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.
Join the CatholicPhilly.com family
CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you and hundreds of other people become part of our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community and sustain CatholicPhilly.com as your trusted news source. Thank you in advance!
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103
PREVIOUS: Compassion, forgiveness and a baby’s baptism echo across the years
NEXT: Make your dreams come true, especially when people say you can’t
The death penalty is a Republican Party game. The Democratic Party does not endorse the death penalty. The culture of life means “ALL LIFE”. Right wing conservatives are the only people who back the death penalty; what if the evidence later proves wrong and the person has already been put to death – it is then too late to correct the error.
Saint (& Pope) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).
Pope Pius XII: “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.” 9/14/52.
Jesus and the death penalty
God/Jesus: ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.’ Matthew 15:4
This is a New Testament command, which references several of the same commands from God, in the same circumstance, from the OT.
Jesus: Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Jesus) replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23: 39-43
It is not the nature of our deaths, but the state of salvation at the time of death which is most important.
Jesus: “So Pilate said to (Jesus), “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?” Jesus answered (him), “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” John 19:10-11
The power to execute comes directly from God.
Jesus: “You have heard the ancients were told, ˜YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court”. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, “Raca”, shall be guilty before the supreme court and whoever shall say, “You fool”, shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell.” Matthew 5:17-22.
Fiery hell is a considerable more severe sanction than any earthly death.
The Holy Spirit, God, through the power and justice of the Holy Spirit, executed both Ananias and his wife, Saphira. Their crime? Lying to the Holy Spirit – to God – through Peter. Acts 5:1-11.
No trial, no appeals, just death on the spot.
God: “You shall not accept indemnity in place of the life of a murderer who deserves the death penalty; he must be put to death.” Numbers 35:31 (NAB) full context http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/numbers/numbers35.htm
For murder, there is no mitigation from a death sentence.
God: Genesis 9:5-6, from the 1764 Quaker Bible, the only Quaker bible.
5 And I will certainly require the Blood of your Lives, and that from the Paw of any Beast: from the Hand likewise of Man, even of any one’s Brother, will I require the Life of a Man.
6 He that sheds Man’s Blood, shall have his own shed by Man; because in the Likeness of God he made Mankind.
Of all the versions/translations, this may be the most unequivocal – Murder requires execution of the murderer. It is a command. The Noahic covenant if for all persons and all times.
“All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.
“Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars”
Christianity and the death penalty
Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty,
The New Testament death penalty support is overwhelming.
There is a 2000 year record of Catholic Saints, Popes, Doctors of the Church, religious leaders, biblical scholars and theologians speaking in favor of the death penalty, a record of scholarship, in breadth and depth, which overwhelms any position to the contrary.
The very recent changes (EV,1995 & CCC, final amendment 2003) in the Catholic position are based upon a wrongly considered prudential judgement which finds that “defense of society”, a utilitarian/secular concern, not a moral or theological one, very rarely, if ever, requires execution.
This change in teaching is based upon the Church’s switch to utilitarianism – defense of society – when the teachings have been and must be based upon justice, biblical and theological teachings and tradition – all of which conflict with the newest teachings based upon utility — as utility and justice may, often, have conflicts.
In addition, the evidence is overwhelming that execution offers greater defense of society than does a life sentence. Dead unjust aggressors are infinitely less likely to harm and murder, again than are living unjust aggressors.
Living unjust aggressors murder and harm in prison, after escape and after improper release. The cases are well known and are daily occurrences.
It is a mystery why the Church chose a utilitarian/secular prudential judgement over eternal teachings based upon justice and chose to spare more murderers at the cost of more innocent deaths, but that is, precisely what She has done.
It is also a mystery why the Church didn’t review the available evidence, that execution offers a greater defense of society. There is no evidence that She did.
Thankfully, as the recent Church’s teaching is a prudential judgement, such means that any Catholic can support more executions and remain a Catholic in good standing.