Sed Contra: Mercy for Mr. Mease

Deal W. Hudson
March 1, 1999

The popular film Dead Man Walking sent more than a few ripples through the country on the topic of the death penalty. Despite the film’s well-taken point about God’s mercy, its sentimental appeal only convinced me that most arguments against the death penalty are ill-founded.

Not the overt emotional plea, the gruesomeness of the execution itself, or the film’s attempt—through the eyes of Sr. Helen Prejean—to humanize the killer shook my confidence in the state’s right to execute its most flagrant criminals.

The pope’s recent plea to “have mercy on Mr. Mease,” whispered in the ear of Missouri’s governor, unexpectedly shook me. The differences between the film and the pope’s witness are many, some obvious, but the one that struck me was its cool, moral logic.

Bear in mind what the pope did not say: He did not question the state’s right to impose the death penalty, as clearly stated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (52266-2267). He did not say the death penalty was an intrinsic evil, on a moral par with abortion and euthanasia.

The pope’s argument, in short, is not against the death penalty but against the use of the death penalty. This distinction has been obscured and will continue to be, in the media discussions of the pope’s visit.

Our Holy Father is leaving untouched the Catholic teaching on the death penalty. However, he is asking the state to refrain from exercising its right because he believes the state can guarantee the safety of its citizens by keeping dangerous criminals locked up.

Five arguments can be employed in defense of the pope’s position:

  • A murderer should be given as much time as possible to undergo spiritual reform.
  • The death penalty is a punishment that cannot be retracted if new evidence proves innocence.
  • The death penalty is a punishment, not an act of revenge, and should be viewed without that motive.
  • The modern state has tragically abused its power over life and death making it preferable that the state exercise that power as little as possible.
  • In a culture of death, the option for the death penalty, although morally licit, should be rejected by Catholics as a witness to their belief in the sacredness of all human life.

The pope’s practical advice suggests that the death penalty should not be used to patch up a criminal justice system that leaks murderers back into society. Systemic problems, like over-crowding or expense, should not prevent a life sentence from being carried to full term. The courts, sentences, and jails must be fixed so that those who have intentionally taken a human life can live out their days apart from civilized society.

For myself, I have made a promise to reconsider my support for using the death penalty, but to do so, I need to know the answers to these questions:

  • Is the life sentence for first-degree murder genuine in the 50 states, or are these sentences cut short by parole?
  • Assuming there is an additional expense for these life sentences, can that expense be offset in any way?
  • Are life sentences adequately punitive?

The power of the pope’s plea for mercy ultimately goes back to the force behind the basic question: Can we protect ourselves from these criminals without putting them to death? Catholics who have supported the death penalty heed the pope’s plea by reflecting on this question and others in future issues of CRISIS.

There are some who will be concerned that the pope’s logic will ultimately lead to pacifism. Some mistakenly point to pacifism as being at the root of the pope’s and the bishop’s opposition to the bombing of Iraq, but neither their stand against the death penalty nor their position on the bombing affects Catholic just-war theory at all. You don’t need pacifist instincts to see the political subtext in President Clinton’s decision to bomb.

Neither does a reconsideration of the death penalty lead to the faulty reasoning of the “seamless garment.” The American bishops recently threw out those tattered rags and replaced them with the image of a “house of life.” This house contains many rooms: All of them are devoted to issues of life and death; none of them are tied together by the false logic of moral equivalency. Catholics can safely revisit the room of the death penalty without feeling they are aiding and abetting those in the Church who see no difference between killing an innocent life and executing those who kill in cold blood.

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