Maryland set to repeal death penalty after bill's passage

The state of Maryland has given Rome another chance to light the Colosseum. 

Italian authorities illuminate the ancient structure — the site of innumerable killings and Christian martyrdom — whenever a state repeals capital punishment. On March 15, the Maryland House of Delegates voted to repeal the death penalty, following the Maryland State Senate’s lead on March 6. Gov. Martin O’Malley, who pushed for the legislation, is expected to sign the bill into law shortly, which will make Maryland the 18th state in the United States to outlaw capital punishment.  

The Maryland Catholic Conference, the public lobbying arm of the state’s Catholic bishops, has played a leading role in mobilizing public support against the death penalty in that state. Baltimore Archbishop William Lori said it is the Church’s reasoned belief that “every human life is sacred and to be protected” in testifying before the Maryland House and Senate judiciary committees on Feb. 14. 

“It is that belief that inspires our advocacy for laws that protect each person from the moment of natural conception until natural death,” Archbishop Lori said.

Development of doctrine

Framing the death penalty in the context of self-defense, rather than as a form of retributive punishment, is a significant development in the Church’s teachings on the issue, according to several ethicists and theologians. 

“I might add that there is a debate among Catholic theologians about whether this is consistent with past [Church] understandings of the death penalty. Myself, I think it is a development of doctrine,” Charles Camosy, a Fordham University theology professor, told Our Sunday Visitor. 

Given the ability of modern prison facilities to safely detain criminals, Camosy said it is his opinion that there are “virtually no circumstances in which the death penalty is moral in the United States.” 

Joseph E. Capizzi, an associate professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America, told Our Sunday Visitor that Blessed Pope John Paul II backed away from the retributive, or punishing, aspect of the death penalty, and instead focused on the self-defense component, which has become a trend in Catholic circles that Capizzi said he does not favor. 

“It’s clear (John Paul II’s) sentiment was we shouldn’t be doing this, but the rationale for retribution that the Church relies on, and rightly relies on, doesn’t close the possibility of crimes being so heinous that the appropriate punishment for it might be to sacrifice the life of the criminal,” Capizzi said. 

“The justification for punishment is not primarily, ‘Are you posing a threat to us?’ but, ‘Did you do something meriting this form of punishment?’ I worry about a kind of incoherence developing around this,” he told Our Sunday Visitor. 

In traditional Catholic thought, criminal punishment serves four ends: retribution, rehabilitation, defense against the criminal and deterrence. Dating back to the Church Fathers, the Catholic Church has held that the secular state has the legitimate authority to punish criminals to death, though many Church thinkers warned against vengeance and said they preferred that justice be served without killing or maiming criminals. 

Complicating the picture is that capital punishment is clearly sanctioned in the Bible. The Old Testament’s Mosaic Law lists at least 36 offenses punishable by death, such as murder, incest, adultery and blasphemy. St. Paul, writing to the Romans, seemed to take capital punishment for granted when he wrote in Romans 13:4 that a magistrate “does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer.”

Biblical reconciliation?

Writing in the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas sought to reconcile the biblical prohibition against killing with capital punishment. He compared the state’s execution of criminals to a physician having to amputate a diseased limb in order to protect the rest of the body, or community. 

St. Thomas also argued that criminals, by their actions, forfeited their human dignity, thus making it easier to put them to death, which is an argument not favored by Dr. Patrick Lee, a bioethics professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville. 

“(Capital punishment) was just a given for (Aquinas), and that was something he had to make sense of,” Lee said. “But his way of doing it doesn’t hold up by saying the criminal loses his human dignity. 

“A problem in capital punishment is that you are choosing to kill that which still has human dignity,” Lee added. “That’s a big problem.” 

In modern times, popes and bishops and have recognized that problem in teaching that criminals should not be put to death because they have still human dignity. 

During a 1999 visit to St. Louis, Mo., Blessed Pope John Paul II said: “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”

A pro-life issue

“There has been a development in thinking on this. There have also been reflections on modern society, on our judicial system, our penal society, all of that, and also on the culture of death that dominates our culture,” said Anthony Granado, a policy adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Domestic Social Development. 

Death penalty opponents cite several instances of convicted death-row inmates being exonerated when DNA evidence later proved their innocence. Several studies have also indicated that racial minorities and indigent defendants unable to afford private attorneys are more likely to be sentenced to death in states that have capital punishment. 

“Though the death penalty isn’t intrinsically evil, it is part of our call as Catholics to build up a culture of life, to build a culture that builds dignity,” Granado said. “Life and dignity of the human person is really at the center of the Church’s teaching.” 

Mary Ellen Russell, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, told Our Sunday Visitor that the death penalty is an important pro-life issue for the Church and Catholics. 

“It’s a very impactful way for the Church to demonstrate how deeply we believe that every life is sacred, even that of a convicted criminal,” Russell said. “And while the Church recognizes the need for just punishment, we believe that capital punishment is really not worthy of us as a civilized society. There are more moral and acceptable ways of protecting society from aggressors, especially in sentencing somebody to life without the possibility of parole.” 

Given the reality of legalized abortion, and other threats to life such as embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI stressed the importance of defending life, even that of convicted criminals. 

“Given the embrace of abortion in the United States, and the killing associated with that, it would be confusing to Catholics and non-Catholics for the Church on one hand to say we should be a pro-life Church opposed to the intentional killing of people and at the same time to be embracing capital punishment,” Capizzi said. 

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.