Should Catholics oppose the death penalty?

by Noelle Hiester

I was very disturbed by the execution of Karla Faye Tucker—not because she was a woman and pretty, or because she was a Christian, but because she had exhibited such a change in her life. Karla Faye’s execution and the debate which preceded it made me re-evaluate my own position of the death penalty. I had always held that the state has the right to impose the penalty of death, and should impose it for the most heinous crimes, and I struggled with the Pope’s declaration in Evangelium Vitae that cases which demanded the death penalty were rare if not non-existent, which seemed to practically shut the door on the use of the death penalty.

The Catholic Church does not deny that the death penalty is one of the options reserved for legitimate authority. The Catechism states: “...the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.” (2266) The Catechism goes on to caution: “If bloodless means 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)

There are three major purposes of punishment by the State as outlined in the Catechism. The first and foremost is justice. The crime must be paid for by a commensurate punishment, that is, one which rectifies the violation of persons and the disorder in society caused by the crime. Secondly, punishment is intended as a protection for society against the aggressions of the criminal. Finally, it should have remedial value in bringing the offender to express contrition for his crimes and to amend his life.

John Paul II, in Evangelium Vitae expresses himself in even stronger terms on the possible case for using the death penalty. He states:

It is clear that, for these purposes [for punishment] 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.

The arguments advanced by the Pope and in the Catechism against using the death penalty refer to the improved conditions of penal systems, especially in advanced countries. Because of these improved conditions, criminals can be taken out of society and prevented from inflicting further harm without having to be made extinct themselves. This is a way which is more in keeping with the dignity of human life, even the life of criminals. When a criminal is executed, and he does not pose a danger to society, it sends the message that his life was worthless. While it is very tempting to view felons guilty of the most awful crimes as valueless, it is in fact not true. They too have been made in the image and likeness of God and have a dignity which cannot be given away, even in the face of horrible offenses against God and man. If this were the case many actions which are not prosecutable in the legal sphere, but which are also heinous would also result in devaluing people. Abortion is also murder and adultery is considered one of the most serious of sins, but the people who commit these serious offenses are able to find forgiveness and the strength to begin again.

Thus, there is a certain way that we can view the death penalty as an injustice against the sanctity of life. The attack does not stop with the life of the criminal which, hard as it may be for us to understand, is precious in the eyes of God, but reaches to each and every one of us. If we get into the habit of thinking that some people deserve death, we get out of the habit of remembering that they are precious in God’s sight, that they too can receive forgiveness from God and the grace to amend their lives.

Karla Faye Tucker had once believed that she should pay for her crime with her life. However, at the challenge of a friend she began to study the issue more closely and came to understand the value of human life. She said, “But I know the value of human life now. I can’t believe in the death penalty or abortion or mercy killings. I’ve been in a position to take life. I know how horrible it is.”

With this attack on life, even on the lives of the hardest of criminals, comes the response which we witnessed outside the prison in Texas where Karla Faye Tucker was executed. I was shocked to hear people actually cheering at the announcement of the death of another person. The husband of Mrs. Thornton, the woman murdered by Karla Faye Tucker told all other victims to demand the death penalty as their right. He refused any forgiveness, even in the face of Karla Faye Tucker’s execution, and plainly showed that he is continuing to be bitter against her.

There are many arguments against the death penalty. These include the surprising statistics which show that states in which the death penalty is legal often have a higher rate of crime than those without the death penalty. Also, many argue that the death penalty costs much more than keeping a prisoner in jail for the rest of his life. And, perhaps the most serious objection is that this punishment could be wrongfully applied. There are many examples of men who have been executed and later were discovered to be innocent. While these objections have merit in considering the advisability of using the death penalty, they take a back seat to the main question: Is the death penalty the only way of achieving justice in this situation? Are there other punishments, for example, life in prison, which would also correct the wrong which was done?

In Karla Faye Tucker’s case, all the secondary reasons for and against execution were missing. There was no question of the state executing an innocent person. She, herself had testified as to her guilt. On the other hand, Karla Faye Tucker was clearly no longer a menace to society. She converted to evangelical Christianity within six months of her jail term, expressing contrition for her crimes. She counted among her supporters the brother of one of her murder victims and one of the jurors who voted for the death penalty. All that was left were the facts of her crime and the punishment which should follow from it.

The state of Texas decided that they could not commute Karla Faye’s sentence from death to life in prison. I have not been able to find any particular reason offered for its decision, but lacking any other motive it seems that the board believed that her crime was so horrible that nothing could pay for it except her death, and nothing could mitigate that.

This idea—that there is no possible way to make amends after the crime has been committed—is, strictly speaking, not Catholic. The sacrament of Confession is the primary external example of God’s continuing mercy in the world.

In our country the separation of Church and State is a religiously held law. For this reason, the State cannot invoke the new law which Jesus Christ came to establish, the law which replaces “an eye for an eye” with “turn the other cheek.” At the same time, a State which allows no place for mercy in its judgments is an inhumane place to live. In all states of our Union, there are parole boards. The job of these boards is to decide who has been rehabilitated enough to try life again outside of prison. These boards represent the mercy of the State. They may, on evidence of good behavior and a change of heart, give a person a second chance. Thus, there is an acknowledgment in our justice system that contrition and repentance allow for a response of mercy. Does the same not apply to Death Row inmates?

I was amazed to find that most people thought that Karla Faye Tucker was asking for special consideration because she was female and had converted to Christianity. In the many debates which I read, the consensus seemed to be that Ms. Tucker should be executed because she was a women. Her execution would prove that women where treated with equality even in the jails of Texas. Contrary to these perceptions are the words of Karla Faye Tucker herself. She responded to this charge in an interview in Newsweek, “I say gender should not play any role in this at all…If this was a man, and the same [personal reform had occurred], he should be considered as an individual also.” The issue was not about gender and religion; it was about justice, contrition and mercy.

While the State may carry out a death sentence, they should reserve that right for serious cases where there is no other option. To do otherwise is to further offend the dignity of life. And, where a death sentence has been deemed necessary, there should always be the possibility of mercy. To show no mercy is to act in a manner no more civilized than the criminal who shows no respect for society.

Karla Faye Tucker once said that she hoped that her death would bring more people face to face with the question of the death penalty. In the end she left her life, and death, up to the Lord to use as he willed. Perhaps she is the means the Lord has chosen to challenge Christians to take a closer look at the death penalty. Though I only knew of her for a few days before her death, I can say that she has been a challenge to me, in my faith, in my concept of other people, especially criminals, and in my view of the death penalty.

Noelle Hiester received a BA from FUS in 1996 and an MBA in 1997. She is currently working as an au pair in the Netherlands.