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Diocese of Springfield - Cape Girardeau at 601 South Jefferson Ave., Springfield, MO 65806-3143 US - Church Opposes Death Penalty January 16, 2009

Church Opposes Death Penalty
January 16, 2009

"The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."
—1 Tim 1:15

In her well-known autobiography The Story of a Soul, St. Therese of Lisieux recounts an episode in her life in which she became aware of a condemned prisoner named Henri Pranzini. Pranzini was on death row for murdering two women and a little girl. Young Therese understood God’s will for her as follows: “Everything pointed to the fact that he would die impenitent. I wanted at all costs to prevent him from falling into hell, and to attain my purpose I employed every means imaginable. Feeling that of myself I could do nothing, I offered to God all the infinite merits of our Lord, the treasures of the Church, and finally I begged to have a Mass offered for my intentions.”

St. Therese, the “Little Flower,” had absolute confidence in the mercy of Jesus. She told the Lord in prayer that while she was confident, for her own consolation she wanted the favor of a sign of the man’s conversion. She noted the following as the Lord’s response, “The day after his execution I found the newspaper … I opened it quickly and what did I see? Ah! My tears betrayed my emotion … [Pranzini] had mounted the scaffold and was preparing to place his head in the formidable opening, when suddenly, seized by an inspiration, he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over 99 just who have no need of repentance!”

I often recall this episode of St. Therese when discussions are raised about the death penalty. It is important to note that among the reasons for Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty is the Christian hope for the criminal’s repentance and as the Little Flower puts it, “to prevent him from falling into hell.” While this is one, if not the most important reason for opposing the death penalty, there are other reasons, some theological and some practical.


Church teaching

First, it needs to be noted that the death penalty is not in the same category of “life issues” as for example abortion, euthanasia, and destruction of human embryos for research. The main distinction is that with the death penalty, one is faced with a presumably non-innocent person (in this instance, an aggressor), whereas with abortion, euthanasia, and human embryos, one is faced with innocent human lives. With regard to innocent human lives, one is never under any circumstances permitted to deliberately kill them. This is what is meant when the term “intrinsically evil” is used. It means that there are never any circumstances whatsoever that would permit one to deliberately take the life of an innocent human being, including those who have not yet been born.

However, with non-innocent human life, there might conceivably be instances when one is permitted out of legitimate self-defense to kill an aggressor. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, explains it this way: “The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing. ‘The act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one’s own life; and the killing of the aggressor … The one is intended, the other is not’” (CCC, 2263). In effect, one can and often must stop an aggressor out of the obligation to defend one’s own life or others’ lives, even to the point of killing the aggressor, which ultimately is not desired. The catechism continues, “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm” (CCC, 2265).

In the first half of America’s history, when there were vast areas of uncivilized frontier and there were few if any prisons (aptly named the “Wild West”), the death penalty might have been justified given society’s legitimate right to self defense. This is why “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” (CCC, 2267). This might still be the case in parts of the underdeveloped world. However, in present-day America and most other developed countries, there are means to self defense that do not require the death penalty. Societies can be protected and criminals can pay the debt for their crimes through punishment that is “medicinal,” in that it contributes to the correction of the guilty party.

Summarizing the current state of the issue in nations like our own, the catechism notes: “If … 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’” (CCC, 2267). Note that nowhere is capital punishment permitted for vengeance, neither individual nor societal.

Added to these moral-theological reasons are others which are compelling: the very real chance that one might execute an innocent person who was wrongly-convicted, the disproportionate application of capital punishment on the poor and minorities, etc.

Unfortunately, Missouri ranks as one of the states with the most executions in the past few decades. I urge all Catholics in southern Missouri to support a moratorium on the death penalty in our state. It is a first step. In the meantime, we can also imitate the pure and merciful model of St. Therese and pray for the conversion of poor hardened sinners, like Henri Pranzini. And we can recall that our Lord himself died by capital punishment, an innocent man who was wrongly condemned.

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