The decision by a South Carolina court to execute Dylann Roof, the man convicted of brutally murdering nine innocent people gathered for a Bible study in their Charleston church, quickly was followed by an appeal by Charleston Bishop Robert E. Guglielmone that the perpetrator’s life be spared.
Given the awfulness of the murders, reactions to the bishop’s statement were not altogether positive. So, what is the Catholic Church’s view regarding capital punishment?
Always the Church has maintained that legitimate governments, through honest and objective legal processes, hold the right to execute persons duly convicted of heinous crimes to protect people from future similar crimes. By any estimate, these requirements applied in the Charleston case.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2267, says: “If, however, nonlethal 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 with the dignity of the human person.”
No civil authority has the unqualified right to impose the death penalty. Even legally established functioning governments must put their rights beneath the umbrella of responsibilities to overall principles.
In this case, the dignity of human life stands above all. So the first phrase of the Catechism’s teaching is critical: “If, however, nonlethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means... .”
With this in mind, executing a convicted prisoner is the last resort, and executions are moral only if all else fails to protect the people.
Pope St. John Paul II said outright that in developed, democratic societies, he could see virtually no occasion when the death penalty is the only option left to civil authority in meeting its obligations to safeguard the population.
Recognizing the supremacy of the dignity of human life, he always said, meant that executing convicts had to be measured against all other possibilities.
Usually, arguments for the death sentence are that the death penalty removes from society an aggressor, and that capital punishment deters crime. Church teaching presumes that modern governments have workable ways to keep convicted criminals from moving through society and committing crime again. Many studies say that crimes too often are driven by intense purpose, along with the intention of avoiding capture, that the deterrence argument does not always apply.
Even if the deterrence argument is accepted, it must be secondary to the teaching regarding the majesty of human life.
This very same principle appears in the Catholic Church’s insistence that “unwanted” pregnancies cannot be ended by abortion. Always, assuring the continuance of human life must have the priority.
Inevitably, discussions about capital punishment in this country become feverish. Opinions are strong. People have good intentions. America has a problem in violent crime. We all are nervous, and we are nervous with cause. No one feels truly secure.
The Church’s teaching simply calls us to ask if killing convicts is the only answer. First, put above everything the Catholic position on the sanctity of human life. Then ask if alternatives to the death penalty exist in our current system of managing crime? If not, can they be improved?
Finally, executing a convict never returns to the victim or to the victim’s grieving survivors anything lost. Revenge always is unchristian, a sin in itself.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.