If someone murdered your child or closest friend,
what punishment would you want for the criminal? If you were
simply asked your opinion about capital punishment, how would
you respond? What reasons would you give for your answer?
Recent polls show that 75 percent of U.S. citizens
favor the death penalty. Yet the U.S. Catholic bishops, along
with many other Christians and Jews, have spoken out against
capital punishment. Beyond polls and statements, powerful scenes
dramatize opposing viewpoints: people protesting a death sentence
with candlelight vigils, while others gather as if at a party
shouting, "Kill the scum!"
This Update considers these profound differences
in our society, summarizes the teaching of the U.S. bishops
and tells a mother's true story of horror and reconciliation
after the murder of her daughter.
Conflicting public opinion
In 1966, less than half of the U.S. population
approved of the death penalty. Now polls indicate that about
75 percent approve. Why this dramatic change in public opinion?
Certainly, a major factor is the increasing fear and frustration
concerning violent crime. Something must be done! Many people
turn to the death penalty as a possible remedy. Not only has
the public turned in favor of capital punishment, but the U.S.
government has also recommended that many more crimes be punishable
by the death penalty. This renewed approval reflects traditional
reasons for supporting the death penalty: deterrence and retribution.
Some who support capital punishment do so because they judge
that the threat of death will prevent people from committing
crimes. Others judge that some crimes are so horrible that the
only appropriate punishment is death.
Those people who oppose the death penalty, however,
challenge these traditional reasons. They point out that there
is no solid evidence that the death penalty serves as a deterrent.
Indeed, they note, examples point in the opposite direction:
Some countries that have eliminated the death penalty have had
decreasing rates of violent crime, and some death-penalty states
have had increasing rates of homicide. Supporters of capital
punishment counter with the argument that the death penalty
would be more effective as a deterrent were it not for the many
appeals, long delays and limited numbers of those actually executed.
Similar debates surround the issue of retribution.
Opponents of capital punishment claim that there is no place
in a civilized society for justifying death in terms of retribution.
They judge such action to be closer to sheer revenge. They doubt
that death can be a means of balancing the disturbed equilibrium
of justice that resulted from the original crime. Again, supporters
counter with the claim that society will not respect the law
unless society's sense of justice is satisfied by the criminal's
Other supporters claim that retribution is self-justifying,
simply a return in kind. Some justify retribution by appealing
to the Bible: "[Y]ou shall give life for life, eye for eye,
tooth for tooth..." (Exodus 21:23, 24). Scripture scholars tell
us that the eye-for-eye mandate is actually an attempt to limit
violence in early Hebrew culture. As we know from experience,
violence tends to escalate: If you cut off my finger, I retaliate
by cutting off your hand. Eye for eye reduced such escalation.
As we will see later in this Update, eye for eye must
be considered in the context of the whole Bible.
Many people have made up their minds about the
death penalty without really thinking out its moral implications.
They then find and use studies, statistics and stories to fit
their conclusions. Could this be true for you? If so, youand
all who are willing to wrestle with this issuewill have
to look behind the convictions and be open to developing a new
attitude. One's gut-level response may be very strong, but it
doesn't necessarily lead to good moral decisions.
Teaching of the U.S. bishops
The Catholic bishops of the United States have
provided careful guidance about this difficult issue, applying
the teaching of the universal Church to our American culture.
Along with the leadership assemblies of many Churches (for example.
American Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, Lutherans,
Presbyterians), the U.S. bishops have expressed their opposition
to the death penalty. First articulated in 1974, the bishops'
position is explained in a 1980 statement, Capital Punishment.
Individual bishops and state conferences of bishops have repeated
in numerous teachings their opposition to the death penalty.
In their 1980 statement, the bishops begin by
noting that punishment, "since it involves the deliberate infliction
of evil on another," must be justifiable. They acknowledge that
the Christian tradition has for a long time recognized a government's
right to protect its citizens by using the death penalty in
some serious situations. The bishops ask, however, if capital
punishment is still justifiable in the present circumstances
in the United States.
In this context, the bishops enter the debate
about deterrence and retribution. They acknowledge that capital
punishment certainly prevents the criminal from committing more
crimes, yet question whether it prevents others from doing so.
Similarly, concerning retribution, the bishops support the arguments
against death as an appropriate form of punishment. The bishops
add that reform is a third reason given to justify punishment,
but it clearly does not apply in the case of capital punishment.
And so they affirm: "We believe that in the conditions of contemporary
American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not
justify the imposition of the death penalty."
The heart of the matter
As with the debate in our wider society, it is
important to move behind the discussion of deterrence and retribution
to get to the heart of the bishops' position. The statement
does just that, by discussing four related values that would
be promoted by the abolition of the death penalty.
First, "abolition sends a message that we can
break the cycle of violence, that we need not take life for
life, that we can envisage more humane and more hopeful and
effective responses to the growth of violent crime." The bishops
recognize that crime is rooted in the complex reality of contemporary
society, including those "social conditions of poverty and injustice
which often provide the breeding grounds for serious crime."
More attention should go to correcting the root causes of crime
than to enlarging death row.
Second, "abolition of capital punishment is also
a manifestation of our belief in the unique worth and dignity
of each person from the moment of conception, a creature made
in the image and likeness of God." This belief, rooted in Scripture
and consistently expressed in the social teach- ings of the
Church, applies to all people, including those who have taken
Third, "abolition of the death penalty is further
testimony to our conviction, a conviction which we share with
the Judaic and Islamic traditions, that God is indeed the Lord
of life." And so human life in all its stages is sacred, and
human beings are called to care for life, that is, to exercise
good stewardship and not absolute control. The bishops recognize
that abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty are not the
same issue, but they each point to the same fundamental value:
safeguarding the sanctity of life.
Fourth, "we believe that abolition of the death
penalty is most consonant with the example of Jesus." In many
ways this final point summarizes the other three: the God revealed
in the life of Jesus is a God of forgiveness and redemption,
of love and compassionin a word, a God of life. The heart
of the bishops' position on the death penalty, then, is found
in the gospel.
Gut-level reactions may cry out for vengeance,
but Jesus' example in the Gospels invites all to develop a new
and different attitude toward violence. The bishops encourage
us to embody Jesus' message in practical and civic decisions.
Prisons, victims and more
While the gospel leads the bishops to oppose the
death penalty, they also recognize the need society has to protect
itself. Imprisonment will be necessary, but ought not to dehumanize
the convicts. The bishops summarize what they have developed
in other documents: Significant changes in the prison system
are necessary to make it truly conducive to reform and rehabilitation.
In their statement on capital punishment, the
bishops express special concern for the victims of violent crime
and their families. "Our society should not flinch from contemplating
the suffering that violent crime brings to so many when it destroys
lives, shatters families and crushes the hope of the innocent."
Care for victims must be given in practical ways, such as financial
assistance, pastoral care, medical and psychological treatment.
Some other difficulties directly related to the
death penalty, which the statement mentions, are: 1) the death
penalty removes the possibility of reform and rehabilitation;
2) there is the possibility of putting an innocent person to
death; 3) carrying out the death penalty causes anguish not
only for the convict's loved ones but also for the executioners
and the witnesses; 4) executions attract great publicity, much
of it unhealthy; 5) there is legitimate concern that criminals
are sentenced to death in a discriminatory way: It is a reasonable
judgment that racist attitudes and the social consequences of
racism have some influence in determining who is sentenced to
die in our society. Adequate legal representation is an issue
that puts poor people at a disadvantage. For many reasons, especially
the message of Jesus, the U.S. bishops favor ending the death
Scripture and tradition
The Bible is often mentioned in debates about
the death penalty. Supporters quote the Exodus passage, eye
for eye, while opponents appeal to Ezekiel (33:11): "As I live,
says the Lord God, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of
the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man's conversion, that
he may live." In fact, such use of the Bible (finding a "proof
text" to affirm one's point of view) is inappropriate.
Scripture scholars teach us to understand the
Bible (and its individual books) in historical context: when
it was written and why. Thus considered, there is an ambivalence
about capital punishment in the Scriptures.
Clearly, the Hebrew Scriptures allowed the death
penalty (for a much longer list of offenses than our society
would be comfortable withfor example, striking or cursing
a parent, adultery, idolatry). Yet, as we see in Ezekiel and
many other passages, there is also an attempt to limit violence
and to stress mercy. In the Christian Scriptures, Jesus' life
and teachings (see the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:1-7:29)
focus on mercy, reconciliation and redemption. (It may also
be instructive to recall that Jesus' death was itself an application
of the death penalty.) The basic thrust of the Gospels supports
opposition to the death penalty.
Indeed, the early Church (for example, in the
writings of Clement of Rome [died 101 A.D.] and Justin Martyr
[d. 165]) generally found taking human life to be incompatible
with the gospel. Christians were not to participate in capital
punishment. Later, after Christianity became the religion of
the Roman Empire, opposition to the death penalty declined.
Augustine recognized the death penalty as a means of deterring
the wicked and protecting the innocent. In the Middle Ages,
Thomas Aquinas reaffirmed this position.
The new Catechism of the Catholic Church reflects
this tradition, stating that the death penalty is possible in
cases of extreme gravity. However, the Catechism adds:
"If bloodless means [that is, other than killing] are sufficient
to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public
order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit
itself to such means, because they better correspond to the
concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity
to the dignity of the human person" (#2267). Clearly, then,
the bishops' opposition to the death penalty is in accord with
universal Church teaching.
A mother's story
Despite the message of Jesus and the teachings
of the bishops, many people may still be caught up in the anger
and outrage over violent crime. Scriptures and teachings seem
so remote; debates over deterrence and retribution prove nothing.
For all, but especially for those who feel this way, the following
true story may be especially challenging.
Marietta Jaeger and her family were on a camping
vacation in Montana when her seven-year-old daughter, Susie,
was kidnapped. Searches by the FBI and local authorities turned
up nothing. Jaeger describes her initial feelings about the
kidnapper: "I could kill him. I meant it with every fiber
of my being. I'm sure I could have done it with my bare hands
and a smile on my face. I felt it was a matter of justice."
Months passed with no new clues, except a few
calls from the kidnapper offering to exchange Susie for a ransombut
the kidnapper never made a specific offer. During this time
Jaeger "argued and argued with God," and then "gave
God permission to change my heart." Jaeger also began to
pray for the kidnapper, acknowledging that "my Christian
upbringing and my knowledge of good psychological health had
taught me that forgiveness was not an option, but a mandate."
Fifteen months after Susie's kidnapping, the kidnapper
was arrested. Although the death penalty was applicable in the
case, Jaeger asked the FBI to settle for the alternative, life
imprisonment with psychiatric care. Only then did the kidnapper,
a young man, finally admit to the rape, strangulation death,
decapitation and dismemberment of Susie (within a week of the
kidnapping). A short time later, the young man committed suicide.
Jaeger recognizes the need for society to protect
itself. "I do not advocate forgiveness for violent people
and then release to the streets. I know that there are people
who should be separated in a humanely secured manner from the
community for the protection of all."
And, of course, she knows intimately the feelings
of the victim's family. She understands the desire for revenge,
but claims that those who retain an attitude of vindictiveness
are tormented, embittered people who have no peace of mind.
The quality of their lives is diminished and, in effect, they
have given the offender another victim. Jaeger states that the
death penalty does not do for the victims' family what they
had hoped, but leaves them "empty, unsatisfied and unhealed."
She adds, " There is no number of retaliatory deaths which
would compensate to me the inestimable value of my daughter's
life, nor would they restore her to my arms." (Jaeger encourages
people to contact her at: Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliation,
209 Willow Creek Rd., Portage, IN 46368.
Consistent ethic of life
Marietta Jaeger's profoundly moving story is a
striking embodiment of Jesus' message and the bishops' recent
teachings. Her lifeand the lives of so many others like
heris also a dramatic reminder that the ideal can be lived
in the real world. Much in our culturefears, political
platforms, media eventspromotes a different message. Jaeger's
witness, however, challenges all of us to move beyond brutalization
to develop a consistent ethic of life, to appreciate the sanctity
of all life. Concrete steps can include such activities as study
groups, prayer services, letter writing to state and federal
legislators, addressing the root causes of crime in our society,
and contacting groups (see box below).
But it all starts with developing a new attitude
about violence, an attitude rooted in the countercultural message
of the gospel.
A Pro-life Position
"Increasingly, our society
looks to...increased reliance on the death penalty to
deal with crime. We are tragically turning to violence
in the search for quick and easy answers to complex human
problems. A society which destroys its children, abandons
its old and relies on vengeance fails fundamental moral
"We cannot teach that killing
is wrong by killing....This cycle of violence diminishes
all of usespecially our children."
Confronting a Culture
A Catholic Framework for Action
Catholic bishops, November 1994)
"We have a very consistent cornmitment as Church to defending
the sanctity of human life. We struggle mightily against
abortion; we have a commitment and concern for the poor;
we deplore racial and sexual discrimination and the self
-destructive use of drugs. Our position against the use
of the death penalty falls into that continuum. We believe
that an issue such as capital punishment is not just a
question of public policy, but is at its very core a moral
issue, and therefore a religious issue, and we must speak
Archbishop John Roach,
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Parents of Murdered Children
100 East Eighth St., Suite 41-B
Cincinnati, OH 45202
National Coalition to Abolish
the Death Penalty
918 F Street, N.W., Suite 601
Washington, DC 20004 (video available: The Religious
Community Confronts the Death Penalty)