Does capital punishment violate the fifth commandment, “Thou Shall Not Kill?”
Sister Helen Prejean testified in federal court on May 11th that the Boston Marathon Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, was, in fact, remorseful.
The defense called the Catholic nun as a witness, after she held five face-to-face meetings with the surviving terrorist responsible for the Boston Bombings on April 15, 2013. Three people died from those bombs and more than 260 people were injured.
The world-famous nun, depicted by Susan Sarandon in the movie, Dead Man Walking, regularly advocates against the death penalty. However, in this case, her advocacy failed, as Tsarnaev was sentenced on Friday, May 15th to death by lethal injection.
Does Sister Prejean speak for the entire Catholic Church? Are Catholics obliged to follow the nun’s lead in supporting the end of capital punishment?
IS REMORSE ENOUGH?
So often, capital punishment opponents claim putting a serious convict to death denies him time to repent. And already, supposedly, Tsarnaev has expressed remorse for his actions. Is this enough to spare his life?
Universal Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches remorse or lack thereof need not even be considered when deciding to execute a serious convict. He states, “The fact that the evil ones, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit that they may be justly executed” (emphasis added).
Moreover, there is no guarantee every convict will repent.
There does, on the other hand, remain a possibility, even if jailed for life, convicted criminals may kill cell mates or prison guards. As well, they could pass messages out of the prison to cause more harm. Their breaking out of jail continues as a possibility as well. These are risks taken in housing men and women proven willing to commit murder or other serious crimes.
ON WHAT GROUNDS CAN CAPITAL PUNISHMENT BE MORALLY SUPPORTED?
So, on what other grounds can a Catholic uphold the Church’s historical support of capital punishment?
The most commonly-known reason is for the defense of society as a whole.
Says the 13th-Century Dominican and Church Doctor, St. Thomas, “Therefore, if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since ‘a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump’ (1 Cor 5:6)” (2, emphasis added).
The current Catechism of the Catholic Church “does not exclude recourse” to capital punishment, on these grounds as well. It states the death penalty can be a means to effectively defend human lives from an unjust attacker (#2267).
The prior catechism, the Baltimore Catechism taught capital punishment was permissible for “the good of the community” and for preservation of law and order” (#1276).
Over the centuries, popes have exercised this duty to protect the common good, having sentenced hundreds of people to death.
The second, and more important reason the death penalty stands on solid moral grounds remains its expiatory potential.
The grief God must feel upon a murder often gets forgotten. Each person is loved by God and created in His image. Thus, to slay a man is to hurt God.
He tells Noah as much. “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image” (Gen 9:6, emphasis added).
God calls for wicked people to be put to death numerous times elsewhere in Holy Writ (Exod 22:18, Ps 101:8, etc.). This is not uncommon to the New Testament either.
Ananias and Sapphira, not even guilty of a capital crime, are executed by order of St. Peter (Acts 5:1-11). Jesus Himself said it would be better a man be drowned to death than to commit the sin of scandal (Matthew 18:6; Mark 9:42; Luke 17:2).
DOES THE DEATH PENALTY DEFY THE FIFTH COMMANDMENT, “THOU SHALL NOT KILL?”
Capital punishment naysayers may point to Exodus 20:13 with the command, “Thou shall not kill.” But does this serve as a prohibition against the death penalty for convicts? Not according to Church Tradition.
“The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder,” states the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, as promulgated by Saint Pope Pius V in 1566 (emphasis added).
In actuality, enforcing capital punishment strengthens honor of the fifth commandment. Each person’s superior right is his right to life. Therefore, to unjustly deprive someone this fundamental right should forfeit your right to life. In fact, this is the exact sentiment of Pope Venerable Pius XII:
“Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life” (3, emphasis added).
St. Augustine, another Doctor of the Church, echoes how capital punishment upholds the fifth commandment, also. He states, “The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts.
“Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason” (4).
Just before quoting Psalm 101:8 to support itself, the Catechism of the Council of Trent reiterates the legitimacy of the death penalty as a means to honor the fifth commandment. It states,
“Far from being guilty of breaking this commandment [Thou shall not kill], such an execution of justice is precisely an act of obedience to it.
“For the purpose of the law is to protect and foster human life. This purpose is fulfilled when the legitimate authority of the State is exercised by taking the guilty lives of those who have taken innocent lives” (emphasis added).
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
The person put to death by order of the state has been found guilty of terrible crime(s). Most often, this means murder. To kill someone innocent of wrong doing is murder.
Whereas, to put to death someone who is guilty of a capital crime is not murder. So long as he is determined to be truly guilty, the one dying is not innocent.
Moreover, everyone must remember this life is not all there is. A man put to death could still live forever in heaven, so long as he accepts his death as expiation for his sin. (Think of the thief on the cross.)
“Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason” -St. Augustine
Clearly, not everyone agrees with the Church’s Tradition of supporting capital punishment, Pope Francis included.
However, any Catholic today can still support the death penalty and remain in a state of grace within the Church. In fact, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) clarified as much in July 2004. As the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he wrote the following:
“Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion… it may still be permissible… to have recourse to capital punishment.
“There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia” (6, emphasis added).
Clearly, Sister Prejean was disappointed when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving Boston Marathon Bomber, was sentenced to be executed. But if you had instead a sense of relief upon hearing the news, rest easy. You remain a friend of the Church.
You also stand with great doctors of the Church, and numerous popes in supporting the dignity of human life by seeing to it the fifth commandment is honored.
[1.] Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, chapter 146
[2.] Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2
[3.] Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, 14 September 1952, XIV, 328
[4.] The City of God, Book 1, chapter 21
[5.] Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent, 1566, Part III, 5, n. 4
[6.] “Worthiness to Receive Communion: General Principles”
I have to imagine people will want to weigh in on this one. Please share your thoughts here.
Were you aware the Catholic Church teaches the death penalty actually upholds the fifth commandment, rather than detracts from it?