Father Gus Puleo

Convicted killer Terrance Williams came close to being executed in the state of Pennsylvania in October 2012. He was found guilty of the murder of Amos Norwood in 1984 and sentenced to death by lethal injection.

At the last minute the Pennsylvania Supreme Court refused a request by the prosecution to carry out this sentence in order to review the earlier ruling by Pennsylvania Common Pleas Court Judge M. Teresa Sarmina. She had determined that the case and the verdict had been compromised by new evidence that had been withheld by the prosecution, revealing that Williams had been sexually molested by his victim.

Capital punishment, or the death penalty, is the execution of criminals for grave crimes.  Today 61 percent of all Americans support the death penalty. Most American Catholics, like many of their fellow citizens, support capital punishment. Considering all types of punishment, this is the most repressive and dehumanizing penalty to impose.

That people continue to be put to death under the control of state governments and courts of the United States is indicative on how we, as a nation and Christians, view human rights and even life itself.

In recent years the Catholic magisterium has become increasingly more vocal against capital punishment. Pope John Paul II had rejected the death penalty at various times during his pontificate. In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae the pontiff asked governments to stop applying the death penalty in cases of crime since those instances where its application is necessary to protect society are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

The United States ranks high on the list of countries that impose the death penalty. While China led the list of countries that executes criminals, Iran, North Korea, Yemen, the United States, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria, Bangladesh and Somalia also made the list of top-ten executioners worldwide.   

“The implementation of the death penalty plunges us deeper into the culture of death. It is the responsibility of the Church to provide a community of support, faith and trust in which God’s grace can heal the personal and spiritual wounds caused by crime and in which we can all grow by sharing one another’s burdens and sorrows.”

In 1999 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement calling for the end of the death penalty in the United States: “On this Good Friday, a day when we recall our Savior’s own execution, we appeal to all people of good will, especially Catholics, to work to end the death penalty.” On Sept. 7, 2012 Archbishop Charles J. Chaput reiterated this same teaching of the bishops when he affirmed, “Terrence Williams deserves punishment. No one disputes that. But he does not need to die to satisfy justice.”

Today this subject of capital punishment continues to provoke great controversy.  In examining the issue of capital punishment, we soon realize that we are dealing with beliefs and ideas of the highest regard:  the sanctity of life, order and peace in our society, fairness in our legal system and faith in God’s justice. In confronting serious crime in our society, we are obliged to protect the lives of all people, but especially the victims of crime and the police who defend us. So we should not expect simple solutions, such as capital punishment, to this complex and difficult problem.

In our religious tradition if we look at the Old Testament, Mosaic Law stipulates that for more than 35 capital offenses, the sentence is stoning, burning, decapitation or strangulation. Included in the list of crimes are idolatry, magic, blasphemy, violation of the Sabbath, murder, adultery, pederasty and incest. Moses codified the death penalty as part of the Law when it was determined that for strict justice what was required was “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21). The death penalty was especially invoked for murder as found in the words of God speaking with Noah: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image” (Gen. 9:6).

In the Old Testament, however, we also find cases in which there is punishment for serious crimes without the penalty of death. Cain was not condemned to death for killing his brother, Abel, but rather the Lord gave him a “punishment that was too great to bear” (Gen. 4:14). He was forced to become “a restless wanderer on the earth” (Gen. 4:14).

In the New Testament there is never a denial of capital punishment. However, Jesus never uses violence. In the Garden of Gethsemane, after one of his followers cuts off the ear of the servant of the high priest, Jesus warns him, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52). In the case of the woman caught in adultery, a crime punishable by stoning, she is freed by Jesus and told to “go and from now on do not sin anymore” (Jn. 8:11). All these examples show the mercy of God, as no one is put to death.

However no passage in the New Testament disapproves of the death penalty. In fact, in Romans there is a definite allusion to it when the magistrate who holds authority in society is described as the one who “does not bear the sword in vain; for he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom. 13:4).

Nonetheless, Jesus seems to overturn the Old Testament law of an “eye for an eye” when he tells his disciples not to take revenge on someone who wrongs you. “If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, let him slap your left cheek too” (Mt. 5:39). So Scripture — in both the Old and New Testament — never prohibits the state from exercising its right to apply the death penalty for capital offenses.

The proper understanding of Scripture, however, requires an interpretation of both the texts and the contexts. For example, the “eye for an eye” passage was originally intended to limit violence by reducing the escalation of it. In Jesus’ response of turning one’s cheek, the Lord disavows even a limited violence toward others.

God’s justice lies at the heart of the theology of punishment. God forgives our sins, but even those sins that have been forgiven still require satisfaction. The satisfaction we make by penance does not forgive the sins committed, but it reestablishes the moral order that has been violated by our actions and helps us to return to a good relationship with God.

In 2 Samuel 12:13-14 when David had sinned against the Lord, he was told, “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. But since you have spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die.” God is willing to forgive our sins, but this does not mean that justice is served and He does not desire satisfaction from us.  This is not just true in the Old Testament, but also in the New. Jesus Christ’s sacrifice was perfect, but our Savior did not undergo our punishment so that we would not have to suffer. Christ offered Himself as a propitiatory sacrifice to the Father; nonetheless, forgiveness does not necessarily include satisfaction for sin.

Early Church teachings have accepted the right of civil authorities to punish criminals even with death for a serious crime. Even though Clement of Alexandria was the early Christian source in favor of the death penalty, he also wrote that “it is the highest and most perfect good, when one is able to lead back anyone from the practice of evil to virtue and well-doing which is the very function of the law.”

In studying the Scripture passage of Cain and Abel, St. Ambrose writes that “God drove Cain out of his presence and sent him into exile far away … God preferred the correction rather than death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide.” He also declared that the killing of a criminal “is an act of total despair in the potential of the individual to repent, to be rehabilitated and/or to make meaningful reparations.”

St. Augustine puts it in a more positive way when he defines “the beginning of freedom is to be free from crimes…. Only when one stops committing these crimes, one begins to lift up one’s head toward freedom.”

Catholic moral teaching has often used Thomas Aquinas’ defense of the death penalty as a reference in defending the state’s right to execute criminals. In the Summa Aquinas writes that if a “man is dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good.”

Aquinas’ conclusions do not sanction an absolute acceptance or complete rejection of the death penalty.  In his view, killing a guilty person is not intrinsically evil, but it should be seen as a last resort when nothing else can be done for the community. In interpreting God’s teaching, Thomas concludes that evil doers should be allowed to live if their execution would harm the virtuous.

In more recent times, Mother Teresa of Calcutta intervened on behalf of death row inmates in more than 10 instances. She had always offered her own support and prayers of her community in an effort to stop the killing and end the death penalty. She called each of us to live out the love of God just as Jesus did. This means not only helping the poorest of the poor, but respecting life in all instances.

There are many reasons to abolish capital punishment. The death penalty cuts off any possible type of rehabilitation and in many cases, the death sentence does not always move the condemned person to repent and convert.  Repentance and conversion are the priorities of the Church.

The death penalty often has the effect of revenge against a person rather than justice.  This spirit of vindictiveness contributes to the moral decay of our culture. By promoting death, capital punishment reinforces the indifferent attitude toward such evils as abortion, suicide and euthanasia. In many cases, persons who are pro-life and strongly against abortion support the death penalty, insisting that the innocent and the guilty do not have the same rights. Catholic teaching supports the belief that all life is, without a doubt, a gift from God that is not for us to take away.

The teaching with regards to the death penalty is complicated. All human life is sacred since all of us are created in the image and likeness of God. Pope Paul VI maintained that “every crime against any life is an attack on peace, especially if it strikes at the moral conduct of a people.”

The implementation of the death penalty plunges us deeper into the culture of death. It is the responsibility of the Church to provide a community of support, faith and trust in which God’s grace can heal the personal and spiritual wounds caused by crime and in which we can all grow by sharing one another’s burdens and sorrows.

I echo the words of Archbishop Chaput: “As children of God, we are better than this, and we need to start acing like it. We need to end the death penalty now!”


Father Gus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Norristown, and professor of Spanish at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood.