The first time I felt certain of my opposition to the death penalty was, oddly enough, after the execution of a man I knew to be guilty, a mass murderer who had admitted his crime and shown no remorse: Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who killed 168 people on a spring afternoon in 1995.
McVeigh had not sought any appeal of his sentence, and few shed any tears for him. I was certain, however, that by agreeing to his execution we had put a man in serious danger of hell. I could not see how a person in his moral condition--a remorseless killer of innocents--was in any way prepared to accept God's certain offer of mercy.
It is an unusual argument against the death penalty, perhaps not one that would win many over in the political realm, though there have been victories there. Within the past year Illinois joined 15 other states and the District of Columbia in abolishing its death penalty; the governor of Oregon in November extended a moratorium on any further executions in that state.
Illinois Gov. Patrick Quinn and Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber each cited the broken system of capital punishment for their decisions, especially the possibility of executing an innocent person, along with the shockingly high rate of erroneous convictions and prosecutorial misconduct in capital cases. Activists also point out that people of color, the poor, and the mentally ill and disabled are overrepresented on death row.
All of these are good political and even moral reasons for abolishing the state-sponsored murder of its citizens, but we Catholics should be pushing for the end of the death penalty for another reason, too: While it is indeed a moral obscenity to strap down and murder a defenseless human being--even a guilty one--it is no less unjust to deprive both the guilty party and his or her survivors of the possibility of reconciliation and redemption.
Indeed, even in the face of inconceivable violence, God offers hope. …