Francis & the Death Penalty

Should a Pope Change Church Teaching on His Own?
Pope Francis speaks against the death penalty at the Vatican in October 2017 (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Pope Francis has called for the abolition of capital punishment, and changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church to reflect that development in church teaching. In that light, I must admit to somewhat retrograde views on the moral legitimacy of the death penalty. I am in all likelihood wrong about this, but I have my reasons. First, my wife’s parents were Holocaust survivors, and the execution of Nazi war criminals hardly seemed unjustified or immoral to me. Years ago, I read Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, and found her careful, tempered, but resolute argument for Eichmann’s execution convincing. The modern world, she wrote, “refuses and considers as barbaric the propositions ‘that a great crime offends nature, so that the very earth cries out for vengeance; that evil violates a natural harmony which only retribution can restore; that a wronged collectivity owes a duty to the moral order to punish the criminal’ (Yosal Rogat). And yet I think it is undeniable that it was precisely on the ground of these long-forgotten propositions that Eichmann was brought to justice to begin with, and that were, in fact, the supreme justification of the death penalty.” Until very recently, of course, the long-forgotten propositions Arendt refers to were how the church also justified the death penalty.

Second, as an editorial writer for The Day, a newspaper in New London, Connecticut, I attended the trial of a murderer named Jerry Daniels. Daniels had committed a heinous crime. He attacked a young woman he did not know, waking her three-year-old daughter. When the child cried out, he slit the child’s throat. He then raped the woman before stabbing her to death. The photographs of the crime scene were horrendous. Daniels himself showed no remorse in court. I was appalled and disoriented by the senselessness and brutality of the killings. Daniels’s guilt was never in doubt. I was forced to ask myself what I would do if I had been on the jury. Somehow life in prison didn’t seem commensurate with the enormity of the crime. It was Daniels’s abusive childhood that took center stage during the trial, while the victims’ lives became almost abstractions. Daniels was there in the flesh, while his victims had been silenced by his acts. In judging Daniels, I thought the community somehow had to find a way to speak for the innocent dead and to restore “the moral order.” 

I subsequently had a more intimate encounter with another murderer. It is not unusual for Commonweal to get submissions from people in prison. Convicted rapists, pedophiles, and killers send us their writing. A few years after I started at Commonweal, a well-written article was submitted by the serial killer and rapist Michael Ross, a Cornell graduate. Ross was on death row in Connecticut. In the article, he argued that because of the lengthy appeals process, implementing the death penalty “would never be cheap.” Sentencing killers to life imprisonment makes much better sense for taxpayers, he wrote. According to Ross, doing away with the death penalty meant that government could devote more resources to combating “the seemingly uncontrollable plague of crime that our country is currently experiencing.” As for Ross himself, he had no qualms about “running up the cost” to taxpayers to keep himself alive. “But every dollar spent to assure my death…means a dollar less toward the funding of more police, more prison cells, neighborhood watch programs, or toward any of the other programs aimed at reducing crime.”

It is pretty creepy to get an angry letter from a serial killer, and I chose not to continue the correspondence. It is my understanding that Ross found better and more sympathetic Catholics in the prison ministry.

I was familiar with Ross’s crimes, since he carried out his killing spree in Eastern Connecticut and my newspaper had extensively covered the murders. I thought Ross’s article was smug, disingenuous, and even cruel—that it reduced the grave moral questions surrounding the punishment of murderers to the mere calculation of dollars and cents. We decided not to publish the piece.

Imagine my surprise when Ross’s article subsequently appeared in America.  

I felt compelled to write a letter to the editors of America, which they graciously published. In the letter I expressed dismay that anyone should give credence to Ross’s argument. I then noted that Ross had failed to disclose the facts concerning his own contribution to the plague of crime he publicly lamented. “If we have to read Ross’s pathetic attempts to be clever,” I wrote, “we can at least remember who his victims were.” I then listed the names and ages of the six young women—two were just fourteen years old—he was convicted of raping and strangling. In my letter I acknowledged that capital punishment is a difficult moral question, but I urged readers to consider “what the families of the young women Ross killed must feel when they see his name in print and detect the shamelessness of his anti-crime rhetoric.”

Not long after my letter appeared in America, I received a letter with a return address neatly printed in ink on the front of the envelope. It read: Michael Ross #127404, Northern Correctional Institution, P.O. Box #665, Somers, CT 06071.

It was not a fan letter. His very short note was affixed to a copy of another article he had written on the death penalty. “You don’t know me,” he wrote in part, “and like most people, you haven’t got a clue as to what type of person I really am. You are blinded by your hatred of me.”

It is pretty creepy to get an angry letter from a serial killer, and I chose not to continue the correspondence. It is my understanding that Ross found better and more sympathetic Catholics in the prison ministry. Ross eventually decided not to extend the appeals process and actually demanded to be executed. He was put to death in 2005.

 

At the end of the day, I don’t know what to think about the morality of the death penalty. As a matter of practice, I can oppose it. The judicial system is too flawed, too prone to egregious error, too racially biased, to justify its use. As a strictly moral question, I’m ambivalent. I guess I still think that for some crimes, the earth does cry out for the ultimate penalty. Life in prison, often in solitary confinement, is not much more humane than capital punishment. Some critics consider it a form of torture. I suspect it is. And some murderers kill again in prison. I don’t think opposing the death penalty gets any of us off the hook. As citizens, we cannot avoid the responsibility of judgment. At least some killers will kill again, and the inhumanity of the prison system kills as well. Or as the Catholic philosopher Herbert McCabe wrote in discussing a different moral dilemma, “Both sides are obviously right and so the argument continues.” (David Bentley Hart has made a fierce theological case against capital punishment, one with which some of the greatest Catholic theologians in the tradition would certainly disagree. See “Christians & the Death Penalty,” November 16, 2017).

Pope Francis, expanding on the abolitionist instincts of John Paul II, has now judged the death penalty to be “inadmissible” because “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” But of course the church’s traditional teaching was not a denial of the “dignity” of those subject to the death penalty. An essential aspect of human dignity is being held to account for one’s crimes. Many (though not all) “conservative” Catholics have predictably railed against Francis’s actions, arguing that it contradicts the church’s unwavering tradition on this issue and is thus in grave error. Most “liberal” Catholics have applauded it. I don’t doubt that church teaching can change (see “A Precarious Unity?” May 4), but I do think how change takes place is as important as the change itself. I don’t know why so-called liberal Catholics want to embrace change by papal fiat, which is usually a mode of authority more traditionalist Catholics like to celebrate. But no matter how you look at it, calling for the abolition of the death penalty is a significant “development” of church doctrine. Since that’s the case, wouldn’t it be better—more collegial, more attentive to concerns about the continuity of church teaching—if this reform were brought about by an ecumenical council rather than by papal decree?

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer. He is working on a book titled Why Do I Go to Church?

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