Capital Punishment? Yes or No: A Catholic Perspective

By Brother John Raymond

For centuries the State has used capital punishment. Some States have from time to time abolished this practice. What does Catholic morality have to say about this? Does the State have the right to take life? If so should the State take life? Are there any alternatives? These are the questions that will be addressed in this article. We do not want to answer these questions only theoretically but will take a concrete case for part of the analysis.

On December 24, 1919, at Bridgewater, Massachusetts three men jumped out of a car. One of them carried a shotgun and the other two carried pistols. The men planned on holding up a payroll truck carrying $33,113. The man with the shotgun fired at the truck but fortunately the driver of the truck had seen them and swerved away. Seeing they had failed the three robbers got back in their car and drove away.

On April 15, 1920, another robbery was planned in the city of South Braintree. Five men were now seen in the same car that had been in Bridgewater. In South Braintree was a big company with two buildings located a few blocks away from each other. It was payday for all the workers. The company had hired a detective and his guard to deliver $15,776 from one company building to the other. As the detective and his guard walked down the sidewalk with the money two of the five men in the car robbed them. The two robbers shot the guard three times and the detective twice. The two robbers took the money box from them and their fellow robbers in the car came and picked them up. The guard had just managed to stand up again when one of the robbers in the car ran over to him and shot him pointblank. Both the detective and the guard soon died. A woman looking out of a window at the robbers was shot at by one of them shot although he missed. As the car drove away from the scene of the crime one of the robbers continued to shoot randomly at people as they passed by. Fortunately all the bullets he fired missed their mark. Another robber pointed a shotgun out of the car's back window but did not fire it. The robbers were able to escape before the police came.

Later the police came to suspect some Italian anarchists, men known for spreading literature for the otherthrow of the U. S. government, as possible suspects for the robberies. A few weeks after the robbery three of the Italian anarchists were arrested. One of the men was released because he had proof that he could not have been at the crime. Of the two remaining suspects one of them, Vanzetti, was found carrying a handgun and with four unused shotgun shells in his pocket. The other man, Sacco, had a handgun. He had anti-government literature in his pocket.

Both men were tried in court by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Two gun experts said the bullet that killed the guard came from Sacco's gun and two other experts said that it did not. One of the experts said the shotgun shells in Vanzetti's pocket matched a used shell found on the ground during the Bridgewater robbery. The testimony of witnesses against the two men did not seem very convincing as their stories conflicted and changed with each testimony. The anarchist activity of the two suspects and their lack of patriotism for the country was used against them at the trial. According to the U. S. court system a hand-picked jury votes on the innocence or guilt of the suspects. If all the jury members agree on a guilty charge the suspects are guilty otherwise they are considered innocent. (It is interesting that in choosing the jury some people refused to be on it because they did not believe in capital punishment.) The jury voted in this particular case that both Sacco and Vanzetti were guilty of first degree murder, which meant a death sentence for both of them.

For seven long years the two convicted men waited in prison while appeals were made first to the state Supreme Court and then to the Governor of the state. The Supreme Court could only judge whether or not the trial had been conducted fairly. According to state law they could not reexamine the evidence itself or look at new evidence. The Supreme Court ruled that the trial had been conducted fairly. The Governor of the state has the power to reexamine a case or change the sentence to life imprisonment. The Governor reexamined the case and agreed with the original trial that the convicted men were guilty. Before this case he had publicly stated many times that he believed in the death penalty as a deterrent. During the time of waiting in prison Sacco tried to kill himself. He told psychiatrists his reason for doing this was that he said he had suffered long enough and wanted an immediate final decision - death or freedom. Sacco had a wife and two children. To defend the two men in the court system cost more than $250,000 (probably equivalent to over one million dollars today).

Both men pleaded their innocence right until their execution. Both convicts were Catholic, although they had not practiced their Faith for years. Before their execution both of them refused to receive the last rites of the Church from a priest. An appeal had been made to the Cardinal of Boston to write to the Governor to stop the executions. He decided not to get involved but commented that "`human judgment is fallible always at best, but it is the only human method of government which civilized life has developed. But the justice of God is perfect, and in the end He and His way, mysterious as they are, are our hope and our salvation (Russell 1962, 434).'" Sacco and Vanzetti were executed by the state of Massachusetts in 1927. In 1943 the leader of the Anarchists movement in the United States was asked about the innocence of the two men. He replied that "`Sacco was guilty but Vanzetti was not (Russell 1962, 463).'"

The moral issue that I wish to consider here is the State of Massachusetts taking the life of Sacco and Vanzetti. Life is a gift from God. Each person is called into existence by the love of God and destined to share in the Trinitarian Life for all Eternity, according to Christian Revelation. Since life is considered as a precious gift from God only He has the right to dispose of it. In other words, when a person takes their own life or the life of another person they unjustly deprive God of His right of disposing life.

In the particular case we are looking at it is the State, not an individual, taking the life of a person. In the Old Testament Israel had prescribed capital punishment for some crimes. In the New Testament St. Paul in his letter to the Romans recognizes the State's right to take life. He says the State "is God's minister to you for good. But if you do what is evil, fear, for not without reason does it carry the sword. For it is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who does evil." (Rom. 13,4) The expression "carry the sword" then "signified having authority to execute offenders (Welty 1963, 278)." There is a difference between the authority of individuals and the State in St. Paul's writings. The State is seen as having its authority given it by God. He says, "There exists no authority except from God. . . therefore he who resists the authority resists the ordinance of God." (Rom. 13;1,2) Unlike the individual, the State gets its authority from God and therefore is not seen as usurping God's rights when taking a life. The Church has upheld this right of the State to inflict capital punishment. In 1210 Pope Innocent III defended the position that the State had the right to condemn the guilty to death. In 1944 and 1952 Pope Pius XII confirmed this position.

Is the need for capital punishment by the State absolutely necessary? For St. Thomas Aquinas the answer to this question would be that "if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good (Campion 1967, 80)." St. Thomas position could be summed up by saying that the State has an obligation to safeguard the community. "Nowadays it would be difficult to convince most people of the plausibility of the statement that the only way of guaranteeing the continued existence of law and order was to put those who broke the law, in extreme cases, to death (Bockle 1980, 237)." This means that other alternatives are possible. In the late Middle Ages "the custom spread of permitting an offender to perform a pilgrimage to some famous religious shrine in place of another penalty for murder or other grave crime (Campion 1967, 80)." In the case of Sacco and Vanzetti the Governor did have the possibility of a life sentence in prison. Would this have been such a bad alternative?

"Putting someone to death says that nothing else is possible for that person. . .The human story is symbolized as a story without much hope, as a story which is not going anywhere except into an ongoing cycle of violence (Keane 1984, 133)." With the proclamation of the Basileia (Kingdom of God) the demands made by Jesus function as criteria for the imposition and formulation of laws. "Christian morality is based on the ideal of the greatest possible mercy and love, which allows invasion of personal rights only where absolutely necessary (Molinski 1970, 165)." Capital punishment can be shown not to be absolutely necessary by the State. In our particular case the Governor of Massachusetts argued for it on the belief that it was a deterrent. Morally speaking "it can never be permissible to take a person's life in order that others may not commit similar crimes and incur similar punishment (Welty 1963, 278)." But for the sake of argument "according to statistics, the abolition of capital punishment has not led to an increase in the crime rate but rather has gone hand in hand with a decline. And the psychological effect of the deterrent is in fact highly debatable. It can be shown that the public executions usual in the past served rather to coarsen morals, since they served to blunt the sense of the inviolability of life (Molinski 1970, 164)." A study conducted in the United States came to the very same conclusion.

It is interesting that the U. S. Catholic Bishop's Conference in 1974 spoke against capital punishment out of a "commitment to the value and dignity of human life (Foy 1980, 359)." This reflects the conclusion stated above that capital punishment has a negative effect of lowering the value of God's gift of life. In a further statement made by the Conference in 1978 they do not talk against the right of the State to take life. But they mention that "past history. . . shows that the death penalty in its present application has been discriminatory with respect to the disadvantaged, the indigent and the socially impoverished (Foy 1980, 359)." In the case of Sacco and Vanzetti there is the possibility that their being Italian immigrants, poor and anarchists affected the jury's decision of a guilty verdict. Also the tremendous cost of defending oneself, as seen in the Sacco and Vanzetti case, limits the poor to court appointed lawyers. These lawyers probably are not the best especially when compared to those hired by the rich.

For the Christian serious consideration must be given to the fact that "Jesus Himself was a victim of an unjust death sentence (Molinski 1970, 165)." The Cardinal of Boston in his statement at the time said that "human judgment is fallible at best." There is a history of condemned criminals being found innocent later. Why risk the death of the innocent? With life imprisonment at least the person can be released from an unjust sentence. But what does the State do if Vanzetti is now found to be innocent? With capital punishment it is obviously too late for the State to repair the damage done.

The cruelty of not knowing whether one will be condemned to death or not takes a psychological toll on the suspects. The waiting and unknown date for execution are mental tortures. This can clearly be seen in the case of Sacco. He stated that this was the very reason for his trying to commit suicide. It is a well-known fact that people sometimes wait more than a year in prison just to have their first trial. Not only does the condemned person suffer but what about his friends and family? Sacco had a wife and two children. They are innocent of any crime but are made to suffer mental anguish also. Not only that but by a death sentence they are deprived of the father of their family. What have they done to deserve this? Some may argue for just retribution to be made for the loss of life of the detective and guard. Certainly Sacco and Vanzetti if guilty could not possibly make up for the loss of life of these men. But on the other hand by killing Sacco and Vanzetti who benefits? The families of the detective and guard gain nothing by this act. Perhaps with a life sentence some work could have been done by Sacco and Vanzetti to earn money to help support the families of the Detective and Guard.

There are many examples of prisoners having a change of heart in prison. Again with the idea of mercy a person with a life sentence has the opportunity for a conversion to a more acceptable behavior. He has the possibility of returning to society. In the case of Sacco and Vanzetti could a priest have touched their lives over time? With the death penalty this question remains unanswered. Although some would argue that God supplies sufficient grace to all for salvation, it seems to me that the last thing one should do is execute an unrepentant sinner. Perhaps God's grace of mercy and salvation could be more readily accepted by the sinner if we first show "our" mercy on him. "Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way of life and live?" (Ezekiel 18,23) Certainly Jesus exemplified having mercy on the sinner many times, even one sentenced to death! He chose to let the adulterous woman free, although by law He certainly had the "right" to condemn her to death by stoning. He simply said to her, "from now on sin no more." (Jn 8,11)

Considering the praxis of Jesus rights are waved aside as mercy triumphs over justice. The Church has reiterated this praxis of Jesus repeatedly by emphasizing mercy by the State. In 1983 Pope John Paul II "recommended clemency and mercy for those condemned to death (Keane 1984, 197)." And in 1995 the same Pope wrote, "The nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent." (Pope John Paul, 1995, 91) The only acceptable solution at present seems to be life imprisonment for the offender. But even this alternative can be tempered with mercy by the conditions of the prison, visits from family, possible release for good behavior, etc. This alternative is a real possibility. Some may argue against it because of the excessive financial cost to the State but perhaps the prisoners could be made to do some productive work for the State. Others say that these type of prisoners endanger other prisoners. Some form of isolation maybe necessary to solve this problem. Safeguarding society by life imprisonment is a definite alternative to capital punishment. More time and thought should be given to the conditions of this imprisonment. Ultimately the praxis of overcoming evil by good as exemplified by Jesus has to be kept in mind in formulating such a system.

In summary, we have seen that the State of Massachusetts did have the "right" to execute Sacco and Vanzetti. According to the Old Testament praxis, the writings of St. Paul in the New Testament and the tradition of the Church this right of the State has been upheld. On the other hand, on a closer analysis of capital punishment based on historical and psychological grounds the State of Massachusetts did not have an absolute necessity to carry out such a verdict. The old argument of St. Thomas Aquinas that capital punishment is a necessary protection for the common good is seen today as no longer sustainable. Other arguments against capital punishment include evidence that it is unjustly used more often against the poor and underprivileged members of society than those in better social and economic standing. With Sacco and Vanzetti their was the possibility of a prejudiced verdict because of their poor Italian immigrant background and political affiliation. Then, of course, there is the real possibility that Sacco and Vanzetti were innocent. There are cases where in the light of later evidence those thought to be guilty were in fact innocent. If these two men were innocent, or even one of them, how can the State possibly undue the damage done. Other arguments against the State's use of capital punishment are the unnecessary mental and emotional torture inflicted on these two men as well as their families over the uncertainty of death and death itself.

Moving more to the religious sphere we see that Sacco and Vanzetti were possibly unrepentant sinners. The death penalty may have radically cut short any possibilities for conversion and even reinstatement of these men back into society. Considering the Basileia (Kingdom of God) and the praxis of Jesus a much stronger argument can be seen against the State's imposition of capital punishment. Mercy triumphs over justice in the light of the New Testament. Where a more merciful alternative exists the State should take this path. As we have seen, life imprisonment is a real alternative to capital punishment. The lives of Sacco and Vanzetti could have had surprising outcomes perhaps for the betterment of society had this option been followed. At least this option leaves open the possibility of overcoming evil by good as compared to capital punishment with its vicious cycle of solving violence by violence. The dignity of human life really demands that the State seriously reconsider the wisdom of capital punishment in the light of new findings and in the light of Christian praxis.

Updated Church Teaching on Capital Punishment as of 2/8/2018

Works Cited

The New Catholic Encyclopedia. 1967. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co. Vol. 3. Capital Punishment, by D. R. Campion.

Bockle, Franz. 1980. Fundamental Moral Theology. Translated by N. D. Smith. New York: Pueblo Publishing Co.

Foy, O.F.M., Felician A., ed. 1980. Catholic Almanac. Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor. Capital Punishment.

Keane, S.S., Philip S. 1984. Christian Ethics and Imagination: A Theological Inquiry. New York: Paulist Press.

Rahner, S.J., Karl, Cornelius Ernst, O.P., Kevin Smyth, Juan Alfaro, S.J., Alberto Bellini, Carlo Colombo, Henri Crouzel, S.J., Jean Cardinal Danielou, S.J., Adolf Darlap, Jose Fondevilla, S.J., Piet Fransen, Fergus Kerr, O.P., Piet Schoonenberg, Gustave Weigel, S.J., eds. 1970. Sacramentum Mundi: An Encyclopedia of Theology. Vol. 5, Capital Punishment, by Waldemar Molinski.

Pope John Paul II. 1995. The Gospel of Life. Translated by The Vatican. Boston: Pauline Books & Media.

Russell, Francis. 1962. Tragedy in Dedham: The Story of the Sacco & Vanzetti Case. New York: McGraw Hill Book Co.

Welty, O.P., Eberhard, 1963. A Handbook of Christian Social Ethics. Translated by Gregor Kirstein, O.P. Vol. 2, The Structure of the Social Order. New York: Herder and Herder.