tax reform to calls for a nuclear freeze, made their viewpoints distressingly clear.
Proponents of the anti-death penalty policy cite, in part, a recent Zogby Poll showing that Catholics are moving away from support of the death penalty. "In past surveys," Zogby said, "Catholic support for the death penalty was as high as 68 percent. In our November survey, we found that less than half of the Catholic adults in our poll now support the use of the death penalty." Of course, one has to ask whether bishops are now planning to run the American church based on public opinion polls. In that case, they'd better be willing to question the church's stand on abortion and divorce as well.
But it would be too easy to sit here and take potshots at some of these death penalty opponents. Easy, and ultimately pointless, because there is a serious issue here, one that deserves to be taken seriously even if some of its supporters do not. A great many people oppose capital punishment for very legitimate reasons, and while I might disagree with them, I have the utmost respect for them and their opinions. Surely this is an area where people can still have respectful disagreements. And let me be the first to state that this will not be a scholarly analysis of capital punishment – what it really boils down to is looking at what the church teaches and asking whether or not the United States meets the criteria that makes capital punishment virtually unnecessary.
For many, the “Seamless Garment” must be quite tempting. It unites the strongest points of the liberal opposition to the death penalty, which is offset by their almost fanatical devotion to abortion on demand; and the conservative pro-life movement, which is compromised by their attachment to sometimes harsh economic policies.
In uniting the two, half from column L and half from column C as it were, they must feel they get the best of both worlds. By eliminating the extremes, so goes the thought, they have created a philosophy that, precisely because it irritates so many in each camp, must be a sound one.
The Catholic Church has traditionally recognized the legitimacy of capital punishment, but during the reign of JPII, church teaching has become increasingly anti-death penalty. Cardinal McCarrick cited this rationale, saying that the Pope and other Catholic leaders believe the state "should forego this right if it has other means to protect society." He said that's the case in the United States.
Does all this mean that Catholics are bound, in good conscience, to oppose capital punishment? First, as always, let's take a look at what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say:
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.In other words, while continuing to acknowledge that the state has the legal authority to put a prisoner to death, the church discourages the state from exercising this authority unless there is no other way to protect society - which, according to the CCC, is highly unlikely.
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."
The Holy Father has driven this interpretation as part of his unending quest to reaffirm the dignity of the human individual. It should be noted that this is not an infallible declaration by the Holy Father - I don't know that it is even his interpretation of past teachings of the church. It’s his personal opinion. Of course, the opinions of the Pope count for a lot more than yours or mine - maybe ten or twelve times as much.
Why, then, do I appear to be disagreeing with him? Well, as learned as the Pope is, he is not an American, not familiar with the legal system in this country. And, notwithstanding Cardinal McCarrick, one has to ask whether it is in fact true that in the United States "cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
As a nation, we are reluctant to execute prisoners – those who think we’re trigger-happy should look at the ratio of executions to those on death row (according to the Department of Justice, 3,374 inmates were on death row in 2004, while only 59 were executed). And we should be reluctant when it comes to execution. Our legal system must be dedicated to ascertaining the guilt of the individual beyond a reasonable doubt – including automatic appeals and use of DNA and other technology. While the appeals system must be reformed and streamlined, there’s no question that we should be very, very sure of what we’re doing. Complete certainty, as is the case in all other walks of life, is impossible.
Some argue that executions cut short a life that could possibly be reformed while in prison. This may be true, although there’s no way to prove it. What we do know is that there are many cases of prisoners who have experienced a true conversion while awaiting execution. Impending death has a way of focusing the mind on what’s truly important – we’re familiar with stories of people suffering terminal illnesses who use the knowledge to put their spiritual house in order –make amends, set things straight, say what needs to be said while there is still time. Add to that the redemptive power of suffering (if encountered during that final journey) and one could argue that impending death becomes the great engine that powers conversion.
There are other pros and cons to the death penalty, but they are really tangential to our particular discussion. For the core of this argument relates to the ability of the state to secure some means of protecting society short of execution. And for that to be the case, the state must show both the means and the will to effect such a solution.
Is this the case? Are we really doing all that we can to keep society safe from homicidal criminals? This is not a rhetorical question, but one asked in true sincerity. I’m in full agreement with the Pope’s statement, provided that such a situation exists in the United States. Cardinal McCarrick and others say it does. I do not agree.
Too many times we put murderers behind bars for limited periods of time (in some states, the average sentence for murder is less than seven years). Overburdened penal systems are often forced to let prisoners out early in order to accommodate the increased flow. Murder victims such as Polly Klass, Dru Sjodin and Jessica Lunsford testify to the threat posed by released sex offenders. We've seen prisoners and prison guards terrorized and killed by inmates (and we should acknowledge that the dignity of man includes safety for those serving time in prison). And we know terrorists, like mob bosses before them, are often able to operate their organizations even from prison.
Faced with this, we must ask ourselves whether or not we truly have a situation in which "cases . . . are very rare, if practically non-existent." In fact, I would argue that we lack both the will and the means to enact a penal system engaged in "effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor." In other words, the elements that make the death penalty an excessive form of punishment – fitting the definition set forth by the CCC and by JPII – do not exist here.
Perhaps if we had the determination to do what it took - for example, to introduce mandatory life-without-parole sentences for certain criminals guilty of offenses such as murder, child molestation, and terrorist acts, to more closely screen prisoners up for parole, and to take every step to ensure that those in prison pose as little threat as possible to others - I might agree that the death penalty is not necessary. But until this happens, my conclusion is that in this country we have not yet reached the Holy Father’s goal of being able to protect society without recourse to the death penalty.
Rather than calling for an end to capital punishment, perhaps the bishops would be better served by calling for genuine creation of a system that might truly make capital punishment an unnecessary alternative.