Catholic Church leaders had plenty to say about the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams’ execution. Unfortunately, a short news article only scratches the surface of these differences within the Church. And the brevity of the quotes leaves them open for a variety of interpretations. For example, Bishop John Wester of San Francisco
asked Californians “to ponder carefully whether the use of the death penalty makes our society safer.”
He said “a moratorium is needed to evaluate whether the death penalty serves the common good and safeguards the dignity of human life. We are convinced that it does not.”
Bishop DiMarzio of Brooklyn wrote Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, concerned that “this execution can only compound the violence that already exists in our society.” He went on, “We do not believe that you can teach that killing is wrong by killing. We do not believe that you can defend life by taking life.”
Where to begin? Thankfully, none of the bishops claim that the death penalty is inherently wrong. It’s not, and the Church has never taught so. A couple poor reasons to oppose the death penalty crop up, such as safety. Prevention alone is a deficient sense of justice, since the offender and society are robbed of what they deserve.
Still, their quotes suggest a better, prudential argument against the death penalty in modern society. Joseph Bottum argued for this third way well in the August/September 2005 First Things. Bottum acknowledges the legitimate right of a state to execute criminals. However, Bottum fears for a justice system without Christianity’s mercy to restraint properly the death penalty.
To leave the argument against the death penalty in the hands of those who no longer much believe this Christian story is dangerous. The people who think there is no such thing as a blood-debt are always surprised to see crowds outside penitentiaries where executions are about to take place, chanting for the execution. But those crowds appear at executions in the United States for a reason-because blood really does cry out from the ground. “He didn’t suffer as much” as his victims, one bereaved parent objected at Michael Ross’ death. Without the Christian revelation to restrain it, the sense of a blood-debt that must be paid will only grow.
The divine right of kings was a short-lived political theory, swept under by rival theories in early modern times. A new understanding of the limited sovereignty of government emerged, and one of the primary causes was the gradually developing awareness that Christianity had thoroughly demythologized the state. But that is not, by itself, a stable condition. Without constant pressure from the New Testament’s revelation of Christ’s death and resurrection, the state always threatens to rise back up as an idol. And one sign of a government’s overreaching is its claim of power to balance the books of the universe — to repay blood with blood.
The state is unleashed from a grounding in the Almighty that justifies it taking another life. I must say, it’s the best Christian argument against the death penalty in the U.S. that still acknowledges its potential justice. The related argument here is that a society that fails to respect life (as with abortion) cannot be trusted to mete out a punishment taking life.