Just 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.