In June of 1997 Timothy McVeigh was sentenced to death for bombing the Alfred T. Murah building in Oklahoma City. One hundred and sixty eight innocent people were killed. Nineteen of the dead were small children who were in the day care center on the second floor. Timothy McVeigh’s actions were, by any standard, horrific. If anyone was deserving of the death penalty it was surely he.
As a Catholic apologist my job is to demonstrate the truth. Feelings and emotions have no part in the process. If they did I never would have had my appendix out. I also wouldn’t be here to write this. The truth is determined by facts and facts alone
At the time of the Oklahoma City bombing I was very much in favor of the death penalty. I hadn’t given it much thought. It just seemed right. A friend who was of the same mind asked me how we could defend the use of capital punishment. I approached the subject from every angle that I could think of. But no matter what I tried, I couldn’t come up with an airtight case. There was always some unanswered question. It began to dawn on me that the death penalty couldn’t be intellectually defended, at least not in the majority of cases.
From an emotional standpoint it was easy; he’s human debris, fry him. But as I’ve already noted, emotions are not very reliable when it comes to determining the truth. Rational thought is the only reasonable course of action. Being unable to come up with a rational defense for the death penalty troubled me. I had been a proponent of capital punishment for many years. How could I have been so wrong for so long? It was obvious that I would have to change my position. Intellectual honesty demanded it.
The whole experience left me a bit conflicted. I was now intellectually opposed to the death penalty, but somehow it didn’t bother me when someone was executed. Something deep down inside of me still said they deserved it. I made no effort to resolve my inner conflict. Perhaps I was subconsciously trying to have it both ways. In any event, that is the way I left it for the next eight years.
In January of 2005 the case of Michael Ross was in the news. Michael Ross was convicted of the rape and murder of eight women and girls back in the 1980s. It didn’t take long for me to be drawn into a discussion on capital punishment. So I decided to pick up where I left off years earlier. It was time to get my intellect and emotions on the same page.
Back in 1997 I tried to defend the death penalty and came up short. This time I decided to make the case against the death penalty. As I was beginning my little project, I overheard a conversation between two Catholics. One man said to the other: “Do you know that the priest wanted us to sign something against the death penalty yesterday?” The other man said: “Yes that was a petition from the bishop, we had it at our church too. He ought to stay out of this stuff and mind his own business.”
The last comment made me chuckle. Saying the death penalty isn’t the bishop's business is like saying a chef shouldn’t comment on matters concerning food. You may choose to disagree with the bishop, but you certainly couldn’t claim that the death penalty is none of his business. The Church was commissioned by Christ to teach on matters of faith and morals. Whether or not to take someone’s life undoubtedly qualifies. If the Church chose to be silent on this issue she would be neglecting her mission.
The primary teacher in any diocese is the bishop. As a successor to the apostles it is his job to communicate the Church’s mind on any given subject. The bishop’s stand on the death penalty did not come out of thin air but from a deep understanding of the Christian faith. Pope John Paul II wrote the following in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life):
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”
Before you think “that’s easy for him to say”, keep in mind that he forgave and embraced the man who shot and wounded him in a murder attempt.
The Church sanctions the death penalty only in extreme cases. This makes perfect sense and is in line with well-known Christian principles. You can kill someone in self defense or to stop him from killing someone else. In a country like the United States, we have the means to lock murderers away securely for life. Thus, killing them becomes unnecessary. The death penalty can only be morally used in a case where it is not possible to securely lock someone up who is a threat to society.
There are those who think that if we don’t kill people like Timothy McVeigh and Michael Ross they will be getting away with something. Others want them dead out of revenge. Paul addresses both of these mindsets in Romans 12:19: “Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, ‘vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”
So God doesn’t want us to seek revenge and He assures us that He will avenge any wrongdoing. I began to realize that unless God was lying I didn’t have to worry about anybody getting away with anything. It was becoming pretty obvious that I needed to change my attitude as well as my opinion.
In an effort to convince me that capital punishment was a good thing a friend asked: “But how would you feel if it was your daughter that was raped and killed?” I don’t think I would feel any differently than any one else. I would probably want to kill the person responsible with my own hands. But my feelings wouldn’t change what God said in Romans 12. As with so much of Christianity, trusting God in a situation like this requires a dying to self. I would hope that I would eventually be open to God’s grace. Grace enables us to be the people that God wants us to be. It helps us to let go of our bitterness and to trust Him.
These are not just pious words. A number of people who had lost family members in the Murah building were publicly opposed to Timothy McVeigh’s execution. Some were members of an organization called Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation. Their stated mission is to abolish the death penalty. As the name implies, this is an organization of families who have suffered the loss of a loved one through murder.
Whenever the death penalty is discussed a very important point is often overlooked. Those in favor have a tendency to focus on the high profile cases like Michael Ross or Timothy McVeigh. Because there is no doubt about their guilt, people feel confident in their support of the death penalty. They tend to forget that the death penalty is there for all of the other people on death row as well. Many of their cases are not so clear cut. In fact we know that some have been wrongly convicted. Subsequent evidence or a confession by the real killer has set a number of Death Row inmates free. The American Bar Association reported that in a four-year period, seventeen Death Row inmates had been found innocent and freed. I believe it is reasonable to assume that innocent men and women have been executed. Perhaps I should ask my friend how he would feel if his daughter were wrongly executed.
From a financial standpoint, abolishing the death penalty would save a great deal of money. A Duke University study found that: "The death penalty costs North Carolina $2.16 million per execution over the costs of a non-death penalty murder case with a sentence of imprisonment for life." (The Costs of Processing Murder Cases in North Carolina / Philip J. Cook, Donna B. Slawson ; with the assistance of Lori A. Gries. [Durham, NC] : Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University, 1993.)
A 1991 study of the Texas criminal justice system estimated the cost of appealing capital murder at $2,316,655. In contrast, the cost of housing a prisoner in a Texas maximum security prison single cell for 40 years is estimated at $750,000. (Punishment and the Death Penalty, edited by Robert M. Baird and Stuart E. Rosenbaum 1995 p.109 )
Florida spent an estimated $57 million on the death penalty from 1973 to 1988 to achieve 18 executions - that is an average of $3.2 million per execution. (Miami Herald, July 10, 1988). On average it costs about 2 million dollars more to execute someone than to imprison them for life.
In the final analysis we are left with two important questions: Should we as a society risk putting innocent men and women to death? And, can we as Christians ignore the clear Word of God?
Reprinted with express written consent from www.CatholicMatch.com
Sebastian Fama is a Catholic Apologist and the creator of StayCatholic.com
1. Sebastian (point) 2. Kevin (counter-point) 3. Sebastian (rebuttal)