The Death Penalty

The Deacon and I discussed this last week on the way back from the Abbey at Gethsemani… He made the leap a while back and I am just now coming to this position.

I am no longer for the death penalty in the United States.

For those that know me well, this is a major sea change. I used to be all for the application of the DP in cases of heinous crimes and/or those who were totally depraved and unrepentant. I saw it as an issue of justice. Now I see it as an application of vengeance.

I came to this change of heart based on the teachings of the Church and the Pope. While the Church allows that the application of the DP is responsibility of the secular rulers, she also recognizes that in a modern society there should be almost no cases of the actual use of the DP. The reasoning is that society can be protected from the most heinous of criminals by lifelong incarceration. The application of mercy and forgiveness, though not the alleviation of responsibility, is the proper Christian attitude.

This was a hard change of heart for me. I have always been totally convinced of my principles and convictions in my life. I knew what was right and wrong. Or so I thought… I had a similar time swallowing my pride in becoming Catholic. I don’t speak of this in detail often, but it was probably the hardest internal struggle I had in the process. I had to give up control of my life and submit not only to Christ but His Church. In doing that, I had to go back on all the times I said or thought that I would never become Catholic. Bear in mind that I held that position not because I thought the Church was evil or bad, but rather that I didn’t see the meaning in the rituals and the ceremonies. I felt excluded during the Mass. To admit I was wrong was to let go of my pride.

That’s hard to do.

I had to do it again for the DP. I was sure that execution was moral because it was the killing of the guilty to protect the innocent. It’s different from abortion because one is the murder of innocent life for the convenience of a few, while the DP is the killing of a guilty one to protect the many. The Commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is more properly translated as “Thou shalt not murder” after all.

In reading the Catechism and the statements of the Pope, I came to change my mind about this at least for modern societies. In a country or place where it is impossible to incarcerate someone for life or until they truly are no longer a danger, it may be necessary to have capital punishment. I believe that would be permissible to the Church, though with much grief.

For example… What if you have a tribal community where a murder is committed by an individual? He is caught but they have no means to hold him. They punish by torture or scourging or some other means. Then he does it again. He clearly is a recurring danger to community. They can’t expel him, because that doesn’t necessarily eliminate the threat. It seems they must either construct a permanent means of keeping him alive but isolated or kill him. The former is probably not possible. So they opt for capital punishment. Is this permissible? Seems so to me, because they don’t seem to have other means of protecting themselves.

That is not true in modern cultures. We have prisons and the means. The only problem I have is that prisons are not always corrective, nor are they a means to protect the rest of the population. Prisoners are often taught how to be better criminals in prison. Worse crimes are learned and committed in prison. Often they get free access to advanced education and legal services that the general populace does not. They often have way more leisure activities than would seem prudent.

To me prison must be a horrible place. No torture, but I would like to see a return of hard labor and/or chain gangs. Prisoners should have minimal opportunities to pass on skills of the trade as it were. There should be little in the way of “fun” activities. I have no problem with teaching them basic reading and math skills necessary to function in the real world. In fact, these should be mandatory. I have no problem with access to certain types of reading materials and access to workshops to teach a trade or skill useful to society. They should have access to the religion of their choice. No TV. No movies. No radio. No music.

Some will say this is cruel. But prison is supposed to be a bad place. It’s not a place to hold hands and sing folk songs. It a secular place to repent of wrongs and turn your life around. It’s an extremely Christian concept in reality.


  1. HeathenBoy

    Interesting. We’ll have to talk some more on this, and I’ll have to give you 3 a fair shot at persuading me. However, I don’t think at this point DP is used for vengeance. Certainly that would be hard for anyone, religious or not, to defend. I would like to be sure the depraved and unrepentant, not to mention the totally sociopathic, have no chance to escape “lifetime incarceration”, either through their own efforts at escape or through laws that mean that “lifetime” = 20 years or less (or more). Lifetime should mean just that, you leave in a box. Heathen sentiments I know, forgiveness can be difficult.

  2. Fric

    I look forward to that discussion. I figured it was coming eventually… šŸ™‚ I would disagree though that the DP is not used as a means of vengeance in this country. I guess it depends on the wording you use, but I would say that it’s still vengeance. The reasoning is that the most heinous crimes deserve the DP. We often use the testimony of the victims/survivors to get harsher penalties. When you draw the emotional responses out, it’s no longer a matter of appropriate punishment. That said, I agree that lifetime incarceration needs to be just that, lifetime. And a hard lifetime at that.

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