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.

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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