Capital Punishment

Parish Diary

March 8, 2012

Fr. Peter Daly


Fr. Peter Daly talks about the death penalty as we approach Good Friday.


            What percentage of Catholics knows that the Church opposes abortion?  Probably 100%.

What percentage of Catholics knows that the Church opposes capital punishment? I bet hardly anybody.

We are vigorous in our defense of innocent life. But it is a lot harder to defend the lives of people who may be guilty of a terrible crimes.

Abortion is, of course, a much larger issue. There are more than a million abortions every year in the U.S. while there have only been about 1300 executions in the U.S. since 1977.

While the death penalty is a smaller problem than abortion, it is still a contradiction of our value of life.  The Church tries to be consistently pro-life.

 In the 1980s the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin  challenged us to see  all life issues as part of a “seamless garment.”

In 1995 Pope John Paul II wrote, “The Gospel of Life.” In it he that the death penalty could only be justified when there was absolutely no other way for society to defend itself. “Today,” he said, “ … such cases  are very rare if not practically nonexistent.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “public authority should limit itself to bloodless means” of punishment if they are sufficient to “defend human lives … and protect public order.”  

            Lately, in our parish, we have heard two powerful, personal testimonies as our state, Maryland, is debating becoming the 17th state to completely abolish the death penalty.

We heard from Kirk Bloodsworth, a man who spent nine years on Maryland’s death row. He was convicted of a crime he did not commit, the horrific killing of a nine year old girl in 1984. Kirk is an ex-Marine, who had never been in trouble with the law until he was arrested on the testimony of witnesses who said they saw him in the area of the crime. The development of DNA in 1985 led to his exoneration. Kirk was the first prisoner exonerated from death row by DNA results. Since his release there have been over 150 prisoners proven not guilty by DNA tests.

While in prison Kirk became a Catholic. He found spiritual solace in the Church. Today he spends his time trying to end the death penalty and free other people who are wrongly convicted.

The second story we heard was from Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who wrote “Dead Man Walking” a best seller that was made into a movie. She says she was an ordinary Catholic who never thought much about the death penalty until she began corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, a man on death row in Louisiana for the killing of two teenagers in a horrible crime. She wound up walking with him as his spiritual adviser as he was taken to his execution. Her story was made into a movie.

Both cases teach us the value of mercy and forbearance.

In Kirk’s case, if the state had taken his life, it would have been an outrageous miscarriage of justice. In Sister Helen’s case, while the man was guilty, but his death did not bring peace to her or to some of the family members of the victims.

The death of another person does not really give us peace. Nor does it allow room for error, conversion or reconciliation.

As we approach Good Friday, the day when our Savior was unjustly executed by the state, it is a good time to think about the death penalty. Christ’s death was the greatest miscarriage of justice in history. It is the ultimate testimony that should make Christians consider the death penalty as a life issue.