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Posted in Archbishop Chaput's column, Weekly column from Archbishop Chaput, on September 7th, 2012

Justice, Terrance Williams and the death penalty

Archbishop Charles Chaput

Even when a defendant is well defended, properly tried and justly found guilty, experience shows that capital punishment simply doesn’t work as a deterrent. Nor does it heal or redress any wounds, because only forgiveness can do that.  It does succeed though in answering violence with violence — a violence wrapped in the piety of state approval, which implicates all of us as citizens in the taking of more lives.

Turning away from capital punishment does not diminish our support for the families of murder victims. They bear a terrible burden of grief, and they rightly demand justice. Real murderers deserve punishment; but even properly tried and justly convicted murderers — men and women who are found guilty of heinous crimes — retain their God-given dignity as human beings. When we take a murderer’s life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture, and we demean our own dignity in the process.

Both Scripture and Catholic tradition support the legitimacy of the death penalty under certain limited conditions. But the Church has repeatedly called us to a higher road over the past five decades. We don’t need to kill people to protect society or punish the guilty. And we should never be eager to take anyone’s life. As a result, except in the most extreme circumstances, capital punishment cannot be justified. In developed countries like our own, it should have no place in our public life.

Last month here in Pennsylvania, execution warrants were signed for four men. A judge stayed one of the execution warrants, but the three remaining warrants could potentially result in the first execution in our state in 13 years. One of the cases in which appeals seem to be exhausted involves Terrance Williams.

In October, Williams is scheduled to die by lethal injection for the murder of Amos Norwood in 1984, a crime committed when he was 18 and a college freshman.  Williams is indisputably guilty of the crime. He’s also mentally competent. His defense attorneys argue that he was repeatedly sexually abused as a youth, including five years of abuse at the hands of the man he murdered, and that this helped motivate his violence. The state counters that all of Williams’ claims — including claims of sexual abuse — have had proper judicial review and been rejected.

Terrance Williams deserves punishment. No one disputes that. But he doesn’t need to die to satisfy justice. We should think very carefully in the coming days about the kind of justice we want to witness to our young people.

Most American Catholics, like many of their fellow citizens, support the death penalty. That doesn’t make it right. But it does ensure that the wrong-headed lesson of violence “fixing” the violent among us will be taught to another generation.

As children of God, we’re better than this, and we need to start acting like it. We need to end the death penalty now.

***

The Archbishop strongly encourages readers to contact the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, urging them to recommend commutation of Williams’ sentence to life in prison. Please also contact the Office of the Governor and urge the Governor to accept a clemency recommendation from the board, or, in its absence, to order a temporary reprieve. Use the Catholic Advocacy Network at www.pacatholic.org to send an email to the Board of Pardons and the Governor. Or call or write them at:

Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, 333 Market Street, 15th Floor, Harrisburg, PA 17126; phone: 717.787.2596.

The Honorable Tom Corbett, Governor of Pennsylvania, The Capitol, Harrisburg, PA 17120; phone: 717.787.2500.



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62 Responses

  1. The Achbp says, “Real murderers deserve punishment; but even properly tried and justly convicted murderers — men and women who are found guilty of heinous crimes — retain their God-given dignity as human beings.”

    With all due respect to the Archbishop, who I greatly admire, there are just some crimes that are just so heinous that true justice can only be achieved through the death penalty. Where does it say that it is undignified to be executed through lethal injection in a non-public atmosphere? Considering executions as “undignified” is a modern notion. If the Church wants to make an argument that death penalties are unChristian based on Christ’s “turn the other cheek” then I can see that as logical. Then no punishment could be applied, so the Church can’t make that argument. To say death penalties should be abolished because it takes away dignity from the criminal to me is fallacious. It has never been considered so until modern times. My goodness, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for supposed heresy.

    By: Manny on September 13, 2012 at 3:04 pm

  2. As an employee for the Corrections systems (I won’t say which)and after 24 years of experience I can tell you the ability of inmates to commit untold crimes on each other utilizing homemade weapons I never dreamed possible. With material that is found in everyday use I.E. single sheets of paper and boxer sharts that make a cross bow, a 16oz. plastic bottle turned into a knife. I could go on all day with this. We as corrections officers do everything possible but these men and women are many times just plain evil and are demtermined to do harm to one another and society as a whole. I have run up on too many scenes where somenone has been stabbed to death blood everywhere, and the murderer has gotten away with it because no one is willing to cooperate with us. When prison gangs get there messages out of the prisons using codes we are always attempting to break it begins to feel like we are war, and in a certain way we are. As a former member of the squad I can attest to the covert methods used and the many languages we have had to learn or contact in order to prevent what we can. And when we put them in solitary confinement we are immediately accused of cruel and unuasal punishement. We are taken to court by prison law offices and “do gooder” attorneys that are actually on the payroll of these poor rapists, murderers, and just all around poor guys/gals. No disrespect your Excellency but people like yourselves live in a dream land. Yes I am a loyal member of the Church abiding in all the Church teachs but when I here you say things like this it drives me up the wall and makes my job that much harder because people take your words and begin to project on me as a corrections employee. Wearing a badge anymore seems to make us the enemy in the eyes of too many people that only know of prison from what they see on T.V. So please spare us this lecture when what we need to hear about is the real presence of christ in the Eucharist, the infallabilty of the Holy Father and the important topics like these, especially when so many catholics don’t know these simple topics, including our very own priest. One priest told me the Catholic Church could actually change our official teachings on the subject of faith and morals (he was not joking). If you would like to respond to me please do Your Excellancy, but for now I can not agree with you, not from my experience. Pax Cristi

    By: Todd on September 13, 2012 at 8:01 pm

  3. Abp. Chaput’s article demonstrates why bishops should not use their good offices to take sides on an issue, like the death penalty, where faithful orthodox Catholics can take divergent positions. What bishops like Abp. Chaput, as well most of his brother bishops in the USCCB do is allow themselves to be exploited by the anti-death penalty establishment.

    It is apparent to this observer that he is simply uncritically repeating without any qualification the erroneous and I would say fraudulent claims put forth by the anti death penalty lobby.

    This idea that capital punishment does not deter flies in the face of common sense as well as human nature. After all, the prospect of the more extreme punishment has a deterent effect at least in general. Quite frankly, I am shocked that a Catholic bishop of Abp. Chaput’s stature would dare make such claim. There are numerous credible studies that support the claim that the death penalty does in fact have a deterrent effect. For example there was the AEI/Brookings joint study of 2005 and University of Colorado 2003 and 2006 study show significant deterrent effect, despite its very trauncated application. One of the authors, Naci Mocan, a University of Colorado economics professor of the latter study opposes the death penalty , but acknowledges: “Science does really draw a conclusion. It did. There is no question about it,” “The conclusion is there is a deterrent effect.” “The results are robust, they don’t really go away,” he said. “I oppose the death penalty. But my results show that the death penalty (deters) — what am I going to do, hide them?”

    Even more shocking is this claim “It does succeed though in answering violence with violence — a violence wrapped in the piety of state approval, which implicates all of us as citizens in the taking of more lives.” This at least give the impression of moral equivalence with the crimes committed by murderers. No matter where one stands on the death penalty, such claim is morally untenable.

    I for one am faithful Catholoic who supports the death penalty. not because I have a desire for revenge. I support it because I think it is still needed to protect the common good. I actually disdain teh fact that it is still needed. I wish we didn’t have to do this, but the overwhelming evidence suggests that we still do.

    I would say that on matters such as this, bishops, in their official capacity, need to restrict their statements to the domain of their competence. And that is stating the moral principles within which Catholics must form their views. This would enable them to effectively act as mediators, holding both sides accountable to those principles. But in the approach they presently take, they come off as more ideological than pastoral.

    And I also believe they make even more neccessary the very thing they are trying to abolish.

    By: Greg Mockeridge on September 14, 2012 at 12:04 am

  4. The “Catechism of the Catholic Church, Second Edition” which is from the Magisterium and all Catholics MUST adhere to says:

    CCC – QUOIE ” 2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
    If, however, 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 are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” UNQUOTE.

    Vengence belongs to the Lord, but we are obligated to protect everyone from an unjust aggessor. This includes protecting prison guards and other prisoners.

    Two questions that could be posed to the ARB would be: 1) by not permitting the death penalty, this would be an absolute even to protect the lives of others – yes or no;
    2) all Catholics would be required to recuse themselves from Jury duty in potential death penalty cases, since the question is asked in jury selection. Is this what you want ?

    By: Anna Marie on September 14, 2012 at 7:02 pm

    • The part of the CCC quote that says:

      “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

      is merely a prudential judgment on the efficacy of penal systems, something the Chuirch explicitly denies any competence in determing. Secondly, the “very rare, if not non-existent” is a speculative statement. And authoritative statements by their very nature cannot be couched in speculative terms. If all of what the CCC that you quoted was binding, this statement from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, acting in his official capacity as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in addressing the USCCB in 2004 would make no sense:

      “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.” (Worthiness to Receieve Holy Communion #3 http://www.ewtn.com/library/CURIA/cdfworthycom.htm

      By: Greg Mockeridge on September 19, 2012 at 11:30 pm

  5. How is it possible for a Christian to support the death penalty? And how is it possible for a Christian to want to stop another Christian from stopping a killing? What part of the New Testament did I miss?

    I am stunned at the capacity of self-identified Christians to condone or even promote State-sancioned killing. Maybe Sharia law would be better.

    By: David Neil on September 14, 2012 at 10:22 pm

  6. “Both Scripture and Catholic tradition support the legitimacy of the death penalty under certain limited conditions. But the Church has repeatedly called us to a higher road over the past five decades.” I’m sorry, Your Grace, but to make such a statement, you must have been asleep for the past five decades, which have been marked by utter confusion and heterodoxy in Catholic teaching. Every time an American bishop puts forth the novel idea that the death penalty is immoral, he creates another excuse for American Catholics to vote for pro-abortion politicians. The death penalty is just punishment. It need not have anything to do with deterring crime or even with making society safer, though it does in fact do both. The death penalty is not revenge. It is the absence of just punishments that create a revengeful attitude in the populace.

    By: Dr. Timothy J. Williams on September 15, 2012 at 12:45 pm

  7. The Achbp says, “Real murderers deserve punishment; but even properly tried and justly convicted murderers — men and women who are found guilty of heinous crimes — retain their God-given dignity as human beings.”

    Seattle Catholic had a great article by Pryor on the death penalty years ago that pointed out the problems with this thinking:
    http://seattlecatholic.com/article_20030318.html
    “..The idea that there should be no death penalty because of the dignity of the human person is completely new to Catholic theology. In the Old Testament, God Himself ordered Moses to tell the Israelites that they should condemn to death those who murder (Exodus, Chapter 22, 3). Also, at the words of St. Peter, God struck Anaias and Saphira dead because of their actions (Acts, ch. 5, vs 1-10). St. Thomas also gave many reasons for which the death penalty should be used when the crimes go against the public good, as is the case with murder and heresy. “They deserve not only to be severed from the Church by excommunication, but also severed from the world through death” (Summa, Pt. II-II, Q. 11, Art. 3)..”

    “..It does not appear that Our Lord or the Catholic Church place the same value on the dignity of the human person as do the American Bishops or Roeser when it comes to the death penalty. One important reason for this is that the American Bishops put all their emphasis on the ontological dignity of the human person as opposed to the operative dignity. In other words, the American Bishops believe that one is due particular treatment because of the fact that he is human and not because he operates or behaves in a moral way befitting what God expects of humans. The Church has always taught that when one commits an evil act he looses his operative dignity. This is why God could have told Moses to condemn murderers to death even though they possessed human ontological dignity. People are not rewarded or punished for what they are, but for what they do..”

    By: Seraph on September 15, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    • Seraph – But where and when did God give MAN the right (and capacity/ability) to decide when a fellow human person loses their operative dignity? In the “Moses example” that you referred to, it was God acting.

      By: Deacon Tom on September 17, 2012 at 12:38 pm

  8. This is a humorous exchange since the right wing nuts are being confronted by the Archbishop on a very important issue. The Archbishop recently remarked that the right wing Catholics are “nasty” and I can see why he drew that conclusion. Catholic teaching is Catholic teaching whether a right wing person is discussing abortion or the death penalty. It seems to me that the Church has decided to be more balanced in its approach to controversial issues and as Cardinal Dolan has stated it is true that the Church has alligned with the Republican Party too much (and perhaps this is a contributing factor in the demise of Mass attendance and the low level of priestly vocations).

    By: Robert on September 24, 2012 at 12:14 pm

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