In Our Sunday Visitor, Fr Gordon MacRae refuted another priest’s defense of the death penalty in U.S. Justice. He now makes his case this week on These Stone Walls.
If, like a number of Catholics I know, you find yourself on the fence about Catholic opposition to the death penalty, then please read this to the end. The death penalty in American justice is one of those hot-button, polarizing issues I usually try to avoid on These Stone Walls, but I just waded into its murky depths. So I ask you to step into that torrent with me for a few minutes to weigh another side of this story.
Some TSW readers spotted a controversial letter of mine published in the October 27 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. The letter is controversial because it publicly challenges another priest whose open defense of the death penalty in U.S. justice was seriously flawed and incomplete (OSV Letters, October 6, 2013).
I do not know Father John Lewandowski, author of the published letter, but I just could not let the matter pass without comment. Believe me, I tried to, but it kept me awake. As I wrote in “From the Pope’s End of the World,” last week, both content and context are necessary to fully understand Pope Francis. Context should not be sacrificed to score a point.
In his argument in OSV, Father Lewandowski selectively cited a few passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church to refute the U.S. Bishops’ public opposition to capital punishment. His lack of context gave an erroneous impression that, in principle in modern justice, the death penalty is sanctioned in Catholic moral teaching. The context that was missing was a final paragraph from the Catechism that firmly holds that few, if any, circumstances exist today in which the death penalty is necessary for the common good, and therefore justified.
Catholic moral teaching sanctions in theory a government’s right to take the life of an offender, but only when no other option is available to contain the aggressor and protect life. Catholic teaching does not sanction vengeance. This is a distinction emphasized by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life” 55-56, 1995), and in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2267).
Blessed Pope John Paul II affirmed that capital punishment can be morally imposed only out of necessity. In his defense of life, he stated that the death penalty is seldom or never necessary to protect the lives of others in modern society. Our Sunday Visitor editors omitted parts of my letter – sometimes necessary to save space – but it lost some context. I would like to publish my entire OSV letter here, and then explain why I am also unhappy with my own argument:
“It was painful, sad, and scandalous to read a selectively worded defense of the death penalty penned by a Catholic priest in the pages of OSV (Letters, October 6). Father John Lewandowski cited only a part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to underwrite the morality of the death penalty. Had he cited just one section further, CCC 2267, OSV readers might have weighed the following:
‘[T]he traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty IF [emphasis mine] this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives…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 they are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.’ (CCC 2267)
“Life in prison is a demonstrably sufficient means to render the death penalty beyond the scope of what the Church considers just and moral. Father Lewandowski further asks in defense of punishment by death, ‘But what about the widow and the orphan or the bereaved family?’ Since when is revenge the preferred recourse in Catholic moral teaching? Are they less bereaved by the taking of yet another life? How does vengeance mitigate such tragic sorrow?
“Just days after Father Lewandowski’s letter appeared in OSV, The Wall Street Journal (October 12/13) ran an article about a shortage of anesthetic drugs used for U.S. executions because the European Union refuses to ship them due to a conclusion that the American death penalty is barbaric.
“I have been in prison for 19 years. I am well aware that the U.S. justice system offers no assurances against wrongful convictions. The hundreds of DNA exonerations nationwide over the last decade should make any American, certainly any Catholic, wary of capital punishment as the ordinary course.” (Fr. Gordon J. MacRae, Our Sunday Visitor. Oct. 27, 2013)
THY BROTHER’S KEEPER
I am unhappy with my own argument because it, too, is incomplete. I was not always so vehemently opposed to capital punishment. It wasn’t until I experienced the American criminal justice system first hand that I learned how little regard for truth and justice the entire process has. And yet it stands out nonetheless as one of the best systems of justice in the world. I can only conclude from this that the human community is not so good at meting out justice, and the concept needs work. For this reason, Catholic positions have evolved somewhat, as have the nation’s, as have my own.
My OSV letter presented an argument that the large number of proven wrongful convictions “should make any American, certainly any Catholic, wary of capital punishment.” That is true, and it is also true that the U.S. justice system has wrongfully executed innocent men. The hundreds, perhaps thousands of wrongful convictions in America are no longer a matter of debate. They have exposed an abuse and perversion of the justice system that, from my experience, should nullify any right of the state to put its citizens to death for a crime. In an October 2011 post, “Thy Brother’s Keeper: Why Wrongful Convictions Should Matter to You,” I made this point with some clear examples.
But this is not the point I should have made in OSV. The fact of wrongful convictions should be a reason to oppose our government’s use of the death penalty, but there is another, more transcendent reason Catholics should oppose it. Sometimes even the most consciously pro-life Catholics feel lukewarm on the issue of capital punishment, vaguely holding that to be pro-life is qualified to mean “pro-INNOCENT-life.” Good sense defies applying the same pro-life principles to the taking of life from millions of innocent unborn and the taking of life from those who commit murder.
I think TSW readers know of my pro-life positions from posts such as “The Last Full Measure of Devotion: Civil Rights and the Right to Life.” I readily agree with some that opposition to capital punishment in the meting out of justice does not always fit comfortably under our pro-life umbrella.
THE SUPREME COURT AND CATHOLIC CONSCIENCE
In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated a state’s right to execute citizens for certain crimes. It is often argued that the death penalty should be used because the Supreme Court has allowed it to be used. The Court may be the final arbiter of law, but not of conscience, and not even of justice. Here’s a striking example described in my post, “The Last Full Measure of Devotion.”
In 1857, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, a Catholic, handed down a decision in the famous Dred Scott case. Dred Scott was a slave in Missouri whose “owner” took him to the State of Illinois which was a free state. Dred Scott, who had learned in secret to read and write, then sued for his freedom. In a decision upheld by a majority of the Supreme Court, Justice Taney ruled that black men are not citizens of the United States and therefore, “a black man has no rights any white man is bound to respect.”
There are few today who would argue the justice of this decision. Because the Supreme Court says something is lawful does not mean that it is morally correct, or that it serves justice. And for those who hold out little hope for the reversal of Roe v. Wade, the Dred Scott decision rested upon some of the same principles of law, and was eventually reversed.
Our national sense of justice has evolved since Dred Scot, and my own has evolved over the last twenty years as a prisoner of the State of New Hampshire, a state with one man currently on death row. He is a young black man, a population still four times more likely than white men to receive the death penalty for the same crime. It wasn’t until I was placed in the shoes of a prisoner that I became convinced that dealing out death must not be the purview of any democracy, and most certainly must not be the public position of any Catholic priest.
Catholics must hold out hope for conversion and redemption, concepts which transcend law. Otherwise, there IS no hope. Our concern must look beyond an eye for an eye to hold out hope for the salvation of a soul. Some fundamentalists argue that Scripture contains many examples of God’s sanctioning of capital punishment. That is true, but God Himself sanctioned the protection of the life of Cain, humankind’s first murderer, forbidding anyone to harm him as he was expelled to wander “In the Land of Nod, East of Eden.” And Saul of Tarsus, who presided over the murder by stoning of the deacon, Stephen, was chosen by God for a conversion and transformation that, as Saint Paul, built the Church.
Some defend capital punishment, arguing that it affords a moment just before execution for an offender to repent and save his soul. This reduces conversion and redemption to a momentary event instead of a process. Consider “Pornchai’s Story.” If the State of Maine, where his crime took place at age 18, had the death penalty, Pornchai and I would have never met. He would not have found God – Who was clearly intent on being found by Pornchai – and his soul would have been lost forever.
DIVINE MERCY IN TEXAS
I think most TSW readers today would gasp at the very thought that Pornchai Moontri could have long ago been put to death in many states with a death penalty. When we know the person who committed the offense, and walk a few steps in that person’s shoes, we’re not so eager to dole out death, to compound one tragedy with another.
Many TSW readers have read Felix Carroll’s inspiring book, Loved, Lost, Found: 17 Divine Mercy Conversions, featured on These Stone Walls. People around the world have read the book’s chapter about Pornchai’s life and conversion, and have marveled at God’s justice and Divine Mercy.
But there is another chapter in Felix Carroll’s great book that shook me in my very soul. It is the painful and compelling story of Joe Walker. On July 8, 2006, Joe returned to his Greenville, Texas home after a visit to his parish church to find a note from police summoning him to the station. Joe’s 40-year-old daughter, Sarah Anne, a mother of two, had been brutally murdered, stabbed 27 times by a young, deeply troubled Laotian immigrant.
Joe was simply devastated, but this amazing man of faith, who embraces Divine Mercy, vehemently opposed the death penalty for his daughter’s killer, 25-year-old Kosoul Chanthakoummane. As the case went to trial, a death sentence was sought by the prosecutor against Joe’s wishes, and imposed by the court.
Today, Kosoul lives on death row awaiting execution in a Texas prison while Joe Walker awaits only one thing, Divine Mercy and the turning of that young man’s soul to God. Joe has contacted Kosoul’s family, has sent them material about Divine Mercy to share with their son, and joins them in prayer for his life.
Joe Walker’s practice of Divine Mercy has convinced him that what God wants from this tragedy is not Kosoul’s life, but his soul: “To put him to death, to take another life, I don’t think our Lord would want that,” says Joe. And of the day of execution, he said, “If I am still alive, I’ll go down to the prison and make a big scene.”
I once wrote – in “Potholes on the High Road: Forgiving Those Who Trespass Against Us” – about my grueling path to forgiveness of a prosecutor who wrongly put me into prison for 67 years for a crime that never took place, and then took his own life. Joe’s story was an earth shaking challenge for me that the practice of Divine Mercy is not God’s alone, but the gift of a road map to the imitation of Christ.
Jesus once asked his disciples, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on Earth?” (Luke 18:8). On that day, I hope I’m standing next to Joe Walker.