Peter denied Jesus three times. Today and over the next several days, we will deny Peter’s apostolic successor three times. Pope Francis, during his visit last week to the United States, reiterated his and the Catholic Church’s current opposition to capital punishment; yet, three executions are imminent.
As I write this, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole is meeting and listening to Kelly Gissendaner’s son, Brandon, whose brother and sister have already pleaded for mercy for their mother. In 1997 Kelly Gissendaner murdered Doug Gissendaner, who was the stepfather to Gissendaner’s sons and father to her daughter. Other inmates, officials, clergy, and theologians— including Jürgen Moltmann— have asked that Gissendaner not be executed.
The second execution is scheduled for Sept. 30 in Oklahoma. However, death row inmate Richard Glossip’s case raises many doubts, especially since he was convicted solely on the testimony of only one witness, who confessed to the crime and received a life sentence with no physical evidence directly linking Glossip to the crime. Again, many people are asking for his life to be spared.
And third, in the state where I reside and work, Missouri plans to execute Kimber Edwards on Oct. 6, even though he, like Glossip, may have been wrongfully convicted.
I formerly served as a corrections officer at a maximum security facility. I also used to be a reserve police officer. I have sped through city streets in a squad car, sirens blaring, on my way to shootings. I have booked and interviewed (interrogated) alleged murderers. I have seen victims’ families cry. I have had inmates hit me. I even used force when I wore a badge. And yet, as a Catholic Christian, over the years I have come to oppose capital punishment for a number of reasons.
I agree with Pope Francis’ remarks about the death penalty. During his speech before Congress, Democrats and Republicans applauded when he emphasized: “Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’” (Mt 7:12). The pope added: “This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
And then he specifically devoted attention to capital punishment: “This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”
Pope Francis has made similar remarks previously, echoing Pope John Paul II who, 16 years ago here in St. Louis, asked then-Governor Mel Carnahan of Missouri to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, and the governor complied with his request. John Paul II added: “The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that 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. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”
So the current Catholic position on capital punishment views it as morally unjustified. It is not necessary to protect society. It does not make up for the horrible crime committed. It does not really respect the sanctity of life. Just as nobody can earn or merit grace and salvation, so too can no one do anything that absolutely excludes them from possibly receiving grace and salvation. We are all sinners, as the apostle Paul noted in Romans 3:23.
In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995, par. 56), John Paul II said that it is only justified as “legitimate defense” against an imminent threat to society, a scenario that he believed is “rare if not practically nonexistent” in countries such as the U.S. (reiterated in the Catechism, par. 2267). Although, unlike direct abortion, capital punishment is not what is referred to as an “intrinsic evil” (never morally justified because it is per se evil), I would say that now—in the view of the Catholic Church—the death penalty is a “grave evil” much like unjust war. Just war might be morally justified, as is the death penalty, as “legitimate defense” against imminent and grave threats; otherwise, it is morally unjustified and therefore a grave evil. These three executions, if carried out, would be gravely evil, in my view. And, as a former corrections officer, I also worry about what carrying out these executions does to the officers and staff involved.
“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Let us also not do unto others what we would not have them do unto us. And let us not become the very evil from which we are trying to protect ourselves.