The death penalty: We are either pro-life all the way or not at all

| Effie Caldarola | October 12, 2011 | 3 Comments

People hold a banner and signs on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta during a vigil for death-row inmate Troy Davis before his Sept. 21 execution. CNS photo / Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin

It was Blessed Teresa of Kolkata who said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”

When I started writing to a death row inmate several years ago as part of a parish social justice project, I had only the foggiest notion that in some sense, he belonged to me and I to him.

Even now, I shrink from the level of intimacy that Mother Teresa’s words imply. It is easier when people are statistics and not flesh and blood.

As a Catholic, I oppose the death penalty in all cases. (The only exception to our teaching is in the unlikely event that society can’t protect itself in any other way. But our maximum security prisons and life-with-no-parole sentences take care of that.)

At first, I wrote the letters to the inmate with great reserve and a little fear. After all, death row is populated by some unsavory characters, and how much of myself — even my address — was I willing to reveal?

Soon, however, the letters took on a regular rhythm, and I think I forgot about the “death” part of “death penalty.” After all, don’t those appeals go on forever?

No, they don’t.

My correspondent nears the end of his legal journey, and he wrote to say that he may have an execution date as early as January.

I was stunned.

Then he stopped writing for a while.

Subsequently, he admitted that he had fallen apart, was sleepless, distraught and terrified.

He is pulling himself together now, but I wonder: Where does he find the courage for that?

Reasonable doubt

Like millions of people around the world, I waited recently to see if the state of Georgia would execute Troy Davis, who was convicted of killing an off-duty police officer in 1989.

To convict someone, we must overcome reasonable doubt. But to execute someone, we must have no doubt.

In Davis’ case, seven of nine eyewitnesses recanted their testimony, and there was never any forensic evidence linking him to the murder.

I wrote my letter of appeal to the five-member Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles, and on the other end of
the influence scale, Pope Benedict XVI’s U.S. envoy sent a letter pleading for Davis’ life.

But in the late hours of Sept. 21, Davis was put to death by Georgia.

A fifth-grader could have made a more intelligent decision than that board.

In all of this, we must never forget the victims, the walking wounded who are devastated by heinous crime.

The same day that Davis died, a racist in Texas, of whose guilt there was no doubt, was executed for dragging a black man to death behind his truck.

The son of the dead man did not want the execution. He apparently knew what other victims learn: Revenge and killing cannot ultimately bring the peace for which we yearn.

If Americans truly want to become a pro-life nation, we have to work on our commitment to it on every level or it won’t be convincing on any level.

A nation that jumps too quickly to war, tolerates domestic violence and sees far too much sexual abuse, media violence and bullying will have a hard time convincing the young pregnant mom that the life within her is sacred.

We have to realize that it’s all connected.

Thomas Merton said: “A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all.”

In this case, we are either pro-life all the way — or not pro-life at all.

It helps me to remember that Jesus himself died as a condemned criminal. He, who lived and died with and for sinners, urges us to ask ourselves: “To whom do I belong?”

Effie Caldarola writes a column for Catholic News Service. She is based in Anchorage, Alaska.

Category: Opinion

  • Ruairi O’Duill

    Quote: “As a Catholic, I oppose the death penalty in all cases. (The only exception to our teaching is in the unlikely event that society can’t protect itself in any other way. But our maximum security prisons and life-with-no-parole sentences take care of that.)” Nicely put. I find it amazing how may people call themselves “Catholic” and will then twist that exception given in the Catechism to reach the opposite conclusion that you have.

  • Anonymous

    As you know, both EV and the CCC attempt a drastic restriction on the death penalty, which is based upon the secular concern of prison security and its ability to “defend society”.

    First, this is a prudential judgement for which any good Catholic, with reflection and respect, is free to disagree with and to support an increase in executions, if they find such appropriate.

    Secondly, the primary purpose of sanction in Catholic teachings is redress or just retribution – justice if you will.

    Thirdly, defense is a secondary outcome of sanction, not the reason for it. One can not all but detroy the primary purpose of sanction – justice, by imposing a secondary concern – prison security –  to upend it.

    Fourth, there is little doubt that justice and the other eternal teachings on this topic far outweigh any secular concerns based upon prison security, but it is also assured that executions represent a greater defense of society than does incarceration.

    Therefore, the greater moral weight, clearly falls into justice and redress, as do the greater benefits of execution, which protect innocnts to a greater degree, this adding to the greater moral weight in favor of executions.

  • Anonymous

    As you know, both EV and the CCC attempt a drastic restriction on the death penalty, which is based upon the secular concern of prison security and its ability to “defend society”.

    First, this is a prudential judgement for which any good Catholic, with reflection and respect, is free to disagree with and to support an increase in executions, if they find such appropriate.

    Secondly, the primary purpose of sanction in Catholic teachings is redress or just retribution – justice if you will.

    Thirdly, defense is a secondary outcome of sanction, not the reason for it. One cannot all but destroy the primary purpose of sanction – justice, by imposing a secondary concern – prison security – to upend it.

    Fourth, there is little doubt that justice and the other eternal teachings on this topic far outweigh any secular concerns based upon prison security, but it is also assured that executions represent a greater defense of society than does incarceration.

    Therefore, the greater moral weight, clearly falls into justice and redress, as do the greater benefits of execution, which protect innocents to a greater degree than incarceration, thus adding to the greater moral weight in favor of executions. Prudential teachings, while never infallible are, nonetheless, always concerned with morality.

7ads6x98y