Pull the Plug on the Death Penalty

By Burns, Robert E. | U.S. Catholic, August 1998 | Go to article overview

Pull the Plug on the Death Penalty


Burns, Robert E., U.S. Catholic


It's a puzzle: not only does opinion poll after opinion poll in the United States show overwhelming support for capital punishment, they show no appreciable difference in the degree of blood lust among religious believers--including Catholics--compared to that among people of no particular belief.

This approval rating is a puzzle for a number of reasons. In the first place, it is unique among democratic nations throughout the world. The death penalty is a useful tool for dictators and in countries where tyranny rules, yet not even all of these practice capital punishment. And little by little over the years the death penalty has been abolished in most countries except the United States.

Keep in mind that in the United States capital punishment was proscribed for many years and was brought back, unreasonably, only in our times.

The popularity of the death penalty in our land of the free is also a puzzle because it has been universally condemned as immoral by religious leaders including Pope John Paul II and the American Catholic bishops.

Arguments in favor of the death penalty are various. Most obviously, taking the lives of persons who have committed heinous crimes would remove them from society so that they could not sin again. That argument had some validity when it was possible that criminals who had been sentenced to prison rather than to death could be paroled, sometimes after serving a much shorter sentence than was originally intended. But now that a life sentence with no possibility of parole is available to prosecutors and courts, that argument has lost its validity.

Second, the death penalty, it is argued, will act as a deterrent to others who might commit serious crimes. Study after study, however, has disproved the validity of that reason.

The notion of the death penalty simply as punishment has a certain practical sense, especially when the criminal has committed one or more murders. A life for a life. But execution cannot bring back a life already taken, and can there be any punishment more frightful than confining a person, especially a younger person, behind bars for a lifetime?

Another argument in favor of the death penalty, often unstated but perhaps the most common, is vengeance. But "Vengeance is mine," says the Lord, and the rest of us, even those who have suffered from the crime involved, are charged with the often terribly difficult task of forgiving. …

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