I would like to thank you for the two fine pieces on capital punishment: “Sr. Helen Prejean on Francis & the Death Penalty,” an interview with Sr. Prejean by John Gehring (September 7) and “Both Prudential and Indisputable” by Cathleen Kaveny (September 21). Both build on Pope Francis’s decision to alter the position taken in the Catechism. I do not wish to take issue with what these authors are saying from their respective positions—religious journalist, minister to prisoners, professor of law and theology, and bishop of Rome. They articulate church teaching on an issue that has provoked theological reflection and a search for moral justification from apostolic times on. I would simply like to add a pair of footnotes to an admirable discussion.

I was involved in the preparation of the U.S. bishops’ statement on capital punishment in 1981. The bishops had voted to oppose capital punishment, but were unable to agree on a rationale for doing so. Church leadership was holding a conclusion that was not closely connected to clearly recognized and agreed-upon premises. The instruction given for the preparation of the draft statement was that no principles of Catholic moral theology were to be altered. In the early 1980s, this required considerable care and restraint, because these principles were being attacked and defended quite vigorously within the church. The position eventually adopted was highly contextualist. The draft maintained that the political and legal situation had changed in such ways that capital punishment was no longer necessary for public order, and so was unjustifiable. Context was decisive, not the nature of the act. This left both sides of the discussion dissatisfied, not with the conclusion reached, but with the premises and methods relied upon to reach the conclusion.

One element in the older approach to this topic, an element that was present in the Catechism, was the affirmation that even if capital punishment were to be disallowed, the state would retain the right to put criminals and rebels to death. This is a theme that, fortunately, has disappeared from more recent discussions. Anyone who witnessed the enthusiasm that many twentieth-century regimes brought to the slaughter of thousands of their citizens might well think it dangerous to affirm such a right, which is only too likely to be misused in severe internal conflicts. What has taken its place, not so much in theoretical discussions but in the practice of the courtroom, is an emphasis on “the rights of victims.”

This move confers a certain rhetorical and emotional edge to the prosecution, and invites jurors and the general public to compare the value of the life of the victim to the life of the defendant, very much to the disadvantage of the latter. The accused in murder trials can be made to seem to be monsters of depravity, and establishing the innocence of the accused can be especially difficult. It is in this area that the work of Sister Helen Prejean has been particularly valuable, in showing the public (both religious and non-religious) the value of the lives of convicts and criminals. This is a profoundly Christian approach. It puts before us the life of each and every person, who is the object of God’s love and mercy and, we may hope, of our love and forgiveness as well. 

John Langan, SJ
Colombiere Jesuit Community
Baltimore, Md.

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Published in the December 1, 2018 issue: View Contents
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