For the Many: Corpus Christi and Capital Punishment

At the order, “Let the execution begin,” a syringe full of midazolam was injected into Clayton Lockett’s groin, but the IV dislodged, and the sedative was pumped into the prisoner’s tissue instead of his vein. Lockett remained alert. He licked his lips and blinked. The executioners waited five minutes, then two minutes more, before the doctor pronounced the patient unconscious.

The executioners then injected a second syringe, of vecuronium bromide, a paralytic, into the line. That should have made it impossible for the prisoner to breath. Then came the third and final drug, potassium chloride.


Jeffrey Stern writes in the June Atlantic.

To Warden Trammell, it looked as though Lockett was trying to communicate something. He kicked his right leg. He began to breathe heavily. He clenched his teeth. He rolled his head. Then he tried to speak.
My God, Trammell thought. He’s coming out of this.
Lockett lurched up against the restraints. While the witnesses looked on, he started writhing as if trying to free himself, to get up off the gurney. He struggled violently, twisting his whole body.... The potassium chloride was supposed to stop Lockett’s heart immediately, by disrupting the electrical charge that causes the heart muscles to contract. But although Lockett’s heart was slowing, it kept beating.

The blinds of the viewing chamber were lowered, while Oklahoma officials consulted with one another, on that April day in 2014, over what to do. Save the prisoner’s life? Inject more drugs? About 30 minutes later, after the better portion of an hour, the convicted murderer and rapist Clayton Lockett was dead.

Those who support the death penalty could argue that mishaps occur in any system. Perhaps that’s also the response given to the large number of death row inmates who have later been found innocent. I don’t know what rejoinder is given to the fact that more well-to-do whites, who murder but have better access to legal resources, are almost never executed.

On this Feast of Corpus Christi, or, to use its full name, the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, my purpose is not to debate the death penalty. Only to draw attention to the obvious, which, being so, is easily overlooked. Christ was a victim of capital punishment, though the Gospels tell us that his three hours on the cross were mercifully short. His legs did not need to be broken to prevent his dying being drawn out into days.

The liturgy has a way of spiritualizing, writing meaning into, gestures that originally had the most prosaic of purposes. Water was first added to altar wine to dilute its strength. Now we speak of Christ’s humanity and divinity mingling. The priest no longer accepts gifts in kind at the preparation of the altar: livestock, grains, oils. But he still washes his hands. Now, praying for the removal of sin.

Interesting though, that when bread, specially prepared for Communion, was introduced, the liturgy retained a gesture it longer needed. The priest continues to break apart the principal host, while the assembly prays, “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the World, have mercy on us.” It is a reminder that there would be no Holy Communion without the body and blood of the Lamb, the Lord Jesus, being tortured and drained of blood.

Yes, Christ was innocent; Clayton Lockett, far from it, though some would argue both points. For the Christian, the heart of the capital punishment debate lies in our Gospel assertion that the Lord Jesus, the night before he died,

took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them,
and they all drank from it.
He said to them,
This is my blood of the covenant,
which will be shed for many (Mk 14: 23-24).


We profess that Christ’s innocent death was God’s way of entering evil itself, of redeeming us from the strictures of sin, the dominion of death. We proclaim that only the Blood of Christ can “cleanse our consciences from dead works to worship the living God” (Heb 9: 14).

If we believe that grace was triumphant at Golgotha, and in the resurrection that followed, we must also believe that grace can transform any human heart.

For this reason he is mediator of a new covenant:
since a death has taken place for deliverance
from transgressions under the first covenant,
those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance
 (Heb 9: 15-16).


For a Christian, the issue isn’t that we save money by abandoning capital punishment, or that we make mistakes, or even that our societal prejudices make it impossible to administer such punishment impartially. The issue is that only God, who created the soul, has the right to cauterize its time for repentance and conversion.

I do not believe that capital punishment is intrinsically evil. In some rare cases, the death of the guilty may be the only way to protect the innocent. For example, I suspect that many more innocent people would have died if Osama bin Laden had been taken prisoner, tried, and imprisoned. In extraordinary circumstances, capital punishment may protect the innocent. But, as it is practiced in these United States, it does not. It is costly and cruel. It isn’t administered impartially. It sometimes claims the innocent, and it does not bring peace to those left behind.

When we sin, evil claims a portion of our lives, of our world, one we cannot weigh. Only the creator of the world can enter it as savior and restore what should have been. In some rare instances, those who perpetuate evil can only be stopped by an act of violence, reluctantly and fearfully raised against them. Lamentably, most of the time, violence, even that sanctioned by states, only enflames evil, adding a new sacrifice to the fire.

Exodus 24: 3-8  Hebrews 9: 11-15  Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26

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3 years 7 months ago
As Catholics, I would think that we should base our opinions on capital punishment from Catholic teaching and that teaching, as expressed in the Catechism, is clear; within strict guidelines, it supports capital punishment. We should not, in my opinion, base our position on it according to the tenor of the social times nor the faults of its current practice within a particular culture.


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