Life, Not Death
How we choose to respond to events of inexplicable violence both reflects and shapes our values. In an interfaith prayer service on April 18, Cardinal Seán P. O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., said of the Boston Marathon bombings: “In the face of the present tragedy, we must ask ourselves: What kind of a community do we want to be?”
In Boston, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev could receive the death penalty if found guilty of the bombings on April 15 that claimed three lives and injured at least 260 others. Meanwhile Dr. Kermit Gosnell, whose grisly murder trial ended this month, could suffer the same fate. According to a grand jury report, Dr. Gosnell committed hundreds of acts of infanticide at a Philadelphia abortion clinic; babies were born alive and viable only to have their spinal cords snipped. Most of these heinous acts, however, cannot be prosecuted because of a statute of limitations or because files were destroyed. Dr. Gosnell therefore faces just four counts of first-degree murder and one count of third-degree murder—the latter case is that of a Nepalese refugee who was oversedated while awaiting an abortion.
Many people, justly outraged by these coldhearted crimes in Boston and Philadelphia, believe that if convicted, Mr. Tsarnaev and Dr. Gosnell deserve the most serious penalty available. Massachusetts forbids the death penalty, but Mr. Tsarnaev was charged in the federal system, which allows for it. Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York, told CNN on April 21 the Boston bombings are “just the kind of case” the death penalty should be applied to. Seventy percent of Americans, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, agree with Mr. Schumer.
The reason for this popular support of the death penalty is not solely a desire for retribution. Many believe the death penalty demonstrates ultimate respect for the lives of victims by sending an unambiguous message that such grave crimes will not be tolerated. Others, however, see the rancorous cycle for what it is: appalled by murder, some call for even more death. This cycle of violence affects all of us.
Public officials have the right and duty to dole out a punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. But punishment, in the Catholic tradition, in addition to helping restore public order, also has a remedial purpose. Blessed John Paul II wrote in “The Gospel of Life” (1995) that punishment should offer the offender “an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.” If the guilty party accepts the punishment, it helps atone for the wrongdoing. Therefore, Blessed John Paul explained, what we choose as punishment “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”
This raises an obvious question: In what places are public authorities actually incapable of safely and effectively incarcerating those convicted of serious crimes? Almost nowhere. “Such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent,” John Paul wrote. This indictment of the death penalty, admittedly a development in the Catholic moral tradition, is now shared by a growing number of Catholics.
Robert P. George, writing about the Philadelphia case for First Things, rightly asked all people who identify as pro-life to support sparing the life of Dr. Gosnell. “No matter how self-degraded, depraved, and sunk in wickedness, Dr. Gosnell is also ‘our brother’,” wrote Mr. George, “a precious human being made in the very image and likeness of God. Our objective should not be his destruction, but the conversion of his heart.” Some might dismiss this aim as completely unrealistic, but “if there is a God in heaven,” Mr. George wrote, then “there is no one who is beyond repentance and reform; there is no one beyond hope. We should give up on no one.”
The Catholic position on the death penalty reflects deeply held beliefs about the sacredness of the human person and what kind of world we want to live in. Pope Francis, as archbishop of Buenos Aires, said, “Life is something so sacred that not even a terrible crime justifies the death penalty.” This undoubtedly applies to the cases of Mr. Tsarnaev and Dr. Gosnell.
At the interfaith prayer service, Cardinal O’Malley shared the prayer of Pope Francis that the people of Boston “be united in the resolve not to be overcome by evil, but to combat evil with good.” In the face of darkness, the easy choice might be a form of justice marked by revenge—an “eye for an eye.” But when Cardinal O’Malley invited us to consider what kind of community we want to be, he offered his own view: “It cannot be violence, hatred and fear.” We agree. Our response must be life, not death.