Face to Face with the Death Penalty

Last May in Tucson, Arizona,
two young men named Armando Estrada and Rosendo C. Valenzuela were working for Mamie Gong, an elderly Chinese woman. Mamie, who owned a trailer park and some land outside the city, had hired the men to help her clean up some trash that had accumulated on the vacant parcel.

The Lord said to Cain: "What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground" (Gen 4:10). The voice of the blood shed by men continues to cry out, from generation to generation, in ever new and different ways.
Evangelium Vitae
"Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed; for man was made to the image of God."
— Genesis 9:6
Last May in Tucson, Arizona, two young men named Armando Estrada and Rosendo C. Valenzuela were working for Mamie Gong, an elderly Chinese woman. Mamie, who owned a trailer park and some land outside the city, had hired the men to help her clean up some trash that had accumulated on the vacant parcel.
According to their confessions, an argument developed between the young men and Mamie, most likely over money. Valenzuela got angry and hit her in the head with a baseball bat, or something like it. Then, not yet satisfied, he hit her again with a brick. How many times he hit her, or with precisely what, is unclear.
The two men loaded her into the back of her pickup truck and drove her to an abandoned trailer home she was storing on the land. They then took her inside and dropped her into the bathtub, leaving her for dead. They took her pickup truck and drove it back into town, abandoning it in the parking lot of a shoe store while she lay dying, or already dead, alone in the sweltering heat of the desert.
Mamie was my mother-in-law.
Unaware of any of this, I got the call a few weeks later, on June 18. It was an Arizona number, and one I didn’t recognize. I can’t say why, but I had an odd feeling about that call. I was in a meeting and couldn’t answer, but there was a voicemail. When I went to check it, it was my wife’s eldest brother, who had never called me in the four years Jamie and I had been married. The message was simple, understated. Mamie, who lived alone, was missing, and probably had been for at least a couple weeks. Nobody knew where to look. They were calling me because they couldn’t reach my wife.
Mamie was, to an extent, estranged from her immediate family. She spoke to my wife at least once a month, but far less frequently with her two sons in Phoenix or my wife’s father, from whom she had long ago been divorced. The one family member she did have regular contact with, her aunt, was in China at the time of her disappearance, and knew nothing until she came back weeks later and alerted the rest of the family.
Out of necessity, we got involved in the investigation. Stuck in Virginia while events unfolded in Tucson, we did our best to help the police over the phone while I peppered friends, family, and blog readers with requests for prayers. Suspicious individuals, knowledge of Mamie’s habits, and probably no small amount of Divine assistance helped us to lead the police down the right track. On June 19, we told them where to look. The next morning, I arrived to work and immediately ran a Google News search, as I had since I first heard she was missing. This time, I got a hit:
Detectives suspect a homicide victim whose badly decomposed body was found west of the city Tuesday could be a 64-year-old woman reported missing Monday.
Neither Tucson police nor Pima County sheriff’s deputies would release the name of the missing woman.
The body, found about 2:30 p.m., was so badly decomposed detectives could not immediately determine the gender . . . .
I had read enough. Maybe they couldn’t ID the body, but I knew. I made the call home, thinking my wife had heard from the police by then. She hadn’t. It was not the way she should have found out.
My boss graciously granted me extra leave time, and I was with my family on a flight to Arizona by the end of the week. My wife, having grown up in the rough area of south Tucson where her mother had lived, worked, and eventually been murdered, was oddly stoic. I’ll never forget leaving Phoenix on I-10 in our rental car, the sun pushing the temperature close to 100 degrees as we sped quietly into what felt for all the harsh sunlight like the heart of darkness.
We received the autopsy report in a voicemail during our flight, and it confirmed our suspicions. Head trauma. Broken ribs. She had been beaten to death. If the heat of the desert is unforgiving to the living, it is more so to the dead. The medical examiner couldn’t make a positive ID initially, not even with standard DNA procedures. To confirm the identity of the body, they needed dental records, which — unlike on television — are not something that can be simply pulled from a database. We had to sort through stacks of old mail, looking for a bill, until we finally figured out who her dentist was so we could obtain the records ourselves.
And so we spent the next week seeing to her affairs: Tracking down insurance policies, handling funeral arrangements, trying to piece together the last weeks of her life and pass on whatever relevant information we could find to the homicide detectives. Closure, however, wasn’t forthcoming. The funeral was held, but no one was arrested. When we left two weeks later, we still didn’t know what had happened, or why.
Months passed. We were back home, moving forward with our lives and had all but given up hope that the investigation could go any further. Forensic evidence needs to be collected in the immediate aftermath of a crime, not weeks later after time and nature have done their work. We tried to resign ourselves to the fact that we might never know, that justice might never be served.
Then, the week of Christmas, we got the call from police: They had apprehended two men, and better still, had gotten confessions. Shortly thereafter, we got another update — the prosecutors would be seeking the death penalty:
Two men accused of beating a 64-year-old Three Points woman to death in June could be sentenced to death if they are convicted.
The Pima County Attorney’s Office filed documents last week announcing its intention to seek the death penalty for Armando Estrada, 26, and Rosendo C. Valenzuela, 24.
Prosecutors cited four statutory reasons the men should be executed in the death of Mamie Lim Gong. They allege the slaying was especially cruel, heinous and depraved, and was committed for financial gain and in a cold, calculated manner without pretense of moral or legal justification. They also allege it took place during another serious offense, kidnapping.
I know all the Catholic arguments against capital punishment. But in that moment, knowing that the voice of my family could weigh against the state’s desire to execute two criminals who surely deserved it, I found myself unwilling to say anything. Any inclination I had toward the arguments of Evangelium Vitae against capital punishment left me in an instant. I was not opposed to these men being allowed to live, but neither was I opposed to their execution.
The state was going to pursue what has always been considered by the Catholic Church to be legitimate recourse against the worst sorts of criminals, and my wife and I had no intentions of stopping it.
As Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out in his letter titled "Seven Reasons America Shouldn’t Execute" — a letter in which he agrees with the notion that capital punishment should be severely restricted:
If the Pope were to deny that the death penalty could be an exercise of retributive justice, he would be overthrowing the tradition of two millenia of Catholic thought, denying the teaching of several previous popes, and contradicting the teaching of Scripture (notably in Genesis 9:5-6 and Romans 13:1-4).
I doubt whether the tradition is reversible at all, but even if it were, the reversal could hardly be accomplished by an incidental section in a long encyclical focused primarily on the defense of innocent human life. If the Pope were contradicting the tradition, one could legitimately question whether his statement outweighed the established teaching of so many past centuries.
I believe that the Pope, without contradicting the tradition, is exercising his prudential judgment that in our time adequate punishment, including the moral and physical defense of society, can generally be accomplished by bloodless means, which are always to be preferred.
The fact that this is likely a prudential judgment throws cold water on the idea that Catholics must assent to a revised teaching on capital punishment that finds almost no cases in which it is acceptable.
I don’t hate the men who killed Mamie, nor do I want revenge. I have prayed for not only their capture but their conversion from the beginning. If they are sentenced to death, I am committed to praying for the repose of their souls. I do believe, however, that they should face justice in this life, with the hope of God’s mercy in the next.
Praying for those who killed my wife’s elderly mother is one of the bitter ironies of Catholicism that I am willing to accept. But wringing my hands and lobbying for their lives is not.

Steve Skojec
is a columnist and blogger for InsideCatholic.com. He writes from Northern Virginia. Visit his blog at www.steveskojec.com.


Steve Skojec serves as the Director of Community Relations for a professional association. He is a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he earned a BA in Communications and Theology. His passions include writing, photography, social media, and an avid appreciation of science fiction. Steve lives in Northern Virginia with his wife Jamie and their five children.

  • Micha Elyi

    Thank you Mr. Skojec for expressing your own deeply considered prudential judgement of conscience.

    When church authorities such as Cardinal Dulles suggest that “in our time adequate punishment, including the moral and physical defense of society, can generally be accomplished by bloodless means,” what I hear is a Utopian wish for the impossible. To carry out a sentence of imprisonment taxes the souls and often the blood too of those men who, on behalf of “society,” must guard and police the convicted. There is no guaranteed genuinely “bloodless means” of “adequate punishment” for the heinous offenses such as what was suffered by your mother-in-law and your family. I hope that the folks who would do away with capital punishment and substitute sentences of imprisonment would, when praying for the convicted and their victims, also take a moment to remember the innocent prison guards and their families in those prayers.

  • Tito Edwards


    I recall this happening at the time since we share mutual friends (RCP blog). I hope through the grace of God that the grief and anguish your family is going through will make you all stronger.

    You, your wife, and those involved, certainly have my prayers as you pass through this trial.

    God bless you all.


  • Michael Healy, Jr.

    Micha Elyi wrote: When church authorities such as Cardinal Dulles suggest that “in our time adequate punishment, including the moral and physical defense of society, can generally be accomplished by bloodless means,” what I hear is a Utopian wish for the impossible.

    Yes! That exactly what I hear!

    In fact, it has always bothered me that statements to claiming that bloodless means were sufficient today were put in the Catechism of the Catholic Church at all. It’s a prudential judgment, and prudential judgments, especially those limited by culture and technology, have no place in catechisms, for catechisms exist solely for the purpose of helping the faithful pass on the Faith.

    Really, there could come some point in the future when technology has regressed, and the CCC’s passage discouraging the death penalty will look laughably absurd. It seems to me the CCC should have restricted itself to a more general statement, such as: “If, given the cultural and technological circumstances that pertain in a given society, bloodless means are sufficient to discipline the wrongdoer, authorities should restrict themselves to such means.”

    Someday I’m going to make a list of passages in the CCC that, in my view, are in need of improvement. I do think there are several.

  • Steve Skojec

    Micha wrote: To carry out a sentence of imprisonment taxes the souls and often the blood too of those men who, on behalf of “society,” must guard and police the convicted. There is no guaranteed genuinely “bloodless means” of “adequate punishment” for the heinous offenses such as what was suffered by your mother-in-law and your family.

    Precisely. Space did not permit me to explore this as sufficiently as I would have liked, but “bloodless means” never seems to take into account the lives of the prison guards and staff, or even the other inmates. Prison violence – from assault to rape to murder – is rampant in our system, and the most violent criminals are the ones who survive. With a life sentence, they have nothing to lose, and it’s more important to many of them to rise to the top and be feared and respected than it is to repent and become a victim themselves.

    One of the young men involved in the murder, as I understand it, left his girlfriend in a coma after a severe beating, not long before he committed this crime. Nothing about such a man offers me any hope that he will not do the same to others whenever the opportunity arrives.

    Memento Mori was always an admonishment given to Catholics from the lowliest monk to the pope himself, who in an old custom, as I recall, was carried before a particular statue of death in St. Peter’s during his coronation ceremony to be reminded of his mortality.

    A death sentence forces a man to evaluate his life in the here and now and one hopes, look for redemption. All too often, a life sentence means many more years of survival and complacency, putting off until tomorrow the redemption that should happen today. In cases where the criminals in question are likely to be less circumspect with administering death sentences to the other souls in the prison, wouldn’t it be more prudent to take them out of the population, as Catholic teaching allows?

  • Joe Marier

    Andrew McCarthy points out that it’s very difficult to keep some criminals from continuing their criminal activities outside while in jail. A good example is the Blind Shiekh passing messages to his followers in Egypt through his lawyer. Now, you have a right to an attorney in the United States, and you have a right to lawyer-client confidentiality. Sure, his evil lawyer was later prosecuted, but that wasn’t much comfort to those he ordered dead in the meantime.

    So, your choice. Suspend a criminal’s constitutional rights if they constitute a threat as determined pretty much solely by the executive, or end their life. Give certain criminals, who you suspect of ordering hits on the outside, no contact whatsoever with the outside world for the rest of their lives (because that’s what it would take), or end their life.

  • Ender

    My major concern with the Church’s new position on the death penalty is that it is directed at preventing new crimes whereas punishment is primarily about expiating past crimes.

    “The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” (2266)

    “If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means” (2267)

    I am unable to reconcile these two statements. If expiation is primary then justice demands a punishment commensurate with the gravity of the crime and the death penalty is no exception. If protecting society against future crime is paramount then … what’s all this about redressing the disorder of past crimes being primary? I am persuaded by this statement of Pius XII:

    “A word must be said on the full meaning of penalty. Most of the modern theories of penal law explain penalty and justify it in the final analysis as a means of protection, that is, defense of the community against criminal undertakings, and at the same time an attempt to bring the offender to observance of the law. … but those theories fail to consider the expiation of the crime committed, which penalizes the violation of the law as the prime function of penalty.”

  • David W.

    The power to take a life belongs to God, alone. It was a power that Man was never meant to have. Pope John Paul II opposed it, and the man lived through both Nazi AND Communist Repression. No doubt he saw extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and brutality on a daily basis. This isn’t sympathy with murderers, as some of the more belligerent pro-Death Penalty advocates have attempted to paint.
    I oppose picketing outside of prisons, because it gives the wrong impression. Those people do little good for the cause.

    Some would say to me (and one person even did) that it is “easy to quote encyclicals and the Church, but what if it was someone YOU loved?” Thats an easy answer for me…I don’t know. Either I’d be stunned into silent grief, or I would want to kill the person who did it. But such feelings are a lust for Vengeance, nothing more. I would pray for people with their head on straight to surround me during such an ordeal. I don’t deny the Church has allowed it and in some cases still do…but the Death Penalty should be a rarity…the Hangman should not be regularly employed any longer, and I think that is what the Church is saying.

  • Jason

    David W. wrote: But such feelings are a lust for Vengeance, nothing more.

    I think that’s a sweeping statement that really can’t be backed up, David. A thirst for justice can easily be confused with a lust for Vengeance, and often there are elements of both in the same person.

    One thing the death penalty does is help remove the personal “lust for Vengeance”. In addition to the other benefits mentioned in people’s comments above, it de-personalizes the motivation for vengeance by objectively setting a just standard. Also, similarly, it leaves this authority in the hands of the State, NOT the individual, which also argues against your unfounded assertions that “The power to take a life belongs to God, alone [it is not]. It was a power that Man was never meant to have [sez who?].”

    I want to thank Steve for a great, personal post on a difficult topic.

  • Adriana

    Dear Steve:

    My sympathy for what you and your family had to endure.

    There are things to be said about the death penalty, for and against, though I suspect this is not the right time do say it.

    I know the powerful effect strong emotions have on the rational process (let me say that there was a time when blasphemy seemed to me an appropriate response to a Church that had played politics and helped screw up the political institutions in my original country – damaging our family’s lives, as well as that of millions of compatriots – and then collaborated with torture and murder). So, remember that when in the grip of strong emotion you are more than likely to follow the first stupid idea that comes into your head.

    I respect your pain, and I will not insult it by engaging in argument when you want validation.

  • Steve Skojec


    Thank you for your comments, and I would ask (if you would be so kind) for your prayers for both the repose of the soul of Mamie, who was not Catholic, and for the conversion of the men who did this.

    But I wrote this to encourage discussion, not seek validation. My wife and I have had a year to grapple with this, and we see it quite clearly – I won’t be offended by opposition. In fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve faced this – I knew the two young men who were brutally murdered in Steubenville in 1999, one of whom was a friend of mine.

    When faced with an evil such as this, it’s easy to see why the Church allowed for the death penalty for most of its history. The recently developed ideal of opposing Capital Punishment as part of the culture of life is incongruous with my understanding of Church teaching and the true meaning of the 5th commandment.

    This is why I say I neither advocate the penalty nor oppose it; one doesn’t want to ever to encourage the careless taking of life, but one must also remember that the Church has long granted this right – at times even a duty – to the state.

  • Adriana

    Dear Steve:

    Thanks for the encouragement. I guess that my opposition to the death penalty has more to do with what it does to us than on the criminal.

    I would not have felt this strongly about if I had not read about the old tradition of human sacrifice and the theory undergiding it (Frazier’s “The Golden Bough” is powerful stuff).

    While in theory you sacrifice the best, not the worst, there is an economy in offering criminals as sacrifices, thus getting rid of them and propitiating the gods at the same time. And blood sacrifice brings in too much romantic baggage with it.

    You cannot have the death penalty without the proper ceremony for an execution, and that’s where the trouble starts. For a few wretched moment the criminal gets to be the center of attention, with his most mundane comments given respectful hearing and even deeper meaning – and even becoming a culture hero, while his misdeeds are forgotten in the pagenatry of the sacrifice. The execution is watched and reported as if some redemptive meaning is to be extracted from it.

    Let’s say that an execution can stir a lot ancestral memories which ought to stay buried.

    There is much to be done in the handling of criminals, and proper atonement and repentance, but I would prefer it to be done without bringing back some pagan ceremonial.

  • M. H.

    Steve Skojec wrote:

    When faced with an evil such as this, it’s easy to see why the Church allowed for the death penalty for most of its history. The recently developed ideal of opposing Capital Punishment as part of the culture of life is incongruous with my understanding of Church teaching and the true meaning of the 5th commandment.

    This is why I say I neither advocate the penalty nor oppose it; one doesn’t want to ever to encourage the careless taking of life, but one must also remember that the Church has long granted this right – at times even a duty – to the state.

    It’s surprising no one has mentioned this yet, but allow me a lengthy quote from some learned and holy men. [smiley=think]

    St. Augustine

    The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when He gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time. The agent who executes the killing does not commit homicide; he is an instrument as is the sword with which he cuts. Therefore, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ to wage war at God’s bidding, or for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death, according to the law, that is, the will of the most just reason.

    (The City of God, Book 1, chapter 21)

    St. Thomas Aquinas

    Every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part exists naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason we see that if the health of the whole human body demands the excision of a member, because it became putrid or infectious to the other members, it would be both praiseworthy and healthful to have it cut away. Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump

  • James Pawlak

    When the Vatican States still existed, the courts there executed (Beat to death?) serious offenders as the means of protecting the innocent.

    Now that the leaders of our Church have resigned temporal authority and fled to their ivory towers, they seem intent on such insane measures as abolishing the death penalty, cluster bombs and “reaching out to Islam” (That criminal-terrorist ideology which approves and allows, if not commands, the use of murder, rape, genocide and the other evils taught by the false-prophet Mohammed).

  • David W.

    To Jason: So you believe that God originally intended man with the power to execute each other? Nonsense. It was not God’s original plan….nor was Divorce, but that was allowed too due to “hardness of heart.” Christ reinstituted God’s original intentions for Marriage. I don’t deny the Church allows it (Capital Punishment), and that Political Authority comes from God as well…but was that originally part of the plan? NO…Original Sin altered the game plan a little bit…and here we have human governments. How is the death of the murderer really Justice? A wrong has been done that will never be undone. After the “satisfaction” of watching the murderer ride ole sparky (nowadays lethal injection), the Loss is still there. What purpose would it serve? The deterrent argument has gaping holes in it the size of Texas, and the victims still have a grave to tend, a hole in their lives. I fail to see how more Death will somehow balance the scales. “A life for a Life” some would say…but what of multiple murderers, which is often the case in capital punishment cases…do you kill them repeatedly? How can you measure that?

  • David W.

    The Vatican didn’t exactly give up the Papal States willingly…how were they supposed to regain “Temporal Power?”

    Napoleon III was engaged a disasterous war with Prussia, so the French troops were gone. Should the Popes have continued to be “prisoners of the Vatican”…to hell with the Lateran Treaty?

    Resigned isn’t exactly the word there.

  • Dan Curry

    For years, Pope after Pope taught, as well as the Catachism, that the state had the right…even the duty….to proportionally respond to a murder. I mean, what would we have done had we caught Hitler???…Kept him alive…interviewed him?
    or Osama bin Laden??? Vatican had the death penalty until 1969. I prefer to believe Pope Pius 12 and prior Popes….who said the death penalty was ok…

  • Adriana

    The Vatican did not “resign” itself to the loss of temporal power. This loss of temporal power was a necessary freeing from the constraints of having the spiritual power serve the temporal. The modern era had seen too many subject churches, whose job was to make life easier for the King or the State, and Kings thought more or less as Elizabeth I, for whom bishops were her employees which she could hire or fire.

    The Church had to be free of this subjection, and the loss of the Papal States, which made the Pope as another head of State among other heads of State was another step in that direction. AFter that, Stalin could mock “how many divisions the Pope has?” After the end of Communism, Stalin’s heirs found out.

    For the same reason it is unwise to call as an example the behavior of the Chruch from the time of the great corruption.

  • David W.

    This is about the teaching authority of the Church. The Catechism and the past several Popes have declared the Death Penalty should be a rare event in this day and age. Or is this a case of selective interpretation of Church Teaching to fit a desired outcome? Obedience to the Magisterium isn’t hinging on our own likes or dislikes….Protestantizers and Traditionalists alike need to be thwacked upside the head with this fact.

  • Dan

    Ya see Dave, the problem with you liberals is that you cant stand the truth. Read Evangelium Vitae! Even though Pope JP II was certainly against the death penalty, he writes that the church has taught for ever, and teaches even now, that the state has the moral right to use it, but that IN HIS OPINION, it should be used hardly ever (Thats different from his treatment of abortion and euthansia.) If the state has the right to use it, then it is becomes opinion on whether it should…prudental judgement. John Paul II is a Pope, but no criminologist. If we caught Osama or had caught Hitler, the proportional response,(justice, the re-ordering of the act as committed against society) as taught to us all in the 60s, would be the death penalty. Anything else is a slap in the face of the murdered victim (Gods creature) and family. There is nothing earth-shaking that makes the opinion of the Popes now more enlightening than the pro-death penalty beliefs of the Magisterium, Catachism and Pope after Pope of prior centuries. “This day and age,” …gave us the sex scandals Dave. Just because something is older, yes even “Traditional,” doesnt make it bad. So you can keep the “thwaking” thoughts to yourself.

  • MK

    David W.,

    It is possible that arguments for deterrence have texas-sized holes. Or not.

    Recent studies show there IS a deterrent effect. So the argument that there is no deterrent effect… maybe it has Alaska-sized holes in it?

    Either way… the idea that redressing the social order isn’t possible – which is what you seem to be saying – is nonsensical.

    Why would the CCC say, “The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” (2266) [Thanks, Ender!] if such redress is not possible?

  • R.C.

    There are reasons for the things we do to criminals in our power, (fines, incarcerations, or executions):

    1. Deter more of the same crime by others;
    2. Deter recidivism (more of the same by the original offender);
    3. Protect society against that person;
    4. Punish the crime such that a “fit” judgment satisfies our intuitive need for “cosmic justice”;
    5. Punish the crime such that a “fit” judgment educates the public about the relative severity of that crime, thereby producing a healthier society overall;
    6. Rehabilitate the criminal for future productive membership in mortal society;
    7. Rehabilitate the criminal for future productive membership in immortal society.
    8. Encourage plea-bargains by contrasting a “carrot” (lighter sentence) with a “stick” (harsher sentence).

    Now, there are dangers in this list. C.S. Lewis shows it in That Hideous Strength when his totalitarian villains, under the guise of “A More Humane Criminal Justice System” replace the notion of “fitting” punishments (wherein a prison term for a small crime was suitably small) with a system of “Remedial Treatment” in which the state in pursuit of “rehabilitating” the criminal could hold him as long as it took, and subject him to whatever assaults on his psyche they regarded “beneficial.”

    To avert this danger, Item 6 should be set as the lowest-priority item on the list.

    The other items, though, are safer. How does capital punishment serve them?

    Item 1: After years of debate, I understand that Item 1 favors Capital Punishment: The criminally-minded can be deterred.

    Item 2: Capital punishment doesn’t just deter future crime by the same person; it prevents it (see Item 3) because they’re dead.

    Item 3: Capital punishment excels at protecting society against future acts by the same person (see Item 2).

    Item 4: For some crimes, death seems the only fitting penalty; anything else frustrates our sense of “cosmic justice.”

    Item 5: A frustrated sense of “cosmic justice” (see Item 4) is unhealthy for the society as a whole; use of the death penalty where appropriate prevents this.

    Item 6: Capital Punishment removes the option of later rehabilitation for productive re-introduction into society. However, as stated previously, this is the lowest-priority item in this list.

    Item 7: A murderer is at least as likely to confess his sins and pray God’s forgiveness on the gallows (or whatever), as in a prison hospital fifty years later. The death penalty does not harm his chances of being a productive member of immortal society, and may help it.

    Item 8: The threat of the death penalty has been shown to be famously successful at getting criminals to “rat out” their confederates; this is salutary.

    Capital Punishment, then, is beneficial in all ways save Item 6, our least-important item.

    The only remaining arguments against it are procedural; i.e. it should be used in an unbiased fashion; every effort should be made to avoid an irreversible judgment against an innocent man; it ought not to be bloody or excited by mere vengeance or the mob’s desire for titillation.

    If Capital Punishment is procedurally flawed, then Items 4 and 5 are undermined. Other items are unaffected. It is debatable whether 4 and 5 outweigh 1-3 and 8, so the result is ambiguous.

    However, the moral argument favoring Capital Punishment in the abstract remains intact.

    So, while we can support temporary moratoria on death sentences to allow for procedural reform, it is not correct moral reasoning to rule it out entirely.

  • Dan


    1. Numbers of executions are up, murder rates are down. Studies say its due to deterrence.

    2. I’ve heard the argument before that if you execute someone, you prevent rehabilitation. That argument accepts a fact that cant be proven. Its the argument that a person on death row for 10 years (thats the average wait after appeal for one to be executed,)would be rehabilitated if we just wouldnt execute him. Where is the proof that most murderers will be rehabilitated if the state waits 11 years, or 15, or 30?? How do you prove someone is rehabilitated anyway. Just because he “says” he is. Jailhouse conversions are legendary! and fake. If a person cant be proven to be rehabilitated in 10 years, why should we think he would be later?? Point is-that argument is not effective against the death penalty because its open-ended. “Oh we might execute someone who will be rehabilitated and go to heaven.” But there is no proof regarding WHEN OR IF THAT MIGHT HAPPEN. And….whats the big deal about rehab anyway? A guy who is in for life without parole isnt going to get out anyway, so even if he were “rehabilitated,” he’s not getting out anyway.

    3. Before you get rid of the death penalty, look into the eyes of the family whose father has just been murdered in convenence store for $23 and tell them that “justice” is not the death penalty. Everyone interviews the murderer before execution. NOONE considers what the last meal of the victim was or whether he or she had time to say his peace with God.

  • Adriana

    Dan: You said that everyone is interested on the criminal before the execution, but no one in the victim. That’s the argument I made against the death penalty – that it cannot be accomplished without an execution, and that execution is guaranteed to make the criminal a star, whose most mundane comments are waited with bated breath, while no one, with the exception of the family remembers the victim(s).

    An execution takes too many of the trappings of old pagan human sacrifices, and pushes a lot of buttons in the human psyche. A criminal to be executed attains heroic status by virtue of it.

    Who cares about the victims, who are not providing you with any spectacle compared to what you are enjoying?

    A criminal ought to be locked away and forgotten like the loser he is, not given an apotheosis in the collective unconscious.

  • St. Gimp

    “An execution takes too many of the trappings of old pagan human sacrifices, and pushes a lot of buttons in the human psyche.”

    I must admit that I don’t get your point. The accusation that execution smacks of paganism sounds a whole lot like the old yarn that Catholic religious practices are derived from Egyptian and Roman mystery religions.

    What about the divinely ordained command in the Old Testament that certain sins be punished with death? In reading the Torah, one gets the impression that, while divorce was unseemly but allowed because of weakness, capital punishment was being dealt out with no such antipathy. The only indication in the New Testament that things might have changed is the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, and there’s a fair amount of debate as to whether that was originally part of John’s Gospel.

  • David W.

    No really, Dan….I got a chuckle or two out of that one. So I deviate from the conservative script and don’t sing with the Fry Em Chorus…and actually agree with Pope John Paul II on the Death Penalty and that makes me a liberal? Ho Ho Hee Hee.
    You know what they say about Assumption. Who said I was a Liberal? I myself am a Kirkian conservative (Prudence, Prescription, scorn and contempt for isms) I never said the Church DIDN’T teach the Death Penalty was allowed. You can’t just dismiss the new Catechism and what the past several Popes have said because it doesn’t jive with your own ideologies and isms…THAT is the point I’m making. “Prudential Judgement” has become a convenient cover when someone wants to dismiss something the Vatican has said. Funny how self professed Traditionalists will quote the Vatican on Liturgy and it is something to be followed to the letter…but on something like the Death Penalty, its “Prudential Judgement.” Never mind that BOTH Acoustic Guitars and Executions are “Prudential.”
    I never said Tradition was bad…I’m abit of a traditionalist myself. I wear the Papist label, proudly. I cross swords with self professed Traditionalists because I defend Church Authority, against Protestantizing liberals…AND self professed Traditionalists who think Pope Paul VI was the anti-Christ. If the new Catechism says that the Death Penalty should be rare…and the past few Popes have said so…I OBEY. If the Church says that Acoustic Guitars are allowed in Mass…I OBEY. If the Church says that female altar servers are permitted…I OBEY. That is my Traditionalism, Dan. Take it for what you will. I lament the fact the Church isn’t more forceful on some issues, but I obey.
    The Death Penalty has some wiggle room, I know that. I am not impugning the Faith of people who feel that sometimes it is necessary. My point, is that what the Church says now should not and CANNOT be dismissed.

  • Jason

    David W. wrote: To Jason: So you believe that God originally intended man with the power to execute each other? Nonsense.

    David, don’t confuse “power” with “authority”.

    Also, the authority to take a life is legitimately given to “Man” in the State – not to be confused with authority given to “a man” acting as an individual.

    Your comments about how things were before the Fall are nice, but not really material here. We really don’t knwo what it was like, nor are we likely to find out this side of Heaven. We know much more about what life is like now and the rules we have been given to follow. The Death penalty has been not only permitted but promoted throughout Jewish and Christian history, and for very good reasons that have been discussed here.

    It might be said that JPII is calling us to a “higher standard”, but that doesn’t equal the condemnation of the death penalty as immoral in se. And it certainly doens’t mean I’m obliged to accept his, or your opinion on the matter.

  • Dan

    Ok, Dave is NOT a liberal! I said it.
    He’s a Mugwump !
    Enough of the labels. 🙂
    Popes as recent as Pope Pius XII taught what scores (not a few) of other Popes taught regarding the death penalty. As I said (and you conveniently ignore,) is that in 1969, the Vatican had statutes which provided for the death penalty. Now…what happened? You laugh at the term “prudential judgement.” That means that there are those issues about which Catholics can disagree, even though a certain issue is stated, even by the Pope. Let me ask you this: Dave, if we were having this discussion in 1955, would you still have felt the same way, regarding the issue? Would you have said, “The Pope has stated that (and also as the Catachism stated then) the state has the right, in 1955, to execute murderers, and I agree.” I wonder. If you say yes, I would accept it and support it, you are a great man. If not-you are a shadow of your former self.
    No….most people who quote JP II as their anti-death penalty hero, wouldnt have supported it even when the Popes taught that the penalty was ok. JPII taught that the state has the right to do it, but that it ought not to. A good Catholic can still say, “I disagree, they ought to!!”

  • David W.

    I don’t laugh at Prudential Judgement…I’m just scornful of the selective way it is applied oftentimes. The state does have the authority to execute, the new Catechism even says that. It should be a rare occurance, if at all…that is what is being stated now. And to answer your other question, I would defend Pope Pius XII and the Church edicts of 1955 as vigorously as I would those of 2008. I don’t agree with everything the Church does….but I obey. Like in the Army…if it is a lawful order, I am obliged to obey it, no matter how silly or ridiculous I think it is.

    Reasonable People can disagree…and the Church does allow some wiggle room as I’ve said.

  • R.C.


    Did you notice that you were agreeing with, not disagreeing with, my post?

    I wasn’t sure; it sounded like you thought you were writing a comeback to my list of “points” when in fact your conclusion agrees with mine.

    Just checking.

  • James

    …I am usually asked, ” what if THEY killed a member of YOUR family?”

    I respond with “what if “THEY on death row were YOUR father, mother, son or daughter?”

    I never seem to get an answer to that one.

  • R.C.


    I think your concern that execution turns the inmate into a celebrity is a reasonable concern in theory, but that it has not been found, in U.S. practice, to actually be a problem.

    To defend that statement, let me first observe that I am talking about cases where the execution lends additional celebrity, not cases wherein a person who is already famous or infamous is executed. (Had O.J. been properly hanged, one could not have said that it was the hanging which first brought him into the limelight.)

    With that caveat, I ask you: Of the 1,100 or so persons executed in the United States since the mid-70’s, what percentage of them achieved as much fame by their execution (not by their guilt of the crime, mind you) as…Paris Hilton? Or Jessica Simpson? Or as much as Michael Jackson?

    Well, perhaps that’s not fair. A crook couldn’t hope to be so well-known, even through execution, as a top-rate celeb. So let’s scrape a little lower.

    As much fame as Nicky Hilton? Or Ashley Simpson?

    As Ken Lay?

    As William Hung?

    Ah, still not fair: One can’t expect a person executed in 1978 to be as famous as someone who butchered a song on a popular television show, or butchered an energy company, in the last few years. Very well:

    As Danny Bonaduce?

    As Ivan Boesky?

    As Boy George?

    Really, how low, and how dated, must the dregs of the celebrity barrel be before encountering persons who’re on the same low level of celebrity as persons executed?

    Pretty low.

    I could probably name 100 current and past celebrities off the top of my head — and I’m so anti-pop-culture, by the way, that my one television isn’t connected to any real-time channels, just a DVD player — more easily than I could name a single person executed in the U.S. since 1976. As I sit here, I can’t name a one.

    So while I agree that we want to avoid the kind of slavering mob block-party that attended hangings in Victorian England, I think it’s fair to say that we mostly have done so. Which is why that concern doesn’t weigh too heavily on my support for maintaining the death penalty (while of course doing more to ensure adequate legal representation and to effect any needed procedural reforms).

  • R.C.


    You state:

    When I tell someone I’m opposed to the death penalty…

    …I am usually asked, ” what if THEY killed a member of YOUR family?”

    I respond with “what if “THEY on death row were YOUR father, mother, son or daughter?”

    I never seem to get an answer to that one.

    Really? I’m surprised. The answer is obvious.

    Were it my mother, father, son, or daughter, the pertinent questions would be:

    (1.) Did he/she commit the crime?
    (2.) Is execution a just sentence?

    Assuming the answers to both questions were “yes,” then:

    (1.) I would be very sad, and,
    (2.) I could not argue the justice of executing the family member in question.

    Our first obligation is to the truth. Our emotions are sometimes unruly, carrying out a blitzkrieg on our beliefs (on some occasions) and our moral convictions (on other occasions). But just as a Christian is obligated to maintain those beliefs despite the onslaught of his passions (and not, say, become an atheist because his child died of cancer), so too a Christian is obligated to maintain his moral convictions despite that same onslaught (and not, say, renounce support for the death penalty just because it is his child in the chair).

    The above is correct. Am I confident that I could do the correct thing? No: I’m weak. But for the grace of God, I might become ever such a softie or a wuss when the trial comes.

    But that doesn’t change what is right.

  • Steve Skojec


    The mistake you’re making here is in imbuing the personal opinion of a pope with the authority of a “lawful order”.

    Magisterial teaching requires continuity. Theologians examine each new teaching in light of the past teachings of the Church to see that they reconcile. If they do not, the older teachings are given precedence.

    I think that John Paul II, after living through Nazi Poland and Communism after that wanted desperately to stamp out any further execution. It probably speaks to the reason why he was so driven to talk about the dignity of the human person – he lived through a time and place where that dignity was trampled upon in the most horrific ways imaginable.

    But his admirable fervor for life does not automatically lend veracity to his words. He wrote, “Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” And yet this is manifestly untrue. The prison system in the US alone is overcrowded (more than 2 million inmates) and understaffed. Violence is rampant in the prison, and as another commenter alluded to, criminal activity in the outside world, including murder, is still frequently directed by incarcerated criminal leaders. Solitary confinement is not only not possible to apply to a majority of prisoners, but there seems to be no inclination on the part of the justice system to make it so.

    Recidivism is a problem among inmates who are released, even if only famous cases (like Willie Horton) rise to national attention.

    The entire premise on which the Holy Father based his claim for the severely limited circumstances in which capital punishment should be allowed is suspect. The data does not exist to support his claims.

    If the criminal justice system was somehow reformed in such a way that gangs didn’t run the prisons; that assaults and rapes and murders between inmates were reduced to statistical anomalies; that prison guards and staff were never attacked by those they are entrusted to watch; that prison riots and escapes were completely eliminated; then, and ONLY then, could the Holy Father’s statement of the nature of the system be taken seriously.

    This has nothing to do with selective obedience. The Holy Father was writing on something that was obviously outside his competence to make an absolute moral judgment on (the state of the prison systems the world over) and he was unable in virtue of prior teaching on capital punishment to issue a new, contradictory teaching (ie., that capital punishment is intrinsically evil). So what we are left with is what I can only describe as an erroneous teaching to which many Catholics, in their laudable defense of human life amidst this culture of death, adhere.

    That the conclusion the Holy Father reached is dependent on such an obviously flawed premise continues to go overlooked.

  • Adriana

    St Gill:

    Blood sacrifice is as old as humanity. Even in the Old Testament, though we only catch glimpses of it. Isaac’s was interrupted by an act of God, but no such act stoped Jephtah from sacrificing his daughter in the altar.

    So, while human sacrifices were rare, they were not unknown – and there was plenty of blood sacrifices of lambs, doves, and other creatures – the first basic substitution.

    Now, when people practice executions and blood sacrifices, the practices of each bleed into each other. And in our society, since we dispensed with human sacrifice, the rituals connected with it, and the emotions aroused migrated to criminal executions. While there is a difference between the two, it is not a difference understood by everyone – and many seek the religious experience that was to be had in blood sacrifice in criminal executions – and the difference in intent and circumstances is irrelevant for those seeking those emotional experiences.

    Let’s say that there is a strong prudential reason not to execute.

  • Steve Skojec

    James wrote: I respond with “what if “THEY on death row were YOUR father, mother, son or daughter?”

    I never seem to get an answer to that one.

    Our personal, emotional involvement has absolutely NOTHING to do with what is right and what is wrong.

    I wrote this article from a personal standpoint because it lends credibility to the gravity with which I felt compelled to weigh the issue. The question I could not help but ask is whether, if my wife and I intervened, in some way that might mitigate the punishment the prosecuting attorney was seeking for the murderers.

    But I relied upon the cold truth of Church teaching, not emotion, to reach my decision. There was no reason for me to lobby for these men to be saved, but neither would I actively pursue their execution. We chose to defer to the judgment of the State, knowing that the penalty they were seeking was not unjust.

    Remember what St. Thomas More told his executioner, even knowing that his execution was unjust:

    “Pluck up thy spirits, man, and be not afraid to do thine office. My neck is very short. Take heed, therefore, thou not strike awry for saving thine honesty. I die the King’s good servant and God’s first.”

  • St. Gimp

    “Let’s say that there is a strong prudential reason not to execute.”

    So why, if the ancient Israelites were surrounded by people drowning themselves in each other’s blood, did God command the death penalty for so many crimes? I guess that’s my point.

    Your theory that the blood-lust of our barbaric ancestors leaks into the present day via criminal executions is fascinating, but I don’t quite buy it.

  • David W.

    If it were only John Paul II who held that view, I can see your reasoning (even though I disagree that it is outside his scope as far as Moral determinations)…but Pope John Paul II didn’t write the Catechism by himself. Pope Benedict XVI is reaffirming his teachings…and by all accounts Benedict XVI is a theologian of the highest caliber, with a thorough knowledge of Church Tradition. Does Pope Benedict XVI not know what he is talking about? This teaching permeates every level of the Church, and it is in the Catechism…which is a Magisterial document. Are you saying none of the Bishops are competent in this area? That this major and important teaching is in error on all levels?

  • Bruce


    What a horrible thing to happen. You and your family will be in my family’s prayers. And you did a remarkably brave thing in writing your initial piece. Thank you.

    I have some few years experience with running a maximum security prison, including death sentenced inmates.

    I think the position of the Church is remarkably astute.

    As has been mentioned, while the Church is not for the death penalty, she is not simply against it either. The Church recognizes that those with responsibility for the public safety can have legitimate recourse to capital punishment. But should NOT be for vengeance. It should NOT be as a punishment. It should only be used when it is the only prudent way to protect human lives from the agressor.

    So, for example, in the American west some 150 years ago, it is understandable that convicted killers were hung. There was no place to put them.

    In modern America, however, there is an extensive prison infrastructure with safeguards to give us high confidence in providing for the safety of the innocent public. The guards and staff are professional, inspected and regulated and there are professional organizations with standards and best practices in the industry.

    Yes, many prisons have a great deal of room for improvement. But that fact should not become the fig leaf to expand capital punishment.

    That said, knowing exactly when and how one is going to die can be a blessing — one can prepare, say one’s goodbyes, be in a state of grace, receive the sacraments.

    The example of Saddam Hussein is an interesting example of how, perhaps even with sufficient facilities, an agressor, even in confinement, might still represent a danger to innocent human life; say, if his supporters are prone to violence by the goal of his escape or release.

    But it should be rare. Vey rare.

    And let us not ignore the possiblity of redemption. Remember Saint Paul was a murderer before his conversion. I have seen more than one men convicted of horrendous crimes come to know the depth of God’s mercy and, through the grace of Jesus Christ, request Baptism.

    I’m not sure why, but God wants each and every one of His children to come to Him.

    God bless you, Steve. And may you and your family find the peace that only Christ can bring.

  • Steve Skojec

    David W. wrote: I disagree that it is outside his scope as far as Moral determinations…

    That’s not what I said. I said “he Holy Father was writing on something that was obviously outside his competence to make an absolute moral judgment on (the state of the prison systems the world over)…”

    From what I’ve seen, the prisons are not adequately capable of fulfilling his requirement that would make cases where execution is necessary “very rare if not practically non-existent.” What I see is a notion that with the capacity of modern man to do great and glorious things with technology and infrastructure that he must also, therefore, be able to safely contain prisoners so that they are not a threat to prison staff, other inmates, or the populace at large.

    While this capability may exist potentially, I have seen nothing to support the claim that it exists in actuality.

    From parole systems that let criminals out, only to see them commit new crimes, to the stunning level of violence within the prison systems – the premise that these inmates can be rendered harmless is proven false time and again.


    According to a 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics report, 4.5 percent of the state and federal prisoners surveyed reported sexual victimization in a 12 month period. With a national prison population of 1,570,861, (at that time), in one year’s time more than 70,000 prisoners were sexually assaulted.

    Also according to the BJS, in State Prisons alone, there were 299 Homicides between the period of 2001-2006. (An additional 197 deaths were listed as “other/unknown”, which falls outside the categories of illness and accidents as listed.)

    According to a summary I found of a June 2006 U.S. prison study by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons,”on any given day more than 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States, and that over the course of a year, 13.5 million spend time in prison or jail…Within three years of their release, 67% of former prisoners are rearrested and 52% are re-incarcerated, a recidivism rate that calls into question the effectiveness of America’s corrections system, which costs taxpayers $60 billion a year. Violence, overcrowding, poor medical and mental health care, and numerous other failings plague America’s 5,000 prisons and jails.”

    If any of these statistics are true (and I’m sure there’s countless more, this is just what I could dig up in 10 minutes) please explain to me, David, how the prison system meets the late Holy Father’s standards.

  • Steve Skojec


    Thank you for your kind words.

    I’d like to hear more from you about your thoughts on the state of the prison system and how the problems with it tie-in to Pope John Paul II’s words in Evangelium Vitae.

  • MK

    I’d like to hear more, too.

    Also, why do you think that CP shouldn’t be used as punishment? I think it’s been demonstrated that the Church has allowed it for that reason.

    By punishment do you mean “just another word for vengeance” or something? If so, then I agree. But sometimes the Just punishment for a crime is death, don’t you think?

  • David W.

    Steve, I won’t dispute those statistics, but how many of them are capital offenders? That is the question…unless you are advocating death for other crimes, which I know you aren’t. I heartily agree that our prison system is broken and in many places overwhelmed…which is why an aggressive prison reform effort should be the other side of the coin. We should be doing this anyway, irregardless of the Death Penalty question. If a choice between a more vigorous prison system and execution was to be made, I know the Church would push for the former rather than the latter. If anything, the answer is to bring the prisons up to snuff…which would be the more humane option, would it not?

    As I stated earlier, it wasn’t just Pope John Paul II who is advocating this teaching on the Death Penalty. It has become a part of Magisterial teaching through the Catechism and the Hierarchy…are they outside of their “competence” as well? And what of Pope Benedict XVI?

  • Adriana

    There is a thought to ponder: rarely is a capital crime the first crime committed by that person.

    That is, society had plenty of chances to punish adequately, and either to reform or put the fear of God into the criminal. Perhaps they went easy on him because he was a juvenile, or because they thought it was a minor crime, or because he was a useful informant. Or maybe they were just brutalized in prison, instead of rehabilitated and came back hardened criminals

    Me, I am willing to trade the death penalty for an effective way of handling first offenders.

  • Dan

    OK….so scores of Popes have supported the death penalty…written in the Catachism of that time….taught by the Magisterium. Why is the most recent Pope the correct one…especially on an issue that is not ex-cathedra ? Thats why you see poll after poll that Catholics support the death penalty. Its totally against what the church taught for centuries…..

  • David W.

    It merely teaches that its use must be limited whereever and whenever possible. I don’t view this as a necessary contradiction…The Church once banned charging interest on loans. Usury is still a Mortal Sin, albeit there is a different understanding of what constitutes Usury. Now which Pope should I follow on that one, the ones who condemned Interest and Money lenders? Or later Popes? Do you see the danger in that type of thinking?

  • Dan

    Dave….I agree with you–>”THE CHURCH HASNT FORBIDDEN THE DEATH PENALTY”. (your words)….Well, I believe that the death penalty should NOT be limited wherever and whenever possible, as you describe it in the post above. I was a prosecutor for 17 years. I beleve that murderers deserve the death penalty. I believe that child rapists deserve the death penalty….only after an appointed, qualified attorney, with plenty of time and money to investigate and DNA testing whenever relevant. Whether the death penalty should be “limited wherever and whenever possible” is an opinion.
    I get tired of these lay Catholics (who run these “adult education classes”) to whom the priests have turned over the operation of the parishes, telling me that abortion ,euthansia and the death penalty are all considered the same by the church, because I, and thankfully you, know it is NOT. The history and tradition of the church has always taught that abortion and euthansia are mortal sins. Except for the last 3 Popes, the church taught that the death penalty was proper and in fact very useful. I have thought long and hard because I respected JPII, but I think he is totally wrong, and I can think that and say that and still be as good a Catholic as anyone else. Current studies say the death penalty is a deterrent, and the reason most people support it is because it makes sense. Had we caught him, Adolph Hitler should have been executed for killing 6 million Jews! Anything else would have been a sham. Taking Hitler’s life is a proportional (equal) response to his murders. The same is true for Osama. Oh well, I guess we have whipped this puppy enough. Now dont ruin this love fest by telling me you are supporting
    that pro abortionist, Obama. LOL

  • Bruce


    Some of EV where perhaps the evidence does not conform to the words can be found when JPII wrote, in paragraph 27,

  • Dan

    Bruce..Where does it say that the people have a right to give the government power to jail someone???…under your logic?….so, no jails?

  • Bruce

    But your point is a good one.

    Perhaps I am confusing the term “rights” with “authority” or the just use of power.

    By its founding document, the US government does not own the authority to punish because this power is delegated to the government by the people.

    Having said that, the power to confine someone, or restrict their liberty, might be just or unjust.

    But the people do not have the authority to unjustly confine a person. We do have the authority, and indeed the obligation
    in some circumstances, to confine a person justly.

    The killing of a person might be just or unjust. The just use of deadly force is confined to self defense against an imminent deadly threat or grievous bodily harm and to protect an innocent third party from imminent death or grievous bodily harm.

    The use of deadly force upon a person who is not an imminent threat of death or grievous bodily harm upon innocents is not just.

    So the question becomes, is the killing of a person, that is administering the death penalty to a person in a prison setting, a just use of deadly force?

  • Adrienn

    James wrote: …I am usually asked, ” what if THEY killed a member of YOUR family?”

    I respond with “what if “THEY on death row were YOUR father, mother, son or daughter?”

    I never seem to get an answer to that one.

    I would hope my family member were convicted of murder that they would meet a conversion moment before a (speedy) execution. Truly.

    If the Catholic Church today REALLY feels that all convicted murderers who are set to be executed deserve better, then Vatican City should make arrangements to transport them in, house them, feed them, and if they ever find their way out, be ready to pay the state and victim of the murderer. They could never release them. We are not talking about chopping off a hand for stealing bread. I forgive my children, but I punish them too.

  • Mary Anne

    From a copy of a book called “The Ten Commandments” written by the Rev. Gerald C. Treacy, S.J. and published by the Paulist Press of NYC, which my father carried in his pocket until the day of his death:

    “The State has the right over life and death in self-defense to the point of inflicting the death penalty. This right is backed up by both Jewish and Christian tradition.”

    On the next page it says: “The fact is both God and the Church proclaim the right of the State to inflict capital punishment.”

    Another quote from the same page: “Capital punishment may be inflicted only after due process of law. This means a fair trial in which the accused is presumed innocent until proved guilty.”

    My father was going to be a priest, and he learned much from the Jesuits. The death penalty is just in a just society. Steve, you and your family have my sincere sympathy. I know exactly what you are going through. My uncle was murdered by 2 young men in 1995 (his throat was slit) and because they were under 21, they only received punishment until the age of 21 and then were set free. The boys testified that my uncle’s last words were “Oh, God.” They took his life because they wanted to rob him and he was in the way – and now they are free. There is no justice in that. My state unfortunately doesn’t have the death penalty.

  • Michael J. Schuerger Sr.

    James wrote: …I am usually asked, ” what if THEY killed a member of YOUR family?”

    I respond with “what if “THEY on death row were YOUR father, mother, son or daughter?”

    I never seem to get an answer to that one.

    You left a lot out of your question. Is the person on death row guilty of the heinous crime(s) for which they were convicted and sentenced? The answer to that defines my response. I would work to free the inocent and work to convert the guilty.

  • Patrick

    I think the Church’s goal is to preserve life. But She recognizes that “innocent” life takes priority over life that is not innocent. This issue is not so much about punishment or vengeance as it is about protection. To me, the issue of capital punishment comes down to this question:

    Will other “innocent” life be threatened if the guilty individual is not executed?

    Using this test, the guilty may be given the opportunity to repent in this life through the use of incarceration. But if the guilty person is unrepentent and his or her incarceration still poses a threat to society — either inside or outside of prison — then for the sake of innocent life the guilty individual should be executed.

    In practical terms, such a judgement would be very difficult. But this is the basic decision that must be made.

  • Teri

    Dear Steve,

    I’m so sorry that you and your family has had this horrendous sorrow, but it has brought you to stronger faith. I can see that, have seen that in the past year of your writings.

    It is a blessing that in your well formed conscience that you’ve been given detachment from the temporal issues. You have asked God to guide you here. Trusting in God has been raised to the only place in your heart, the default value. Do not question your gift of having a neutral stance on the the issue. I am amazed at how profound gift it is considering all that’s gone before.

    Your heart has not divorced truth from freedom. Follow the inclinations of your heart.

  • Michael F

    First, I’m so sorry for your loss. And thanks for this forum to discuss CP/DP.

    I haven’t seen any mention in this discussion (maybe I’m not looking very closely) of Jesus’ answer to Pilate in John’s Gospel:

    So Pilate said to him…”Do you not know that I have the power to release you and I have the power to crucify you?” Jesus answered [him], “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” John 19:10-11

    Isn’t Jesus saying that such power (i.e., to crucify) has been given to man from God?

  • R.C.

    A final argument in favor of the death penalty: Jose Medellin, recently exeuted for raping and killing 16-year-old Elizabeth Pena and 14-year-old Jennifer Ertman.

    Simply put, there was no other just response to the crime. Anything less would have been a profound miscarriage of justice: The kind that disheartens the good people of a society, and gives courage to the criminals and to those who “deconstruct” outdated notions like law, morality, justice, the notion that some crimes are heinous….

    When these concepts are thoroughly deconstructed in the public mind, the result is a civilization without confidence in its own value system, or in the idea of objective truth. I think it is fair to say that the ruling classes of Europe are rife with this malady.

    Which is why I add that the execution of this man had an incidental benefit: It irritated exactly the sort of deconstructed people described above. Persons of exactly this type representing Mexico, where Medellin became a bit of a folk hero, appealed through the International Court of Justice. I was deeply satisfied to hear that the State of Texas responded to this appeal in a fashion which, while couched in the usual legal niceties, amounted to offering Medellin’s apologists a fork, a knife, and a plate containing their Texas-sized undershorts.

  • Cj

    “Give to Cesar that which is Cesar’s and to God that which is God’s.” There is no forgiveness from God for such a cold blooded murder, and there is reason for man to enforce the death penalty for such heinous crimes.

    I believe criminals are smart. If our justice system is clear and consistent that those who commit murder will receive the death penalty, fewer murders will be committed.

    How can I be asked to forgive that which my Church says is unforgivable. Or has the threat of eternal damnation in Hell been eliminated from the Catholic teachings?

  • Gareth

    Ladies & Gentlemen:

    The “tone” of this debate as is so often the case, is quite depressing.

    I grew up in tremendous violence, exposed to it throughout my childhood and youth. I see a brother and sister who by wit of experience became violent and abusive as people learn these attributes.

    Most do in that situation. My point is I did not. I have been a soldier and bodyguard, but I do not believe in, perhaps I should say I do not act on a desire for violence or vengeance.

    Did not JP2 suggest that if an armed assailant broke into your home, to kill you and you were to wrest the gun away and confine him in a closet, to then open the door and shoot him afterword would be murder not defence?

    I have left the Church I loved and gone off to Deism, primarily out of disgust of and then sadness for a place where (I include all the Abrahamic religions here) where people “show” up for their services but it does not inform there mercy. Now I’m sure some clever and artful debater will say, what about mercy for the victim(s)? There is nothing in executing someone for a crime that passes sympathy or empathy to a dead victim. Their family? If that appeases them, I would not say so. They may believe it.

    If you WANT someone killed for what they did to another, please don’t cloak yourself in a coat of justice or whatever else you find to rationalize it.

    I have seen too many acts of violence rationalized, to ever find reason or faith I them.

    Pax vobiscum,

  • Bruce


    Can you not have imagined the possiblity of a very old Jose Medellin in prison, long after his heinous crimes have been forgotten by the public, having lived with his sin in confinement for decades? Can you not imagine him having finally contrite, converted and repentent; and acting as a living witness behind bars, giving advice on repentence to others in prison to admit their sinfulness, change their lives and seek God’s mercy? Can you imagine him standing before God as a penitent man and, through the merits of Jesus on the cross, being welcomed into the Kingdom?

    If not, please try.


    The Church does NOT say murder is unforgivable. Please read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1422-1498. Jesus went to the cross so that every one of God’s children might have salvation.


    If I understand you correctly, your disappointment with hypocrites caused you to leave the Catholic Church.

    Do not allow a human being to keep you from God as He has revealed Himself and has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the world.

    Yes, the state still has the right and perhaps in rare circumstances even the duty to administer capital punishment to protect the innocecent formteh aggressor. But JP2 was wise to point out how a society’s frequent recourse to the death penalty makes it easier answer violence with violence and harder to respond to our enemies with love, mercy, and a call to repentence.

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