Monday, October 3, 2011

Death Penalty: Political Sport at Its Most Barbarous

Executions as a matter of political sport are unnerving. When an audience cheered at one debate because Texas Gov. Rick Perry has authorized 234 executions in a little more than 10 years, I got nervous. Such light-hearted reaction to a heavy-hearted reality reflects ill on us as a people. When the audience cheered the death penalty accomplishment I felt like I was at the Colosseum surrounded by Romans giving thumbs down to a beleaguered Christian before the lions. It is barbaric.

There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty. It is applied disproportionately to minorities, and there are more white prosecutors to seek the death penalty than black. The process demeans us as a people. Seldom do John Donne's words, "Any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind ..." ring so true. The death penalty is a statement of hopelessness, perhaps the ultimate sin for Christians since it denies that people can be redeemed.

But my number one reason is simply that we can be wrong.

The number of persons from death row who have been exonerated shows how easy it is for our society to be wrong. One estimate puts the number at 138 exonerations since 1973. We've had so-called eye-witnesses, who are absolutely sure a man committed a crime - until DNA evidence proves them wrong. They weren't liars. They just remembered wrong, something we all do all the time though in less serious matters. Sadly, "Oops, we made a mistake. Sorry," is pretty inadequate in this instance and cannot undo a mistaken execution.

At times, gripping witnesses and zealous prosecutors have convinced people to believe beyond a reasonable doubt that a crime was committed. Some of the witnesses turned out to be wrong. Some prosecutors did not play by the rules. Some judges were swayed by political pressure. All of which is to be expected in our fallible world and all of which ought to put the death penalty off the table because the result of mistakes and weakness of character can result in the taking of God-given life. The fact that we are all fallible human beings should outlaw the death penalty.

There have been 1,268 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Can anyone say the years since them have been made safer? Nor has America's spirit been especially uplifted. Right now there are some 3,200 inmates on death row.

Contemporary Catholic teaching opposes the death penalty. The Catechism of the Catholic Church finds it acceptable only when there is no other way to protect society from a dangerous criminal. With the invention of prisons that moment arrived. Digging a tunnel through a cell wall is the stuff of "Shawshank Redemption," a movie about a prisoner's escape from a corrupt warden, not the stuff of today's supermax prisons.

The death penalty is vengeance and a penalty to be reserved to the One who doesn't make mistakes. Those of us who make mistakes big and small have no right to decide on ultimate penalties.

Some argue that the death penalty is allowed by the Catholic Church. That may be right in theory but not in contemporary practice. Some argue that abortion is verboten because it is the taking of innocent life but the death penalty is acceptable because it is the taking of life deemed non innocent. Yet how can they be absolutely sure?

Some criminals inspire a lock 'em up and throw away the key approach. Some crimes are so horrific as to require it. Some persons are so damaged as to put all of us at risk. Thus the need for prisons.

The death penalty, however, is a step too far. And in the political games it becomes one more foul, error, offside. That's all right for the stadium, but with executions the error is fatal.


Unknown said...

Clarity in discussing serious topics such as capital punishment/death penalty is crucial. So Sr. Mary Ann Walsh’s loose writing surprised me. Obviously, this is an emotional topic.
However to unequivocally say that “[t]he death penalty is vengeance and a penalty to be reserved to the One who doesn’t make mistakes” is either overly emotional or carelessly written. Though one can argue that modern use of the death penalty is often a form of vengeance, to attribute the act of penalizing a person with death to God who is love is inarguable.

Furthermore I was disappointed in her attempt to make an argument against the death penalty predominantly based on the imperfections of humanity, namely we are capable of making mistakes. According to Sr. Walsh’s “number one reason,” perhaps we should not even prosecute crimes for fear of incarcerating an innocent person? How barbarous is it to lock away an innocent person for life? Of all the “political games” for the USCCB to post about, I would have expected more. I would have expected a more sound argument against the heinousness of such acts or a more honest approach to a very complex justice system in which the State does have a right to protect and defend life, even to use capital punishment. The step the State should take should be one for a culture of life—a step rarely taken too far.

Bobby Fernandez said...

With the utmost respect Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, I find it difficult as someone who loves God to proclaim that the death penalty is catagorically wrong. I find your article to be a bit of a straw man. Serious proponents of the death penalty support it only when there is no question of guilt. Taken a step further, the hypothetical witnessing-a-relative-being-murdered scenario can be used as an instance when a God loving Christian can be for the death penalty. It's not revenge so forgiveness isn't the issue. Besides, the only one who can do the forgiving to absolve the murderer from prosecution is dead. Killing murderers when there is no doubt is not done out of vengance nor even fully for punishment. It is a statement made by a society of the value it places on innocent life. Such an idea is so abstract that it must be reinforced with concrete consequences when it is taken in vain.

Christy said...

What a wonderful post! I often reflect to my non-Catholic friends and co-workers that the church does not speak up about the death penalty often enough, and I am disappointed that there are pro-life groups that (rightly) take a stand on abortion but refuse to do so on the death penalty.

Thank you so much Sr. Mary for reflecting my own sentiments and those of many Catholics!

Danny Wilson said...

It is not possible to be Christ-like and to believe that we have the right to execute human beings.
If you say it is, then you have papered over, or maybe buried deeply, the glaring inconsistency that exists between your dual positions.
The taking of a life created by God, by anyone other than God, cannot be justified.
We have not explored all possible avenues of action that might lead to a solution. We have only explored the ones we are willing to finance.
Taking the life of another in self-defense or an effort to subdue them is different than taking that life when we now have complete control over it.

Danny Wilson
San Diego, CA

dudleysharp said...

The current teaching on the death penalty is a prudential judgement, not doctrine.

Prudential judgements, by definition, cannot be doctrine.

Any Catholic can support more executions and remain a Catholic in good standing.

There is also the matter of error, within both EV and the CCC.

"The most reasonable conclusion to draw from this discussion is that, once again, the Catechism is simply wrong from an historical point of view. Traditional Catholic teaching did not contain the restriction enunciated by Pope John Paul II" .

"The realm of human affairs is a messy one, full of at least apparent inconsistency and incoherence, and the recent teaching of the Catholic Church on capital punishment—vitiated, as I intend to show, by errors of historical fact and interpretation—is no exception.

The Holy Father is obviously invoking the principle of double effect in the passage, for his concern is to deny that the “fatal outcome” is attributable to the self-defender’s intention; accordingly, he cites Part II-II, Question 64, Article 7 of the Summa at this point. Paragraph 56 then begins with the remark, “It is in this context that the question of capital punishment arises.” But this is false, at least historically, for the question was never considered by the Church within that context.

But—and here we return to the interpretive errors of the Catechism —in the case of capital punishment, not even such force is required.

The personal self-defender needs to be forced into performing the lethal action; the soldier, the minister of the judge, and the executioner do not. Since the latter three figures do not necessarily act on the spur of the moment and since, when not so acting, they have various means at their disposal, force (in the sense we have been discussing) cannot be the morally decisive factor. In other words, given their shared context as officers of the law, the principle of double effect as set out by Aquinas cannot apply to them."

Kevin L. Flannery S.J. - Capital Punishment and the Law – 2007 (30 pp)
Ordinary Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University
(Rome); Mary Ann Remick Senior Visiting Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and
Culture (University of Notre Dame).

dudleysharp said...

On such a serious topic as this, it is inappropriate to make such wrongheaded comparisons as living Christians being mauled to death by lions and the execution of guilty murderers.

As the sister knows cheers went up when Obama announced the killing of both bin Laden and Anwar al Awlaki, for which I have seen little consternation.

Plus, I think it reasonable to assume that the cheers for execution had a political context in support of Perry, more than the cheers for dead murderers.

No rebuke in the context of Obama's announcements and cheering.

But with Perry's?

Maybe a little political influence within the criticisms and non criticisms?

Something to consider.

dudleysharp said...


The exoneration claims are a simple and blatant deception, easily uncovered by fact checking, as many have done.

Please review:

5) The 130 (now 138) death row "innocents" scam

These false innocence claims by anti death penalty activists are legendary. Some additonal examples:

4) "The Innocent Executed: Deception & Death Penalty Opponents"

6) Sister Helen Prejean & the death penalty: A Critical Review"

7) "At the Death House Door" Can Rev. Carroll Pickett be trusted?"

8) "Cameron Todd Willingham: Another Media Meltdown", A Collection of Articles

dudleysharp said...

Both EV and the CCC attempt a drastic restriction on the death penalty, which is based upon the secular concern of prison security and its ability to "defend society".

First, this is a prudential judgement for which any good Catholic, with reflection and respect, is free to disagree with and to support an increase in executions, if they find such appropriate.

Secondly, the primary purpose of sanction in Catholic teachings is redress or just retribution - justice if you will.

Thirdly, defense is a secondary outcome of sanction, not the reason for it.

One cannot all but destroy the primary purpose of sanction - justice, by imposing a secondary concern - prison security - to upend it.

Fourth, there is little doubt that justice and the other eternal teachings on this topic far outweigh any secular concerns based upon prison security.

However, it is also assured that executions represent a greater defense of society than does incarceration.

Therefore, the greater moral weight, clearly falls into justice and redress, as do the greater benefits of execution, which protect innocents to a greater degree than incarceration, thus adding to the greater moral weight in favor of executions.

Prudential teachings, while never infallible are, nonetheless, always concerned with morality.

dudleysharp said...


The death penalty as pro life

First, the "pro life" term was, originally, identified with the anti abortion movement, which still seems the most appropriate context.

Secondly, in the context of the facts, yes, of course you can be pro life and pro death penalty. There is no contradiction.

All sanctions are given because we value what is being taken away.

As with CCC 2260: "For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning.... Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image." "This teaching remains necessary for all time."

Whether it be fines, freedom or lives, in every case we take things away, as legal sanction, it is because we value that which is taken away.

How can it be a sanction, if we do not value that which is taken away? It can't.

In addition, more innocent lives are saved when we use the death penalty, thereby a pro life benefit.

1) "The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents"

2) Opponents in capital punishment have blood on their hands, Dennis Prager, 11/29/05,

3) "A Death Penalty Red Herring: The Inanity and Hypocrisy of Perfection", Lester Jackson Ph.D.,

4) "Pope John Paul II: Prudential Judgement and the death penalty"

JMC said...

I agree with those who expressed disappointment with this article. I surely can't be alone in noting that, as horrid as it is made out to be, capital punishment is still supported if it is deemed necessary to keep us safe. Apparently our safety is so important it allows us to use even the most horrible means to achieve it.

The Church based her position on capital punishment (prior to 1995) on the concept of retributive justice, a concept that has not been merely forgotten but positively rejected. We used to believe that the death penalty was appropriate because it was the just punishment for the crime (at least for murder). Now we believe that it is an acceptable tactic if it keeps us safe. This doesn't strike me as a healthy development.

dudleysharp said...


Your analysis is correct.

The current Church problem is that they can't override eternal Church teachings, as to the primary foundation for sanction, and which is, again repeated in the current CCC, as with

2266: "The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation."

Redressing the disorder is equal to justice in Church teaching.

How can the Church so devalue the primary purpose of sanction, justice, by so elevating the secular concern of "defense of society", in an attempt to all but do away with the death penalty, which is based upon that primary purpose, as detailed in Church teachings?

dudleysharp said...

Sister you state and ask:

"There have been 1,268 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Can anyone say the years since them have been made safer?"

Yes, much safer, with many additonal innocents lives spared and protected.

In 1977, when executions were resumed (only 1), the murder rate was 8.8/100,000 and the violent crime rate was 476/100,000.

In 1984, when executions began their steady rise, with two digit executions per year, the murder rate was 7.9, the violent rate was 539.

By 2010, the murder rate was 4.8, the violent crime rate was 403, both down, dramatically.

Between 1965 and 1982, executions were all but, completely, shut down by anti death penalty litigation.

There were 8 executions from 1966-1982, 1 execution every two years.

The murder rate in 1964 was 4.9, in 1982 it was 9.1, an 87% rise.

In 1991, the murder rate was 9.8.

From 1992-2010, there were 1077 executions, or 57 per year. The murder rate dropped 51%, from 9.8 to 4.8.

JMC said...

There is a great deal more to the Catholic position on capital punishment than is implied by characterizing it as mere "political sport." Given that throughout the Church's entire history until the end of the 20th century she had consistently recognized the justness of the punishment and the right of States to impose it, a serious discussion of the issue would be not only beneficial but is necessary. It really is important to try to understand what is being said today in light of what was taught in the past ... because the two are at odds with one another and it is hard to believe they can both be right.

moocowmooyoumoo said...

@Dudley: "First, the 'pro life' term was, originally, identified with the anti abortion movement, which still seems the most appropriate context."

Untrue. The pro-life movement is concerned with all human beings from conception through death. You may wish to have the movement focus on abortion but true pro-lifers (such as myself) understand and fight for the rights of all - and that includes fighting against abortion, child abuse, genocide, suicide, kidnapping, female circumcision, forced membership in any religious group, unjust imprisonment, racism, bigotry, starvation and other problems associated with poverty, and UNJUST EXECUTION.

You may wish to keep the focus on fighting abortion and it is true that the right to life is the basis on which all other rights are built. But the pro-life movement rightfully fights for the rights of all human beings and that includes murderers.