Capital Punishment and Christian Forgiveness

I have a principled objection, more or less, to capital punishment. I say “more or less” because over the years I have wobbled in my certainty.  Like my state, like the nation, and like the Catholic Church, I’ve seesawed on this question, and I am prone to the urge to make an exception to my principle, especially when it comes to certain hard cases.  

Like Dylann Roof.

Throughout his trial for premeditatedly murdering nine African-American parishioners in a Charleston church prayer group, Roof remained not only unrepentant, but adamantly racist. In his jailhouse journal he elaborated his racism in words of cold hatred.  “I would like to make it crystal clear I do not regret what I did,” he wrote. “I am not sorry. I have not shed a tear for the innocent people I killed. I do feel sorry for the innocent white children forced to live in this sick country and I do feel sorry for the innocent white people that are killed daily at the hands of the lower race.”

As the French say, Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner -- to understand is to forgive – and it is possible to discern in the outlines of Roof’s young life a generic family background conducive to trouble, complete with the five D’s of downward mobility; divorce; drugs and drinking; and dropping out. But millions of people possess this background and don’t go around spewing racist ideas, let alone walk into a house of worship and slaughter nine people. And in court Roof aggressively closed off all hope of placing his hateful actions in any kind of mitigating context. “There’s nothing wrong with me psychologically,” he insisted at his sentencing hearing. His refusal to accept the label of disturbed seemed almost like an active clamoring for the label of evil instead, making him almost impossible to forgive – though some of the Christians whose families he decimated have made heroic efforts of faith in order to do just that. The jury had little hesitation in delivering the death penalty, and the judge left little doubt that he concurred, observing that “the jury, acting as the conscience of this community, has assured that [Roof’s] hate, his viciousness and the moral depravity of his crimes will not go unanswered.” The penalty was roundly expected, and roundly received as just and appropriate.

Catholic teaching on this subject has wandered about the map. A meticulous overview was offered by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles in a 2001 McGinley Lecture at Fordham. In his essay, Dulles notes the widespread justification of killings in the Old Testament, then asserts that “in the New Testament the right of the State to put criminals to death seems to be taken for granted,” citing Scripture to conclude that “the early Christians evidently had nothing against the death penalty” and that “no passage in the New Testament disapproves.” He quotes Augustine’s reference to “certain exceptions” to the divine rule of “thou shalt not kill,” and traces the thread forward to Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Innocent III; the Inquisition, the Papal States; and all the way to modern times, in which “venerable authorities” from Thomas More to John Henry Newman agreed.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus of Catholic theologians in favor of capital punishment in extreme cases remained solid, as may be seen from approved textbooks and encyclopedia articles of the day. The Vatican City State from 1929 until 1969 had a penal code that included the death penalty for anyone who might attempt to assassinate the pope.

But the last half century has seen a change, as “a rising chorus of voices in the Catholic community has raised objections to capital punishment.” Such views, Dulles argues, represent a “radical revision—one might almost say reversal—of the Catholic tradition.” He links the growing objection to the death penalty to a decline in traditional Christian belief in eternal life.  “When death came to be understood as the ultimate evil rather than as a stage on the way to eternal life, utilitarian philosophers such as Jeremy Bentham found it easy to dismiss capital punishment as ‘useless annihilation.’” Dulles leaves little doubt that he views such developments warily.

While this change may be viewed as moral progress, it is probably due, in part, to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith. The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel.

And with regard to John Paul’s reasoning in his 1995 Evangelium Vitae, it would be difficult to land more emphatically on an adjective than Dulles does in discussing the Pope’s observation that “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. [emphasis mine.]” Drawing attention to the existence of many non-innocent humans, Dulles concludes that the death penalty is morally and theologically acceptable, and that “the real issue for Catholics is to determine the circumstances under which that penalty ought to be applied.” In the end, various objections such as wrongful executions, whetting inordinate appetites for revenge “may suffice to tip the scale against the use of the death penalty.” Such objections are prudential and situational, Dulles reminds us, and “the doctrine remains what it has been: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes.”

Yet the trend is in the opposite direction; and Dulles, writing fifteen years ago, noted that the US bishops “rather consistently opposed the death penalty” in recent decades.  “The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good.” And he adds that “I personally support this position.” 

But what position was he actually supporting? It might be fair to say that in regard to capital punishment, the magisterium has pushed prudential judgment to the very point of doctrine. Thus John Paul II called the death penalty “both cruel and unnecessary,” writing in Evangelium Vitae that "the cases in which execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'" And Francis, soon after assuming the papacy, reiterated the Holy See’s support for “the abolition of the death penalty,” calling for “a courageous reaffirmation of the conviction that humanity can successfully confront criminality” without resorting to the suppression of life. At a certain point, such restrictions and qualifications practically become doctrine, whether someone like Avery Dulles accepts it or not. At any rate, it is hard to imagine Church teaching going back to the status quo ante.

For my part, one thing I am certain of is that it degrades us morally to celebrate executions. In 2005 I stood in a crowd of people outside the walls of a prison as my state, Connecticut, executed its last inmate (it has since abolished capital punishment), a serial rapist and murderer named Michael Ross.  In a crowd divided between silent protestors and sporadically cheering supporters, a school-aged child carried a sign, “Ross Deserves to be Sauce.” 

I view such sentiments as temptations of evil, akin to the same hateful temptations that seduce the Dylann Roofs in the first place – and they are all the more grotesque when placed in the mouths of babes by opportunistic parents. I still stand by what I wrote at the time, namely, that such brutal sentiments link us to a gruesome tradition of execution as spectacle, and represent a giving-in to a deep and uncivilized satisfaction. I concluded back then that

The seductions of redemptive, retributive violence are profoundly anti-Christian....  The Christian choice, on the other hand  — namely, a vision of God’s love and of the potential for redemption of every human soul — is radical precisely because it can be so profoundly counter-instinctual. The UCC minister urged Jesus’ “ethic of love” over an “ethic of retribution.” Can the ethic of love include a Michael Ross, who raped and murdered little girls for pleasure? The question poses a large challenge.

Is Dylan Roof savable? Can he be loved? He certainly has done everything he can to convince us that the answer is no. “You’re Satan himself, and instead of a heart, you have a cold, dark space,” said the daughter of one of his victims, addressing him in court. That sounds about right to me.

Another victim’s family member reminded us that Christian forgiveness and love may not be a matter of warm feelings, but may be animated by something far fiercer. “You don’t want to look at us,” said Dan Simmons Jr., whose father Dylann Roof murdered, as Roof stared blankly ahead at his sentencing hearing. “I’m going to speak to the spirit that possesses you. Feel the awesome power of the Holy Spirit. It flows like a river that runs with the blood of Jesus Christ. You don’t have to look at me, but I see that spirit. I want you to think about that as I forgive you for your act.”

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

Also by this author
Death of an Old Hand

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Religion
Culture
Culture
Books
Books
Collections
Collections