A spate of federal executions in the waning days of the Trump administration is deeply troubling.
Let’s be clear: capital punishment is not morally equivalent to abortion.
- While innocent persons are sometimes wrongly executed, every abortion involves the intentional killing of a completely innocent young life.
- Every person on death row is accorded extensive due process before they can be executed. Innocent unborn children are afforded no due process before their lives are violently taken.
- The sheer difference in numbers: If the occasional execution of a convicted murderer desensitizes us to the gravity of killing—as I believe it does—then haven’t we become absolutely morally numbed by the deliberate killing of more than 60 million innocent babies over the last five decades?
So there are clear differences.
Yet recent popes, with good reason, have clearly and consistently called for ending the death penalty as a means of punishment for and protection from violent criminals.
Saint John Paul II instructed that capital punishment should not be employed when “bloodless means” would suffice to protect society from violent crime. He later went further, declaring that in modern times instances when bloodless means would not suffice are “rare if not practically non-existent.”
Pope Benedict XVI urged “society’s leaders…to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty.”
And Pope Francis has stated that “Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”
There are many practical reasons for opposing the death penalty. It can be unevenly applied; extenuating circumstances, like mental illness, can mitigate a convicted person’s moral culpability; and of course, innocent people can and do get wrongly convicted. With advances in technology and DNA testing, and the seminal work of groups like the Innocence Project, more and more convictions are being overturned, and innocent people freed from incarceration. That cannot happen if they have already—in the name of “justice”—been wrongly executed by the state, in the ultimate act of injustice.
Yet none of these get to the heart of the Church’s opposition to capital punishment. For even when the facts are beyond dispute—guilt well-established, culpability irrefutable, the death penalty applied equitably—the Church still opposes it.
For—again, without equating capital punishment with the “intrinsic evil” of abortion—the Church sees that the death penalty undermines our efforts to uphold the sanctity of human life.
Particularly in a world where violence and death are perpetually—some would say pathologically—employed as “solutions” to human problems, involving the state in one more manifestation of that approach can only accelerate the cycle of violence.
Then there is the question of mercy. Recalling that Pope John Paul II, during his 1999 visit to St. Louis, had appealed for the commutation of a death sentence there, the bishops explained that the pope “did not request a re-evaluation of the merits of the condemned man’s case. Rather, he presented a simple and straightforward appeal for mercy.”
I find this particularly challenging. Not in every case. My heart goes out to some convicted of violent crimes, who seem tormented by terrible abuses or trials in their own lives. In other cases, however, murders seem so cruel, so heartless that—even as I remain philosophically opposed to the death penalty—I struggle to find in my heart any desire for mercy for the perpetrators.
Two of the murderers in these recent executions fit that category for me. In one case, the killer raped a 16-year-old girl over a drug dispute with her brothers, then buried her alive. Think about that. Experience in your mind the slow, agonizing, horrible death that young girl was made to suffer.
Another man cruelly tortured and brutally murdered his own two-year-old daughter. Some who oppose the death penalty tend to romanticize those facing execution, and to harshly judge any who disagree with them. They need to read exactly what this man did to that poor, defenseless baby girl.
Yet there are other stories, just as powerful. Bill Pelke initially supported the death penalty for the teen-age girl who brutally stabbed his grandmother to death. But later, inspired by the memory of his grandmother’s devout Christian faith, he envisioned her in tears at this young girl’s impending execution. He forgave the girl, intervened to have her death sentence commuted, and became a lifelong advocate for abolishing capital punishment until he died several weeks ago.
The mercy and forgiveness in his heart is something we all should aspire to.
At the same time, just as we strive not to judge or condemn women who abort their own children, let us not presume to judge those who support execution for the murderers of their loved ones.
We seek to respond with love and compassion to the woman facing a crisis pregnancy. We try to offer her life-affirming alternatives, and to gently, lovingly persuade her to choose life for her child. But if she does not, we do not abandon her, do not condemn her. Instead, we who are pro-life continue to offer her love and care and healing.
Similarly with families of murder victims, forced not only to cope with terrible loss, but often to relive in their minds the unspeakable suffering their loved one went through. We must respond to their suffering with love and understanding; gently encourage them to embrace a nonlethal form of punishment for their loved one’s killer; try to help them find the true peace that only forgiveness and mercy can bring.
But if they too make a different choice, and support the execution of their loved one’s killer, we must not judge and condemn them. We must continue to love them unconditionally, and still try to help them find healing and peace.
So let us oppose capital punishment—to avoid wrongly executing innocent people; to slow our descent into the culture of death; and above all, to temper justice with mercy, knowing that ultimately, our own salvation is wholly dependent on God tempering His judgement with His divine mercy, for each of us.
And let us not be judgmental toward those who, suffering from the violent murder of a loved one, cannot bring themselves to ask for mercy for the perpetrator. Let us have understanding and compassion for them in their pain—a pain that, please God, most of us will never have to endure.