Is It Acceptable for Christians to Support Capital Punishment? You bet it is.

Jack_Sparrow_Hanging_COTBPJust last Wednesday, notorious baby raper Steve Smith, age 46, was executed by the State of Ohio for the killing of 6-month-old Autumn Carter in 1998.  Even though he had no prior record, his crime was so heinous that the Ohio Parole Board and the Governor unanimously denied his petition to reduce his sentence to life in prison.  This is an unusual event in a state that is not Texas, particularly a state like Ohio which has only started allowing executions again in 1999; they had been outlawed for years before that.

Naturally, this event raised the same controversy such things always do, since Americans are somewhat split on the issue of capital punishment.  But unlike many issues where Americans split along party lines or ideologies, this one is complex, involving a poorly understood moral battle being waged fairly recently among Christians. Unfortunately, this battle has caused confusion and misunderstanding, with many people perceiving that Christians view capital punishment as strictly immoral, even on the same level as abortion. That would be wrong – hideously wrong – even though many well-intentioned Christians and even clergy are carelessly encouraging the idea.

And it’s not just religious figures.  Rep. Terry Blair from Ohio is one of many conservative Catholic politicians who find themselves allied with liberal lawmakers in pursuing an end to capital punishment.  “The creeds of the church say that life is to be protected all along, from natural birth to natural death,” said Blair in 2011.  Former Montana State Senator Roy Brown stated recently in the Daily Caller:  “Like most conservatives, I value the sanctity of human life from the womb to natural death. The same principles that motivate me to oppose abortion also motivate me to oppose the death penalty.”

So, is this true?  Do Christians believe that all human life is to be strictly protected from “birth to natural death?”  And where did this peculiar catch phrase come from that seems to be rolling off the lips of so many death penalty opponents?  Is it really a “creed” of the Catholic Church or any other church?  The answer is no; it’s not.  That phrase has been used for years by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and perhaps other Christian groups, to summarize the teachings of the Church on the clearly wrong practices of abortion and euthanasia, both of which involve the taking of innocent life.  Pope John Paul II, in Evangelium vitae (1995), no. 72, makes this clear:  “Laws which legitimize the direct killing of innocent human beings through abortion or euthanasia are in complete opposition to the inviolable right to life proper to every individual…”  Unfortunately, many in the Catholic Church have carelessly extended this view to cover other life issues like capital punishment, even though the Church clearly considers that a profoundly different issue.  Frequently, even from the pulpit, clergy preach against abortion and capital punishment in the same breath without any attempt to stress that the moral status of the latter is vastly more complex.  Not always, but often.

So what does the Catholic Church really teach about capital punishment?  The answer is found in the Catechism:

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 more in conformity with 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 definitively 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.”

While this is a somewhat loaded statement due to the numerous explicit and implicit assumptions made in the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs, the important point is that the “Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty…”  It’s also important to point out that it has never done so, and it cannot establish a new precedent in doing so, because the Church simply does not possess the authority to overturn scriptural precedent and 2000 years of tradition.  The most it can do is state that it really, really hopes that it’s not necessary too often, which is exactly what the 2nd and 3rd paragraphs above state: a hope for a more perfect world.  If you look closely, none of the assumptions made in those paragraphs are binding or particularly convincing.  In fact, they are spectacularly weak.  If I didn’t have tremendous respect for the men who wrote the words, likely future popes Wojtyla and Ratzinger, I’d be more critical.  But it is easy to criticize the words.  The weakest and most glaring assumption is that there can ever be a safe and effective way to protect our children from the most dangerous criminals other than to kill them.  There’s a reason why Moses was instructed to make it painfully clear that such criminals must be killed without exception, because that was the only way that the people could be protected from the evil that had set up residence in those who had gone down that path.  Granted, Christians are not bound by the same covenant as Moses, and Jesus requires in his covenant that his followers exercise mercy in their judgement, but he did not come to abolish the law of Moses, only to deepen it.  When he was hanging from the cross, did he ever complain about the existence of the death penalty?  No, and neither did anyone else.  The only injustice mentioned, as pointed out by the “Good Thief” hanging next to him, was that “he is innocent; we deserve this.”  The fact is that the death penalty has never been seriously questioned as a necessity for all of recorded history.  To do so now, however well-intentioned the attempt, requires a better argument than this.

But, you may ask, surely a prisoner sentenced to life without parole can be kept safely away from the public?  In a perfect world, perhaps.  But as long as prisons cost money – LOTS of money – prisoners will be released early or paroled too easily or simply escape due to poor security.  We know that this is par for the course in the U.S.  Is it any better elsewhere?  And what of the moral implications of imprisonment?  By keeping common prisoners in contact with hardened criminal monsters, you place them in extreme danger that they do not deserve.  Crimes in prison go unnoticed every day, but that does not lessen the blame that we bear for getting so many people killed by imprisoning them with monsters.  What was that about human dignity?  Does it not apply to those minor criminals trying to do their time in peace without being gang-raped or their gut torn open with a shiv?  And what of the moral question of the burden that these words place on all of us to pay for life imprisonment for so many?  Does God really ask that we deplete our precious resources that could be used to feed the poor and educate our young so that serial killers may be kept alive for 50 or 60 years in the hopes that they may repent in that time?  Is not the time it takes to convict on a capital crime enough to prompt repentance, especially if the convict knows the time may be short?  And what of the murder victims?  How often were they given time to reflect on their mortality or to repent of their sins before they were killed?  Finally, I find the time-critical nature of the last paragraph from the catechism disturbing.  “Today, in fact, the … possibilities the state has …”  Such statements always have an expiration date, because the power of the state always depends on the robustness of the economy and the level of freedom currently being enjoyed by the public and which state you’re talking about.  When these words were written, the condition of the economies of the Western world was considerably better than it is now.  In fact, it would not be an understatement to say that we are now in widespread economic crisis.  Under such conditions, is it not silly to speak about “the state” as if it has unlimited resources for the indefinite care and feeding of all its citizens, much less all its prisoners?

Despite my pointed questions, my intent is not to cast ridicule on the Catechism’s statement on capital punishment or even on those who have moral issues with the death penalty.  My point is that Christians in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, do not forbid the practice.   To do so would actually be a violation of the principals of sovereignty (for the state) and subsidiarity (sovereignty of the individual).  If anyone tells you that the death penalty is immoral, it is their opinion, to which they are entitled.  But that is all.  No major church backs them up in its core beliefs, except perhaps those that have adopted explicitly pacifist stands.  At least pacifists have adopted a consistent approach to things like self-defense and war.  Others who would condemn the death penalty while allowing self-defense and just war must understand that they have to answer for those inconsistencies.  So, if you’re a conservative and a Christian, and you support capital punishment, don’t be intimidated.  Your position has been the moral position for millenia.  Don’t give up too easily, especially to those who are using false moral claims.

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About GruntOfMonteCristo

Fearless and Devout Catholic Christian First, Loving Husband and Father Second, Pissed-Off Patriot Third, Rocket Engineer Dork Last.
This entry was posted in General Religiousness, Life Issues, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to Is It Acceptable for Christians to Support Capital Punishment? You bet it is.

  1. barnslayer says:

    I’m guessing it’s a matter of translation. Either intentional or not. The sixth Commandment states “Thou shalt not murder”. Justified killing is not murder.

    • Excellent point! Some folks just don’t get the difference. Same people, probably, who read the U.S. Constitution and see “shall not be infringed” and have no idea what that means. 😦

  2. Excellent post Grunt. Thanks for sharing your Light on this situation. I personally am not opposed the capitol punishment. It is, as is stated, the ruling parties right. It is also a very useful tool in times of great distress where time is critical as in past wars. THERE ARE CERTAIN CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY that warrant such a judgement. The law is for the lawless not those who conduct themselves within the law. I believe your statement to be the most profound one where you state that certainly where the offender is facing death he has then and there, while facing execution, to fear for his imortality, his life after death and possible condemnation before his Creator while the subject is still fresh within himself. To carry this out another sixty years at the cost of many thousands can be easily excused by the extremely poor amongst ourselves now where, if it is the money, it could be well spent there.
    The other issue would be the type of offense that society is trying to avoid which because of the lack of God in daily lives, may be the only deterrent to the offender. I believe beheadings (for example like the recent one in Mexico) should be one of those types of crimes to warrant such a punishment. The main reason would be to act as a detterant and the other as a just reward. This is one of those situations that is coming to close to home. It is premeditated, utterly defilling and inhumane and quickly becoming a fad that we should stop dead in it’s tracks. Watch and see how the gangs are quick to pick it up here in America.
    Great post Grunt!

    • barnslayer says:

      We can’t reserve the death penalty for only the most gruesome of murders. Giving life to a murderer just seems wrong. In effect you would be condoning a more “victim-friendly” murder. Unless we are willing to implement a more horrific type of execution reserved for the worst of the worst, all should suffer the same fate.

      • Fortunately for me I don’t have to make that call Barn, nor would I. There are all types of murders and murderers which I could and couldn’t condone execution for. Like crimes of passion. Is it worth putting to death a father who in a heat of the moment kills the man who just raped and killed his daughter? I could never execute a person like that.

    • Thanks very much, GFC. Good point about the efficacy of the DP in dealing with things like cartel violence, but I think Barn has a good point, too, about the value of consistent justice. In the “old days” back in the 1950s and before, which is not too long ago to be forgotten, there was a different crime culture that really seemed to fear conviction. From all that I’ve read and seen, they knew that a conviction for a capital crime almost certainly meant “the chair.” And they were right to fear it, because the list of capital crimes was a big one – not like now. In those days, you could get the chair for kidnapping, rape, child abuse, armed bank robbery, murder (of course), etc. I think the consistency of the justice handed out was a genuine deterrent. Not like now, unfortunately. People always say the death penalty isn’t a deterrent, but that’s only because it’s been made a joke. It was a deterrent before. It can be again.

      • Well, since we are at it, I think we should also have stocks out in the public for other crimes as well. And the electric chair was a deterant and should always be public. This is a healthy fear and reminder as to the consequences of your actions as rendered lawful and within the power of the state. Only lawless need worry right?!

        • barnslayer says:

          Stocks would be appropriate for politicians. The electric chair, in deference to saving energy, should be run by solar panels or wind farms. Another option would be to place the condemned in a Chevy Volt. Whack the battery with a hammer.

          • LOL. I don’t think the electric chair would be fair enough for anyone of our leaders that leads children astray. Not even if the forget to wet the skull sponge.

  3. What bothers me the most about it is that it seems like criminals now have more rights than their victims or their victims’ families. The left is always focused on the criminal rather than the lives that they destroyed because of their crime.

  4. One of the humorous aspects, for me, of dealing with Christians who are horrified by the notion of putting a murderous criminal to death, is their insistence that “all human life is precious to God, and every death a tragedy.” Really? I get the first part, but as Christians, aren’t we supposed to value the afterlife more? And count death as a good thing? Doesn’t God, Himself, call thousands of souls home every day and call it good? It seems to me that human life is not THE most precious thing, after all, to God. Aren’t we supposed to care nothing for our own lives and be willing to sacrifice them in a moment for something noble? But you’re telling me it’s essential that a serial child molester’s life is soooooo precious that he must be kept alive at ALL COSTS? Even if it means he might escape and ruin the lives of more innocent children? You crack me up!

    Christians in times past didn’t seem to suffer from this weird, inconsistent life-worship and fear of death. Death was always close. No one was ever that far away from it, and while life may not have been “cheap,” it was not valued as quite so precious, in itself, as it is now. People seemed more willing to risk their lives in centuries past, it seems to me, perhaps because they needed to do so more often than we do. But it may have been that they were more focused on the afterlife. Shouldn’t we be more like them?

    But don’t get me wrong. Human life IS precious, and the taking of innocent human life cannot be justified. Doing so for mere convenience is an abomination. But there are things more important than life. Justice is only one of them. Love is another. And if we loved like God loves, I suspect that we would value life less and value justice more.

    • I think some of is that as a culture we have developed a fear of death. In earlier generations death was a part of life. At the same time how many true liberals have any belief in an afterlife. They don’t want to deal with death because for them it is not a homecoming. They focus on the criminal because they don’t want to have to deal with thinking about the victim because then they would have to think about death. It is probably how in their minds they have compartmentalized this so that the focus on the life of the criminal rather than the death of the victim. Just as they focus on the life of the woman rather than the death of the clump of cells in her body that actually is developing into a living breathing human.

      • barnslayer says:

        We is smart and famous! Thanks for the link Wraith!

      • Yes, thanks for the link, Wraith! I is honored to be compared to Elizabeth Scalia. I really respect her thinking on moral issues, but I also think she’s glossing over this one without looking at her assumptions. All I can do is *facepalm* when she says about Kermit Gosnell that “the desire for vengeance is understandable.” Really? You just painted all capital punishment supporters as drooling revenge-monkeys. Was that necessary? I think she knows better.

        • barnslayer says:

          It’s always easier to act holier than thou knowing someone else will do the dirty work you need to be done.
          Kinda like the anti-military protestors who enjoy freedom.

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