A 2013 Gallup Poll discovered that – even though two thirds of nations have abolished capital punishment in law or practice – two thirds of American Catholics still support it.
But the Catechism makes a very clear statement on the issue:
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.” [Emphasis added]
This last quotation comes from Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”). Robert George summarizes this position well: “The state does not have the right to inflict capital punishment – no matter how grave the offense and no matter how clear the guilt of the accused – unless effective incarceration is impossible and execution is the only way to prevent this particular murderer from killing again.” The Pope’s successors have followed suit on this understanding. Benedict voiced encouragement for “political and legislate initiatives…to eliminate the death penalty,” while Francis went a step further, saying that capital punishment is “inadmissible,” “contradicts God’s plan for man and society,” and only “fosters vengeance.”
With these teachings in tow, the bishops of Massachusetts released a statement declaring: “The defendant in this case has been neutralized and will never again have the ability to cause harm…society can do better than the death penalty.” Other voices from the Church could also be heard: professor of moral theology Rev. James Bretzke expressed frustration that Catholics were “systemically excluded” from the jury for their beliefs, and cultural commentator Fr. Jim Martin tweeted: “The death penalty for #Tsarnaev, heinous as his crimes were, closes little, solves less.”
But the jury sweepingly rejected the defense’s arguments, and Tsarnaev was sentenced to death.
It was another defeat for Prejean – but throughout Dead Man Walking, defeat becomes another pathway to hope. Even as Poncelet’s appeals fail, she agrees to become his spiritual advisor, standing by his side and conversing with him about God and the afterlife. In the prison, a spiritual drama in the vein of “The Mercy Seat” unfolds in the days and minutes leading up to his execution, until finally, in the eleventh hour, Poncelet breaks under the weight of grace:
Even if he’d never confessed in this way, or spoken words of repentance to the families, I believe Prejean would’ve walked with him to his death, hand on his shoulder, whispering: “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love.”
Love in action, Dostoevsky said, is a dreadful thing compared to love in dreams. Opposition to the death penalty – especially in those cases where it’s easiest to support it – is just such a dreadful love. It loves the unlovable, and believes the unbelievable: that even the most depraved life has a sacred spark worth fighting for.
Matthew Becklo is a husband and father, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.