Fifth Commandment: You Shall Not Kill/Morality/My Faith

God’s Justice is Better: The Church and the Death Penalty

Three dead. Hundreds wounded. A beautiful celebration of the human spirit turned into a horrific murder scene by a hate-filled terrorist.

When I first heard that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev — one of the Boston Marathon bombers — had been given the death penalty, I have to admit that I felt a small sense of satisfaction. It felt like justice.

But, as often is the case, my emotions have no weight in determining the morality of an action. It doesn’t really matter how I feel.

So I turn to our beautiful lighthouse in a sea of moral darkness — the Church.

Here’s what the Catechism says about capital punishment:

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” (CCC 2267)

I think the Church makes this pretty clear. In modern societies with reliable prison systems (“reliable” meaning there is very low risk of escape), the death penalty is unnecessary. If we didn’t have reliable prisons, then it would be acceptable and perhaps necessary to take the life of a convicted murder so as to prevent him from killing anyone else. That would be an extension of the basic principle of legitimate self-defense—which is in accord with Catholic teaching (CCC 2265).

So let’s say I agree. In America, the death penalty isn’t necessary to protect the public.

But what about justice?

I contend that it probably is just take the life of a murder. But it seems God has asked us not to exercise that power unless it’s necessary. He is the Lord of life and death. Jesus was never asked about the death penalty directly, but he certainly surprised His fellow devout Jews when they we’re about to stone a woman to death and He stopped it:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” …

He straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
– John 8 (NIV)

Although the woman was not guilty of murder, in those days it was considered just and good to execute someone for more than a dozen offenses—adultery included. By Jesus’ example it seems as if God is saying “I got this. Punishment by death isn’t necessary.”

Now does that mean a murderer can never receive justice? No.

God’s justice is perfect. It just may be delayed for a little while. God cares far more about our eternal souls than our mortal bodies. If a murderer doesn’t repent of his sins, eternity in hell is a real possibility — as it is for any of us who turn away from God, and don’t turn back (Romans 6:23). But even a murderer can possibly repent in prison and obtain eternal life though the mercy of Jesus Christ (and we should pray for that). If that doesn’t seem “fair,” it’s because it’s not. But God’s mercy isn’t fair. It’s scandalously extravagant.

However, justice will still be delivered. A repentant murderer may still face a terrible time in Purgatory for his crime. That is where wrongs will be righted. That is where God’s justice will be perfected.

About the Author

Ryan O'Connell

After a hard day of work, I look forward to a little exercise, some blues guitar, and a moving-picture creation by my ex-employer and fickle lover, Hollywood. I’m also a fan of basketball, sketch comedy, and vigorously defending my beliefs using this academic gimmick called “truth.” God has blessed me with the most loyal friends a guy could ask for, and a disturbing inability to not laugh at stupid jokes.