Since the Supreme Court reinstated the constitutionality of capital punishment (or the death penalty) in 1976, more than 1200 people have been executed by the state. According to groups like The Freedom Project, there is evidence that hundreds of people who have been executed, or who await execution, have been wrongly convicted of capital offenses and are actually innocent. For example, in 2002 Arizona released Ray Krone from Death row after DNA evidence proved he was innocent. Krone had spent ten years in prison prior to his release and became the 100th person exonerated from receiving the death penalty since 1973.
However, there can be no doubt that some people on death row have committed terrible actions and deserve to be punished for their crimes. The question Catholics must ask is this – is the death penalty a licit form of punishment for those who commit capital crimes like murder? Pope John Paul II taught in Evangelium Vitae that taking human life may not be done to merely punish or “send a message” but only in the narrow circumstances where it is impossible to protect other human lives without lethal force. He writes:
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must 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” (56)
Q: But doesn’t the Bible say “an eye for an eye” and “a tooth for a tooth?” If someone kills someone else, it’s only fair that they be killed as a punishment.
A: The principle of lex talionis, or “an eye for an eye” was a temporary law given to ancient Israel under very specific conditions. In the Old Testament we find that God often issues laws that, while not ideal, can be followed by fallen creatures and still create a moral order. This is known as divine accommodation and condescension, or God coming to our level to meet us. Jesus refers to this principle when he is asked about divorce and says that Moses only tolerated divorce because the people had hard hearts, but this was not the ideal situation for marriage in God’s plan.
Much the same, lex talionis, was a temporary measure designed to insure fair retribution. In the ancient world, if someone killed another person, sometimes not only would they be killed, but their whole family or clan would be punished by execution as well. Lex talionis ensured that only the guilty would be punished for their deeds. But this was not meant to be the ideal, as is evidenced in Jesus’ statement, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” (Matthew 5:38-39) Jesus is not teaching radical pacifism, or inaction in the face of evil, only that we need not strike back against evil in an evil manner.
Q: Isn’t it cruel to the families of murder victims to keep murderers alive in prison?
A: We should be sensitive to the grieving of families who have lost a loved one to the violence of another, but we also cannot let our emotions override our moral judgment. It is common and natural for victims of injustice to lash out in anger against those who have hurt them. However, we are called to follow the example of our Lord who did not angrily strike back against his unjust accusers during his passion. Instead he prayed, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 22:34)
There are also numerous testimonies from victim’s families who say that the death penalty did not give them closure and some have even fought for the abolition of death penalty. Consider this example from the Death Penalty Information Center:
Ronald Carlson wanted vengeance when his sister was murdered in 1983 in Texas. But when he witnessed the execution in 1998 of the person who committed the murder he changed his mind. In a recent op-ed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Carlson said he had no opinion on capital punishment before his sister’s death and remembers feeling hatred and “would have killed those responsible with my own hands if given the opportunity.” But he later discovered that, “Watching the execution left me with horror and emptiness, confirming what I had already come to realize: Capital punishment only continues the violence that has a powerful, corrosive effect on society.”
Carlson said he sympathizes with other victims’ families, understanding how they would want to see those who killed their love ones suffer the same fate. But, he said, “[O]ur justice system should not be dictated by vengeance.” He asked, “As a society, shouldn’t we be more civilized than the murderers we condemn?” Carlson has spent over half of his life examining this issue and has come to believe, “We as a society should not be involved in the practice of killing people.”