At the death of Pope John Paul II accolades for his teaching and his ministry were legion. Many leading Christian leaders, including Evangelicals, extolled his memory. As a Catholic I was encouraged by this unity among Christians, Catholics and Protestants alike. One of the main reasons for such high praise for Pope John Paul II was his constant and consistent teaching on the dignity of all human life and his challenge to the Culture of Death.
But what about his condemnation of the death penalty? Attempting to weave the seamless garment of a consistent life ethic is difficult business among our Christian neighbors – and even Catholics. One can quote Pope John Paul II on any subject and many Catholics will get teary-eyed, but quote his Saint Louis speech or Evangelium Vitae, which, for all practical purposes, called for an end to the death penalty, and your Christian friends may suddenly look at you as if you are speaking Latin.
I have heard “good Christians” give citations of Genesis 9:6, “... If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed,” and from Deuteronomy, “If a man guilty of a capital offense he is to be put to death.”(Dt. 21:22) Even many Catholics hold this view, and although they often do not cite scripture, they do convey the same idea.
Of course, there are other passages in Exodus that can be cited which call for the death penalty. “Whoever strikes his father or mother shall be put to death” (EX 21:15); “Whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death.” (EX 21:17). “If a man has a stubborn and unruly son who will not listen to his father or mother, and will not obey them even though they chastise him, his father and mother shall have him apprehended and brought out to the elders at the gate of his home city, where they shall say to those city elders, ‘This son of ours is a stubborn and unruly fellow who will not listen to us; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all his fellow citizens shall stone him to death. Thus shall you purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel, on hearing of it, shall fear.” (Exodus 21:18-21) I’d say. Many of us would have been stoned to death years ago.
There are others like it. “You must keep the Sabbath as something sacred. Whoever desecrates it shall be put to death. (EX 31:14). Anyone who does work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.(EX 35:2) According to these strictures, death row should be extremely crowded - or empty. Are there Christians who would seriously consider applying these Scriptures today? I doubt it.
Even if Pope John Paul II and the Roman Catholic Church had not called for a moratorium on the death penalty, the Word of God ought to challenge Christians. St. Paul wrote, “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them...do not repay anyone evil for evil... Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink...do not be conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good” (Rom. 12.20). “Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom 13.9 10). If there can be any justice in exacting pain upon the criminal it ought to be done by our overflowing graciousness and hospitality.
Many Catholics are sincere in their beliefs, but Catholics are not the only ones slow to take up the protest – so are our Bible-Christian brothers and sisters as well. Clearly the punishment of wrongdoers is justified in the Catholic and Christian Tradition, but punishment should also have a medicinal, redemptive purpose. Therefore, must we offer the convicted murderer upon the altar of American justice? How much more ought Christians to love the notorious sinners, those most in need of the Lord’s mercy – and ours? Is not the call of the gospel to love the loveless? Are we not all loveless? St. Paul wrote, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5.8). Therefore, what gives us the right to cast stones? Did not Christ himself say, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone?” (Jn. 8.7)
Many Christians who legitimize their stance on the death penalty also claim as a tenet of their faith that no one is good, “all have fallen short of the glory of God” even the newborn is stained with the effects of Adam’s sin. Therefore those who claim that the convicted murderer deserves death betray an inconsistency in their theology. Christ came to call the sinner – even the most wretched. Was not Christ’s blood enough to cover the sins of murderers?
There is another great irony in this owing to the fact that for many years Protestants condemned the Catholic Church for its complicity in the Inquisition. How many people were put to death for heresy, not to mention other crimes, is still debated. However, as we entered the new millennium, the Pope called upon all Catholics to ask for forgiveness for the sins of the members of the Body of Christ throughout history. He has also asked us to work for the abolishment of the death penalty. As any student of history knows, or should know, the post-Reformation violence and bloodshed in England, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere, did not discriminate between Protestants and Catholics, and those executioners and mercenaries who dealt the lethal blows were Protestant and Catholic alike.
The New Catechism of the Catholic Church, in referring to the death penalty, calls the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity very rare, if not practically non-existent. The U.S. Bishops have called capital punishment “cruel and unnecessary punishment.”
There will be those who argue that in the letters of Saint Paul one will find legitimate authority given to the Christians to execute the criminal in such verses as Romans “Let everyone be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God.
Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves,” (13:1-2) or “For it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer.”(Rom.13:4). Had we literally obeyed that then perhaps slavery would never have been abolished and abortion would never be opposed since both were legally sanctioned.
However, the passage from Paul continues: “Whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.”(Rom. 13:9-10). Or previously in Chapter 12, “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them.... Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” (Vss 14 and17a). Christ said, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mt. 9:13)
Is not the call of the gospel to love the loveless? In the words of the hymn My Song is Love Unknown written by Samuel Grossman in the 1600's, the message of the gospel is clear. My song is love unknown, My Savior’s love to me, love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be. O who am I that for my sake My Lord shall take frail flesh and die? Are we not all loveless? Dare we claim for ourselves moral and spiritual superiority and condone the state sanctioned killing of yet another citizen?
Catholics maintain that we are born in a state of original sin, inherent to each individual, yet Catholics do not claim that human nature is totally corrupted. Suffice it to say my reason for delineating these points of reference is to challenge the position of some pro-lifers who distinguish between innocent life and guilty life. Catholics are called to be pro-life across the board, from the moment of conception until natural death, be it innocent or guilty life.
Christian pro-lifers who claim that the babies eliminated by choice are innocent and the convicted murderers are guilty, deserving of death, betray an inconsistency in their own theology. Christ came to call the sinner – even the most wretched. Was not Christ’s blood enough to cover the sins of murderers?
However, the execution of the guilty party removes his opportunity for conversion and repentance, or in the least, cuts the time short. And the decision to execute belies the tenet of faith that holds that no one is beyond the scope of God’s mercy.
I have been told “sin is sin” when I have tried to differentiate between venial and mortal sin. Yet if sin is sin, then why are some sins so grave that we must call for the death of the sinner? Did not God say in Ezekiel “I do not desire the death of the sinner”? Why then do we?
Christ came to call the sinner, even the most wretched! Christ Jesus was pro-guilty life, thank God! Christ Jesus was for Barabbas, who, though guilty, He took the guilty man’s place. Of course, we recognize ourselves in Barabbas.
During his ministry, how did Jesus respond to those who were guilty of a capital crime? One of his opening salvos in the Sermon on the Mount, was Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. We must show mercy to even the worst sinner, even ourselves. Later in the same chapter, (5:21-22, 25-26) "You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.' But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, 'Raqa,'...and whoever says, 'You fool,' will be liable to fiery Gehenna.”
Christ taught us that we must love our enemies, not that it would be a good idea, but that we must love them. It is a mandate from the Lord himself. It is a difficult one to hear let alone heed. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt 5:43-48).
In the Hebrew Scriptures, When Cain slew Abel, the LORD asked Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" He answered, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?" The LORD then said: "What have you done! Listen: your brother's blood cries out to me from the soil.... You shall become a restless wanderer on the earth." Cain said to the LORD: "My punishment is too great to bear...anyone may kill me at sight." "Not so!" the LORD said to him. "If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold." (Genesis 4:9-15)
The Word of the Lord came to Ezekiel, “As I live, says the Lord GOD, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man's conversion, that he may live.” (EZ. 33:11)
Returning then to the New Testament, in Matthew, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”(Mt. 6:14-15). Or "Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Mt 7:1-2)
The gospel of Luke offers the same words, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven.”(Lk. 6:36-37). We must recall that “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.” (Lk. 19.10) Is it not our task to carry on the work of the Lord? Did not Christ say that we are to raise the dead, not add to the killing?
Jesus said, "Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful," and "The Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost." What about the good shepherd of Matthew 18? Christ did not give us an exception to the rule ‘love thy neighbor.’ Otherwise, the Good Shepherd would have remained with the loyal ninety-nine sheep and let the one lost one plummet over the edge of the cliff to its death.
What about forgiveness, mercy, reconciliation? The Christian journey teaches us to love those especially difficult to love. In one of the Catholic prayers associated with the rosary, one of the lines reads, “...lead all souls to heaven, especially those in most in need of mercy.” What better example than those who have taken the life of another.
The Lord Jesus said, ‘forgive as I have forgiven you. If you do not forgive others their offenses committed against you, I will not forgive you your offenses against me?’ No man, by killing another, can restore the deceased to life, nor bring about any happiness in this world or the next; only an injustice and an assault upon the law of charity.
Mother Teresa said and wrote that we are called to love those in the world, those in our midst who is the most unlovable. In another of her famous quotes, she reminded us that it hurt Jesus to love us. Therefore we must also love our neighbor until it hurts. As Christians, we ought to apply these teachings of Christ to our understanding of capital punishment. The prisoners upon death row, both the guilty and the wrongly convicted, must be afforded the dignity of a human beings created in the image and likeness of God.
Until now we have yet to see Christ face to face with someone guilty of a crime punishable by death. In John 8. 3-11, the famous story dealing with the Woman Caught in the very act of Adultery places us there. “The scribes brought a woman to Jesus, saying, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” When Jesus answered them he said, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” In response, they went away one by one. Left alone with the woman, Jesus did not condemn her, but told her: “Go, and sin no more.” Jesus dismisses the woman and He is caught in the very act of mercy.
In Luke’s Passion narrative, Jesus himself is a victim to the state-sanctioned death penalty. Archbishop Fulton Sheen referred to the so-called “good thief” to Christ’s right as the thief who stole paradise. He is the only person in all of the gospels promised paradise on the spot. Imagine it: a convicted felon, dying upon the gibbet of the cross – the equivalent of the electric chair under the Roman Empire – is the first person to be promised paradise, and all on his execution day! What does this say to us as we whisk the inmates off hogtied to a gurney dispatching them to the netherworld?
Finally, let us recall the last parable Christ spoke in the Gospel of Matthew 25, “…the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me… Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least ones of mine, you did for me.' (Mt. 25.31-46) Jesus did not say “when I was in prison you executed me!” Jesus did not say, “Deprive the prisoner of his life because of his heinous crime and the exorbitant costs of maintaining him as an inmate.” Jesus said when I was in prison, you visited me. Christ’s words should be enough, but no treatise on this issue would be complete without consulting the Apostle Paul, he himself executed by the state for his subversive views, and Saint John, exiled to the Isle of Patmos for his. ( St. Paul’s letter to the Romans was quoted above).
In John’s first epistle, “Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness”(1 Jn 2:9). “In this way the love of God was revealed to us: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him. In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also must love one another....There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment, and so one who fears is not yet perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, "I love God," but hates his brother, he is a liar; for whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 Jn. 4:9-11, 18-20).
In conclusion, therefore, let us cast away our fear of loving the unlovable. Let us abandon ourselves to mercy and seek to love as God loves. May all faithful Catholics and faithful Christians, work to abolish the death penalty in the name of Christ, the Prince of Peace! Let us remember that the merciful are blessed and whatsoever we do to the least ones in our midst, we do to Christ!
The Christian journey teaches us to love and forgive those especially difficult to love. Even murderers must be afforded the dignity of human beings created in the image and likeness of God and redeemed by the Precious Blood of the Lamb of God.
However, the execution of the guilty party removes or shortens his opportunity for conversion and repentance, or in the least, it cuts the time short. Execution also seems to deny that God is capable of forgiving all sin. And Capital Punishment can neither restore the victim’s life nor lessen the grief and pain of the survivors. Only mercy and love can uplift and assuage grief. We must stand with victims of crime –including the children of those who are incarcerated. “We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals…The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life” (US Bishops 1999).
As the US bishops have written, “The antidote to violence is love, not more violence.” Pope John Paul II wrote, “…a sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform” (Evangelium Vitae, 27).
Jesus said, love your enemies not execute your enemies. We must challenge political thinking in order to change hearts. The scaffold is still dripping blood and the scarlet blade is still poised to execute justice. For those who quote the Hebrew Scriptures in support of the death penalty, the Lord is clear in Ezekiel, "As I live, I do not desire the death of the sinner but that he turn back to me and live. Do I derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live? (Ezek. 18.23,32)."
The United States is the only Western industrialized nation today that utilizes capital punishment. Increasingly the bishops have spoken out against its use, and Pope John Paul II and individual bishops have sought clemency for persons scheduled to be executed. There are forceful reasons for opposing capital punishment—its utter inhumanity and its complete irreversibility, as well as concern about its discriminatory use and an imperfect legal system that has sentenced innocent people to death. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “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” (CCC 2267).
Executing the guilty does not honor victims, nor does it uplift the living or even assuage their pain – only love and forgiveness can do that. State-sanctioned killing affects us all because it diminishes the value of all human life. Capital punishment also cuts short the guilty person's opportunity for spiritual conversion and repentance. The consequences of widespread loss of respect for the dignity of human life—seen in pervasive violence, toleration of abortion, and increasingly vocal support for assisted suicide and research that destroys human embryos—make it all the more urgent to reject lethal punishment and uphold the inviolability of every human life. “Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others” (Living the Gospel of Life, no. 22). Thus we are called to extend God's love to all human beings created in his image, including those convicted of serious crimes. In so doing, we can help to make "unconditional respect for life the foundation of a new society" (The Gospel of Life, no. 77).
The author, Victor Hugo, an avid abolitionist of the death penalty in the Nineteenth Century, wrote the following words in his novel Les Misérables concerning a convicted murderer placed upon the scaffold of the guillotine.
“He whom man kills God restores to life. He whom his brothers drive away finds the Father....We may be indifferent to the death penalty and not declare ourselves either way so long as we have not seen a guillotine with our own eyes. But when we do, the shock is violent, and we are compelled to choose sides, for or against. Some admire it, others loathe it. The guillotine is the law made concrete; it is called the Avenger. It is not neutral and does not permit you to remain neutral....I didn't believe it could be so monstrous...Death belongs to God alone. By what right do men touch that unknown thing?”
Hugo prayed that one day criminals “that were once scourged with anger shall be bathed with love. The Cross shall replace the gallows.”
Let us pray.
It is time to abolish the death penalty. Let us pursue justice without vengeance, and build a culture of life where we will be so committed to the dignity of human life that we will not sanction the killing of any human person for any reason.