They said it drew the largest crowds in the history of Missouri, referring to the visit of Pope St. John Paul II to St. Louis in 1999.
The size of the crowds was news, but the pope really made news when he presided at an ecumenical prayer service in the St. Louis Cathedral Basilica. Present were Vice President Al Gore and his wife, representing President Bill Clinton, and Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan.
In the background was the pending execution of a man convicted of murdering a man and his wife, along with their disabled son. The man’s trial, and subsequent appeals through the courts, had been widely publicized.
Nothing could be said in defense of the convicted man. The crimes were brutal.
Yet, the pope addressed the governor and asked him to spare the man from the death penalty. Not long after this event, the pope preached at a Mass attended by many thousands of people. There he called capital punishment “cruel and unnecessary.”
The governor commuted the sentence.
Pope Francis is saying nothing new in his calls for an end to the death penalty, as he did last fall when he spoke to Congress and again last month in a video message to an anti-death penalty congress in Norway.
I wondered then if he is like most foreigners from a Western society, dismayed that among the democratic, educated, traditionally Christian countries of the world, only the United States still clings to the practice of executing criminals and invokes it fairly often.
It truly is amazing that so many of us Americans support the death penalty, and many of us can be quite fervent in this support.
Pope St. John Paul II’s homily in St. Louis 17 years ago contained a word key in the discussion, “unnecessary.” Pope Francis in June used another, “unacceptable.”
What purpose does executing persons convicted of serious crime serve?
Going much farther back into Church Tradition, and into the reasoning behind the practice of capital punishment, several points emerge.
The Church always has taught that states have the right to execute criminals — to protect people whom the state is committed to serve.
This is Church teaching, granted, but it is not the place to start when considering the propriety of executions.
The place to start is the equally valid Church teaching about the sanctity of life. This sanctity makes murder and other violent crimes totally immoral. The law reflects this ancient belief. Crimes against people cannot be tolerated, and governments have the duty to protect citizens from being violated by serious crimes.
Keeping the sanctity of life foremost in mind, we never can tolerate violent crime, but we must carefully consider whether or not an execution is the only process to protect others from serious crimes.
Pope St. John Paul II simply said that capital punishment is unnecessary because it accomplishes no acceptable, moral goal, at least not in present Western society.
I know well two families that endured the murders of loved ones. The mother of a priest was stabbed to death by a man wanting to take from her the $34 in her purse. The other victim was a fine, young priest, not yet ordained a year, who interrupted a robbery in his rectory. He simply, innocently, walked into a room and was shot to death.
Both families pleaded for the murderers’ lives. Neither murderer was executed. Both families, still grief-stricken, were, and are, at peace.
We Americans must bluntly ask if capital punishment is necessary.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.