Grappling With Faith and the Death Penalty
The blind spot many Christians had regarding capital punishment is finally fading.
By PHILLIP M. THOMPSON May 28, 2015
Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.
When I started researching the death penalty in 1995, roughly 80% of Americans favored its use. The death penalty was a rare point of consensus in American politics, crossing party affiliation and political ideology.
Times have changed. The unicameral legislature of a very conservative state, Nebraska, voted last week, 32-15, to repeal capital punishment. Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the bill on Tuesday. But on Wednesday Nebraska became the 19th state to abolish the death penalty after legislators voted to override the governor’s veto.
Clearly, a tide is building against the death penalty in America. One of the most powerful factors is science. DNA evidence in the past 20 years was a strong reason for the exoneration of many of the 153 innocent people released from death row during that period. These people in earlier generations would have been wrongfully put to death. This realization has challenged the conscience of a fair-minded country that doesn’t want to kill innocent people.
The DNA evidence also confirms a common-sense insight that criminal-justice systems are flawed because they rely on human beings who can err through honest mistakes, greed, fraud and other frailties of the flesh. For a Catholic Christian like me who believes in the inherent sinfulness of human nature, the existence of the corruption of some human systems and judgments is shocking, but hardly surprising.
What has surprised me for some time is that there has not been greater resistance to capital punishment by conservatives, since they are often the watchdogs of governmental misuse, abuse and corruption. Yet their skepticism is often absent regarding a judicial system that relies on overworked public defenders to ensure justice in many capital cases. A battery of highly paid defense attorneys working with scores of experts, as in the 1995 O.J. Simpson trial, is the very rare case that masks the reality of the usual hapless capital defendant and his thin representation.
I am not mocking those who work in this area of law. I too was once involved as an attorney in a capital case, but I was woefully ill-prepared, as were my co- counsels. Thankfully, the introduction of some timely evidence prevented a terrible miscarriage of justice.
Since I now direct a Catholic theology center, I am also surprised by how many Christians support the death penalty. At the heart of our faith is a wrongful use of capital punishment. An innocent man, the son of God, was put to death in a rush to judgment for political and religious purposes. This horrible but all too human decision should give all Christians some pause in relying on human judgments for this ultimate punishment.
For Catholics, the path to opposition to the death penalty has not been easy. There was, across the centuries, a general consensus in the church that the death penalty was perhaps not desirable, but it was a permissible means for governmental authorities to achieve the legitimate goals of justice, safety and public order.
But in 1995, Pope John Paul II, in a teaching document, Evangelium Vitae, observed that the principles of justice, safety and public order could be achieved in the modern context without resorting to the taking of a life. The pontiff noted that we now have modern prison systems that can achieve these legitimate objectives. He concluded that today, in a country like the United States, the life of a criminal can only be taken “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” And as John Paul noted, such examples in modern societies are “practically nonexistent.”
So there is a strong case for conservatives and Christians, especially my fellow Catholics, to oppose the death penalty. Strong punishments, even lifelong ones, will remain in place. Murderers will be punished severely for their crimes and the public will be protected from their depredations. But innocent lives are spared and those who are not innocent have more time to repent of their sins and seek to attempt to make amends.
Some may object that there are manipulators who will abuse this system. No system is foolproof, but our faith teaches us that there will be a final judge in the afterlife. We can trust in divine mercy and judgment. In this life, however, we should be cautious in meting out death—an irrevocable judgment once it is applied.
The overwhelming vote of the Nebraska legislature indicates that a coalescing of arguments is having an impact. The tide is turning and it is time for a new consensus—this time in opposition to the death penalty.
Mr. Thompson is the executive director of Emory University’s Aquinas Center of Theology.