Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Guest column: 10/10: a Catholic view on the death penalty

By Muerk

On July 5 1902 in Italy an eleven year old girl was viciously attacked by a family friend. The little girl, Maria Goretti, resisted the attempted rape by twenty year old Alessandro Serenelli and in his rage he stabbed her fourteen times. Maria Goretti died in hospital the next day.

Serenelli was the type of criminal that many would like to see given the death penalty. Some would say that his crime was unforgivable, especially given that Serenelli was unrepentant. But before Maria died she was asked if she forgave him, she replied, "Yes, for the love of Jesus I forgive him... and I want him to be with me in Paradise."

Serenelli was sentenced to thirty years in jail, but if he had been given the death penalty our story could possibly have ended here as just another tragic story of brutal violence. Society could have felt complacent knowing that whilst the wrongs Maria suffered had not been righted, they had been punished. Revenge would have been satisfied by the murderer's death.

However, thankfully this story is not over. After serving seven years in jail Alessandro Serenelli had a vision of his victim.

He saw a garden. where a young girl, dressed in white, was gathering lilies. She smiled, and came near him, and encouraged him to accept an armful of the lilies. As he accepted them, each lily transformed into a still white flame. Maria then disappeared.

This was enough to convert Serenelli and after twenty-seven years in prison the first thing he did when released was to go and visit Maria's mother and beg her forgiveness. In 1950 along with her mother he was present at Saint Maria Goretti's canonisation. The Catholic Church believes that St Maria's final wish for Alessandro to be with her in Heaven is achievable. Anyone can repent and be forgiven, even those who have committed the gravest of deeds. But in order for that to happen people have to be left alive. All human life is precious, even someone like Alessandro, and no one has the right to end another person's life even to atone for murder.


That's very nice for him, but not so nice for Maria who was raped and brutally murdered and is not in heaven or a saint because there is no such thing as either, is there. It is very nice the story ended up happily for him though. If Maria knew, which she doesn't cos she's dead, I'm sure she would think that being raped and murdered was all worthwhole.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/10/2006 06:52:00 AM

True, Serenelli's sincere conversion does not set things right, however, neither does executing the man.

I think the important thing is that he actually realised what a terrible thing he had done.

Just because a human being does an inhuman thing does not mean he is no longer human.

I highly recommend everyone here to read two classic & still relevant essays on capital punishment:

George Orwell's 'A Hanging'


Albert Camus' 'Reflections on the Guillotine' (in Resistance, Rebellion & Death)

~ Josh

Posted by Anonymous : 10/10/2006 11:57:00 AM

Anon: The title of the post is "a catholic view on the death penalty" - in other words, it is a point of view founded upon the certainty of the christian faith, and the doctrine that issues from that. To criticise the argument on the basis God does not exist is to completely miss the point.

Posted by Sanctuary : 10/10/2006 03:32:00 PM

anon - unfortunately, once she's dead, there's nothing you can do for her.

Sanctuary - actually, this bugs me. It should be 'Catholic' with a capital c. Catholic with a lower-case c means 'universal, general, broad in sympathies, tastes or interests'. I'm desperately assuming this was a typo.

Yeah, I know, I'm a none-too-closet nit-picker. My only excuse is that my closet is crammed full of other stuff.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/10/2006 04:14:00 PM

So, if he'd been executed immediately he would have gone to hell, but because he was given time to repent, he goes to heaven? Isn't it a bit disturbing for the eternal fate of someone's immortal soul to be decided by the whims of Earthly authorities?

Posted by Commie Mutant Traitor : 10/10/2006 04:17:00 PM

Sanctuary: that's pretty much the attitude I took when it was offered. That, and there's an important point buried under all that religion - namely, that the death penalty permanently forecloses any chance of rehabilitation in favour of revenge. And I think that's really a mistake.

Ghet: fixed, and sorry. A little "c" scanned better typographically.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 10/10/2006 04:27:00 PM

I always enjoy reading your stuff, but there are only two serious problems with the death penalty: (i) the problem of error and (ii) the problem of bias in administration [the death penalty was halted in the US for a while in the early '70's over (ii) not (i) - Americans are happy to live with (i) but they're currently in denial that (ii) was ever solved!]. Every other argument against the death penalty including everything you say here - you'd evidently object to a perfectly administered death penalty - is just question-begging I'm afraid.

Your "Society could have felt complacent" remark is pure speculation, and your imputation of "revenge" as the only serious motive for the death penalty is incorrect: one has "turned the other cheek" and taken vengeance out of the system by having a rule of law and allowing for impartial and orderly adjudication of disputes and grievances.

What actual punishments are dished out thereafter is another matter, and is exquisitely culturally sensitive - imprisonment forever can seem more horrible and dehumanizing than being killed frankly. And remember what you're choosing: 30-40 years of maximally expensive incarceration: that's a lot kids dentistry, breast cancer drugs etc. the state won't be able to pay for now. You think (assuming perfect administration) that

[killing Mr Serenelli+being able to do lots of good 'outside']

is absolutely definitively morally inferior to

[imprisoning Mr Serenelli forever+not being able to do all that good 'outside'].

You may be right about that but it's certainly not obviously true, and in fact I'm inclined to think it's false.

And all the jabber about "every life is precious" as if somehow that cuts uniquely against the death penalty option but not also against the imprisonment+less-kids-dentistry-fewer-breast-cancer-treatments option frankly drives me a bit bonkers. As written it looks as though you're valuing
Mr Serenelli's opportunity to have a frigging vision over, say, my sister's being able to get her herceptin paid for, or seriously autistic kids being able to get the home help they need. And if you deny that that's the sort of choice you're really making then you are being, well, complacent.

I dare say that Mr Serenelli would have earned my respect more if he'd offed himself shortly after being imprisoned leaving a note to the effect that to not create further victims on the outside every year he's imprisoned merely on the off-chance he might have a vision was really the proper/best thing for him to do.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/10/2006 04:41:00 PM


I think killing people is wrong. It was wrong for Serenelli and it would have been wrong if the state had done it to him. It just would have been murder x2.

Under Catholic (and Ghet is absolutely correct when she notes the capitalisation) thinking, you shouldn't do evil in order to achieve good. You can't kill someone because it's the cheaper option as opposed to jail. Likewise you shouldn't torture that terrorist to get information about the enemy.

I value a criminal's chance to be rehabilitated. I'm unprepared to kill them in order to save money.

Posted by Muerk : 10/10/2006 04:55:00 PM

"Under Catholic . . . thinking, you shouldn't do evil in order to achieve good."

If Serenelli hadn't done evil (kill Goretti), it's highly unlikely she'd be a 'saint' today.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/10/2006 07:57:00 PM


And... so what?

From a faith perspective I suspect that she would become a saint irrelevant of her terrible death, perhaps not one known about here on earth, but then what of that.

Nothing justifies Serenelli's actions, certainly St Maria G's later canonisation does not in any way reduce the gravity of his crime.

Good may perhaps come of evil, but evil can not be done so that good may come.

Posted by Muerk : 10/10/2006 09:11:00 PM

Let me have one more go. You say "Killing people is wrong". So is locking someone in a room for 40 years (or imposing any other possibly satisfactorily punishment warranted by a capital crime). Every option under consideration will involve doing something that in the abstract is (very) wrong.

Life imprisonment is arguably much more like torture than execution is since it's about wearing people down, breaking their will, and often in fact does involve helpings of torture and rape as it goes on. Execution isn't sadistic whereas life imprisonment under fairly grim conditions - and they have to be basically - arguably is. This is a part of JS Mill's liberal argt for the death penalty, and it's right as far as I can see.

[There are many other subterranean connections between liberal democracy and death - I may have to write something systematic about that at some point.]

At any rate, I don't need to argue for the death penalty as such, I just need to confirm that we're in the realm of chosing between wrongs, and then that questions of wider wrongs ones decisions may inflict through a fixed budget constraint can become significant. Mock the latter step as "Kill 'em coz it's cheaper" if you like but money's not really the issue, it's what that money could buy elsewhere in the community (the misery it could relieve that will absolutely otherwise go unrelieved - at least in theory!) that's important.

Anyhow Muerk, our differences are fairly philosophical - the problems of error and of administrative bias are enough to rule out the death penalty as part of routine criminal justice for me for the conceivable future. Thanks again for your post and reply.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/11/2006 01:09:00 AM

Muerk, I agree with your opposition to the death penalty, and I am an active member of Amnesty International's Death Penalty Action Network. Capital punishment also discriminates on the basis of ethnicity and class, and I suspect the United States has such a high death penalty rate because of ingrained social injustice.

So, how does your opposition to capital punishment fit in with other Catholic social teaching, apart from the sanctity of life angle?

Craig Y.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/11/2006 10:18:00 AM


I would agree with you that capital punishment is discriminatory. Catholic social teaching is very much about the dignity of human persons and as such those who are at a disadvantage in society should be helped.

Probably one of the most common reasons for executions worldwide is due to the punishment of politial prisoners. Catholic teaching states that part of our God-given dignity is our right to freedom of thought, including political and religious freedom.

Posted by Muerk : 10/11/2006 12:23:00 PM

Currently there's no death penaly in NZ, and no credible pressure to re-introduce it.
Raising a hoary old fairy tale based on the cynical explotation of a century-old sex murder is nothing more than an attempt to proselytise for the Catholic 'faith'. If muerk wishes to insult what's left of his audience's intelligence with childish nonsense about the theological nuts and bolts of whatever constitutes 'sainthood', that's his (or her) problem.

Posted by Anonymous : 10/12/2006 05:38:00 PM

Pope John Paul II: a pro-death penalty essay
by Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
(contact info, below)
October 1997, with subsequent updates thru 8/06
In 1997, the Roman Catholic Church decided to amend the 1992 Universal Catechism to reflect Pope John Paul II's comments within his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae). Therein, the Pope finds that the only time executions can be justified is when they are required "to defend society" and that "as a result of steady improvements . . . in the penal system that such cases are very rare if not practically non existent."
This is, simply, not true.  Murderers, tragically, harm and murder, again, way too often.
Three issues, inexplicably, escaped the Pope's consideration.
First, in the Pope's context, "to defend society" means that the execution of the murderer must save future lives or, otherwise, prevent future harm.  
When looking at the history of  criminal justice practices in probations, paroles and incarcerations, we observe countless examples of when judgements and procedures failed and, because of that, murderers harmed and/or murdered, again. History details that murderers murder and otherwise harm again, time and time again -- in prison, after escape, after improper release, and, of course, after we fail to capture or incarcerate them. 
Reason dictates that living murderers are infinitely more likely to harm and/or murder again than are executed murderers. 
Therefore,  the Pope could err, by calling for a reduction or end to execution, and thus sacrifice more innocents, or he could "err" on the side of protecting more innocents by calling for an expansion of executions.
History, reason and the facts support an increase in executions based upon a defending society foundation. 
Secondly, if social science concludes that executions provide enhanced deterrence for murders, then the Pope's position should call for increased executions. 
If  we decide that the deterrent effect of executions does not exist and we, therefore, choose not to execute, and we are wrong, this will sacrifice innocent lives and also give those murderers the opportunity to harm and murder again. 
If we choose to execute, believing in the deterrent effect, and we are wrong, we are executing our worst human rights violators and preventing such murderers from ever harming or murdering again - again, saving more innocent lives.
No responsible social scientist has or will say that the death penalty deters no one.  Quite a few studies, including 8 recent ones,  find that executions do deter. 
As all prospects for negative consequence deter some,  it is a mystery why the Pope chose the option which spares murderers and sacrifices more innocent lives. 
If the Pope's defending society position has merit, then the Church must actively support executions, as it offers an enhanced defense of society and greater protection for innocent life.
Thirdly, we know that some criminals don't murder because of their fear of execution.  This is known as the individual deterrent effect.  Unquestionably, the incapacitation effect (execution) and the individual deterrent effect both exist and they both defend society by protecting innocent life and offer enhanced protections over imprisonment. Furthermore, individual deterrence assures us that general deterrence must exist, because individual deterrence could not exist without it.  Executions save lives. 
Therefore, the Pope's defending society standard should be a call for increasing executions. Instead, the Pope and other Church leadership has chosen a position that spares the lives of known murderers, resulting in more innocents put at risk and more innocents harmed and murdered --  a position which, quite clearly, contradicts the Pope's, and other's, emphasis on defending society.
Contrary to the Church's belief, that the Pope's opinion represents a tougher stance against the death penalty, the opposite is true. When properly evaluated, the defending society position supports more executions.
Had these issues been properly assessed, the Catechism would never have been amended  --  unless the Church endorses a position knowing that it would spare the lives of guilty murderers, at the cost of sacrificing more innocent victims. 
When the choice is 1) sparing murderers, resulting in more harmed and murdered innocents, who suffer through endless moments of incredible horror, with no additional time to prepare for their salvation, or 2) executing murderers, who have on average, an additional 10 years on death row to prepare for their salvation, and saving more innocents from being murdered,  the Pope and the Catholic Church have an obligation to spare the innocent, as Church tradition, the Doctors of the Church and many Saints have concluded. (see reference, below)
Pope John Paul II's death penalty stance is his own, personal prudential judgement and does not bind any other Catholic to share his position. Any Catholic can choose to support more executions, based upon their own prudential judgement, and remain a Catholic in good standing.
Furthermore, prudential judgement requires a foundation of reasoned and thorough review. The Pope either improperly evaluated the risk to innocents or he did not evaluate it at all.
A defending society position supports more executions, not less. Therefore, his prudential judgement was in error on this important point of fact.
Furthermore, defending society is an outcome of the death penalty, but is secondary to the foundation of justice and biblical instruction.
Even though Romans and additional writings do reveal a "defending society" consideration, such references pale in comparison to the mandate that execution is the proper punishment for murder, regardless of any consideration "to defend society."  Both the Noahic covenant, in Genesis 9:6 ("Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed."), and the Mosaic covenant, throughout the Pentateuch (Ex.: "He that smiteth a man so that he may die, shall be surely put to death."  Exodus 21:12), provide execution as the punishment for unjustifiable/intentional homicide, otherwise known as murder.
These texts, and others, offer specific rebuttal to the Pope's position that if "bloodless means" for punishment are available then such should be used, to the exclusion of execution. The Pope's prudential judgement does not trump biblical instruction.
Most telling is the fact that Roman Catholic tradition instructs four elements to be considered  with criminal sanction.
1.  Defense of society against the criminal.
2.  Rehabilitation of the criminal (including spiritual rehabilitation).
3.  Retribution, which is the reparation of the disorder caused by the criminal's transgression.
4.   Deterrence
It is a mystery why and how the Pope could have excluded three of these important elements. In doing so, though, we can confirm that his review was very incomplete and, thus, improper. 
At least two Saints, Paul and Dismas, faced execution and stated that it was appropriate. They were both executed.
The Holy Ghost decided that execution was the proper punishment for two devoted, early Christians,  Ananias and his wife, Saphira,  for the crime/sin of lying. Neither was given a moment to consider their earthly punishment or to ask for forgiveness. The Holy Ghost struck them dead.
For those who erroneously contend that Jesus abandoned the Law of the Hebrew Testament, He states that He has come not "to abolish the law and the prophets . . . but to fulfill them."  Matthew 5:17-22.  While there is honest debate regarding the interpretation of Mosaic Law within a Christian context, there seems little dispute that the Noahic Covenant is still in effect and that Genesis 9:6 deals directly with the sanctity of life issue in its support of execution. (read "A Seamless Garment In a Sinful World" by John R. Connery, S. J., America, 7/14/84, p 5-8).
"In his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus cites with approval the apparently harsh commandment, He who speaks evil of father or mother, let him surely die (Mt 15:4; Mk 7:10, referring to Ex 21:17; cf. Lev 20:9). (Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, 10/7/2000)
Saint Pius V reaffirms this mandate, in the Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent (1566), stating that executions are acts of "paramount obedience to this [Fifth] Commandment."  ("Thou shalt not murder," sometimes improperly translated as "kill" instead of "murder").  And, not only do the teachings of Saints Thomas Aquinas and Augustine concur, but both saints also find that such punishment actually reflects charity and mercy by preventing the wrongdoer from sinning further.  The Saints position is that execution offers undeniable defense of society as well as defense of the wrongdoer.
Such prevention also expresses the fact that execution is an enhanced defense of society, over and above all other punishments.
The relevant question is "What biblical and theological teachings, developed from 1566 through 1997, provide that the standard for executions should evolve from 'paramount obedience' to God's eternal law to a civil standard reflecting 'steady improvements' . . . in the penal system?".  Such teachings hadn't changed.  The Pope's position is social, not biblical nor theological. 
If Saint Pius V was correct, that executions represent "paramount obedience to the [Fifth] Commandments, then is it not disobedient to reduce or stop executions?
The Church's position on the use of the death penalty has been consistent from 300 AD through 1995 AD.  The Church has always supported the use of executions, based upon biblical and theological principles.
Until 1995, says John Grabowski, associate professor of Moral Theology at Catholic University, " . . .  Church teachings were supportive of the death penalty.  You can find example after example of Pope's, of theologians and others, who have supported the right of the state to inflict capital punishment for certain crimes and certain cases." Grabowski continues: "What he (the Pope now) says, in fact, in his encyclical, is that given the fact that we now have the ability, you know, technology and facilities to lock up someone up for the rest of their lives so they pose no future threat to society -- given that question has been answered or removed, there is no longer justification for the death penalty."  (All Things Considered, NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO, 9/9/97.)
The Pope's position is now based upon the state of the corrections system -- a position neither biblical nor theological in nature.  Furthermore, it is a position which conflicts with the history of prisons.  Long term incarceration of lawbreakers in Europe began in the 1500s.  Of course, long term incarceration of slaves had begun thousands of years before --  meaning that all were aware that criminal wrongdoers  could also be subject to bondage, if necessary - something that all historians and biblical scholars -- now and then and in between --  were and are well aware of. 
Since it's inception, the Church has issued numerous pronouncements, encyclicals and previous Universal Catechisms.  Had any biblical or theological principle called for a replacement of the death penalty by life imprisonment, it could have been revealed long before 1995. 
There is, finally, a disturbing reality regarding the Pope's new standard.  The Pope's defending society standard requires that the moral concept of justice becomes irrelevant.  The Pope's standard finds that capital punishment can be used only as a vehicle to prevent future crimes. Therefore, using the Pope's standard, the moral/biblical rational -- that capital punishment is the just or required punishment for murder -- is no longer relevant to the sin/crime of murder. 
If defending society is the new standard, the Pope has decided that the biblical standards of atonement, expiation, justice and required punishments have all, necessarily, been discarded, with regard to execution.
The Pope's new position establishes that capital punishment no longer has any connection to the harm done or to the imbalance to be addressed.  Yet, such connection had always been, until now, the Church's historical, biblically based perspective on this sanction.  Under a defending society standard, the injury suffered by the murder victim is no longer relevant to their punishment.  Executions can be justified solely upon that punishments ability to prevent future harm by the murderer.
Therefore, when considering executions in regard to capital murder cases, a defending society standard renders justice irrelevant.  Yet, execution defends society to a degree unapproachable by any other punishment and, therefore, should have been fully supported by the Pope.
"Some enlightened people would like to banish all conception of retribution or desert from our theory of punishment and place its value wholly in the deterrence of others or the reform of the criminal himself.  They do not see that by doing so they render all punishment unjust. What can be more immoral than to inflict suffering on me for the sake of deterring others if I do not deserve it?" (quote attributed to the distinguished Christian writer C. S. Lewis)
Again, with regard to the Pope's prudential judgement, his neglect of justice was most imprudent.
Some Catholic scholars, properly, have questioned the appropriateness of including prudential judgement within a Catechism. Personal opinion does not belong within a Catechism and, likely, will never be allowed, again. I do not believe it had ever been allowed before.
In fact, neither the Church nor the Pope would accept a defending society standard for use of the death penalty, unless the Church and the Pope believed that such punishment was just and deserved, as well.  The Church has never questioned the authority of the government to execute in "cases of extreme gravity," nor does it do so with these recent changes. 
Certainly, the Church and the Pope John Paul II believe that the prevention of any and all violent crimes fulfills a defending society position.  And there is no doubt that executions defend society at a level higher than incarceration. Why has the Pope and many within Church leadership chosen a path that spares murderers at the cost of sacrificing more innocent lives, when they could have chosen a stronger defense of society which spares more innocents?
Properly, the Pope did not challenge the Catholic biblical and theological support for capital punishment.  The Pope has voiced his own, personal belief as to the appropriate application of that penalty. 
So why has the Pope come out against executions, when his own position -- a defense of society -- which, both rationally and factually, has a foundation supportive of more executions?
It is unfortunate that the Pope, along with some other leaders in the Church, have decided to, improperly, use a defending society position to speak against the death penalty.
The Pope's position against the death penalty condemns more innocents and neglects justice.
 Please also refer to:

(1)  "Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty", at
(2)  "Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective" at
(3) "The Purpose of Punishment (in the Catholic tradition)", by R. Michael Dunningan, J.D., J.C.L., CHRISTIFIDELIS, Vol.21,No.4, sept 14, 2003
copyright 1997-2006 Dudley Sharp
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail sharp(at)aol.com, 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
Pro death penalty sites
www(dot)yesdeathpenalty.com/deathpenalty_contents.htm  (Sweden)

Posted by Anonymous : 12/31/2006 06:20:00 AM