The Catholic teaching on capital punishment is often misunderstood and misrepresented. . .
When Sylvester and Vicki Schieber lost their daughter Shannon to a horrific rape and murder in 1998, they faced a parent’s worst nightmare.
“She was beautiful and brilliant, always winning awards while she was growing up,” Vicki Schieber told Legatus Magazine. A 23-year-old doctoral student at Wharton, “Shannon was everything a parent could want — and she was also very good on the inside.”
Yet, instead of calling for the death penalty for the murderer (who was eventually apprehended in 2002), the Schiebers asked for life without parole. Their Catholic faith brought them to the conclusion that the death penalty would not honor Shannon’s memory.
Throughout history, the Catholic Church has always viewed the death penalty in terms of justice — punitive and restorative. Capital punishment advocates find justice in the death penalty, noting the difference between “innocent human life” and the lives of those who have committed horrific crimes. Opponents focus on the sanctity of human life and radical forgiveness.
“We couldn’t live with the thought that we would have to someday answer to God why we demanded the assailant’s execution when we knew Jesus would forgive our trespasses if we forgave those of others,” Schieber said. “We also knew that society would be well protected as long as this assailant would be spending the remainder of his life in a maximum security prison without the option of parole.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime” (#2266), and “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude … recourse to the death penalty” (# 2267).
In other words, the Church does not proscribe the death penalty. It does, however, urge extreme caution and prudential judgment. Pope John Paul II expressed his distaste for the death penalty in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae.
“John Paul II lived under two regimes in Poland where the state’s unique power of legitimate use of lethal force in the form of capital punishment was regularly and illegitimately used against each regime’s political opponents,” said Samuel Gregg, director of research at the Acton Institute.
Despite his profound opposition to capital punishment, John Paul II never imposed his personal position as the Church’s official position.
“At no point did John Paul ever put the death penalty in the same category as murder, intentional abortion, euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research,” said Gregg. “To do so would have contradicted the Church’s tradition on capital punishment.”
The Church teaches that capital punishment is permissible when it’s not possible for the state to adequately secure a murderer. However, in our day and age such instances are “rare, if practically non-existent” (CCC #2267).
Catholic opinion on capital punishment has shifted in recent years. A 2005 study from the Conference of Catholic Bishops found that Catholics’ support for the death penalty has dropped from over 70% to less than 50% in the last decade.
“Since the 1970s, 131 people have been exonerated from death row,” said Kathy Saile, the USCCB’s director of domestic social development. “We also know of people who have been executed and later discovered to be innocent.”
Although the USCCB has campaigned to end the death penalty for 25 years, Catholics who support capital punishment remain in good standing, said Fr. Michael Orsi, research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law. However, he said, some Catholics tend to lump together the life issues — abortion, war, the death penalty and stem-cell research.
“Abortion is the taking of innocent human life and is always an immoral action,” he said. “The death penalty is the taking of criminal life. It is not always immoral. Both issues do not have the same weight. Abortion is a non-fallible teaching. It is never permissible. The death penalty is sometimes permissible.”
Orsi notes the difference in sheer numbers of those affected. There were over 1 million abortions in the U.S. last year, but only 37 executions.
Closure and healing
Ultimately, many favor the death penalty because they expect it to bring closure and healing. Vicki Schieber disagrees.
“It’s natural for family members to be angry after the murder of a loved one; it’s a tragedy of unimaginable proportions,” she said. “You go through shock, grief, anger — but you need to decide how you are going to live for the rest of your life.
“I’ve seen family members who can’t let go of the anger. They believe retribution will bring them healing, but it just prolongs the pain,” she said.
Legal procedures often drag families into court over and over. The stress can split families apart.
“It hardly ever brings healing and the so-called ‘closure;’ there is never any closure on a loss of this magnitude,” Schieber said. “I’ll never pass a woman with children and not feel the terrible pain of knowing I’ll never have Shannon’s children in my life. Nor can I go to a wedding and not feel the loss of never seeing Shannon walk down the aisle.”
Since the murder, the Schiebers’ personal tragedy has led to a larger cause. Vicki has devoted her life to the abolition of capital punishment. She applauds New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s decision to sign a bill repealing the death penalty on March 18. She is a founding member of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights and regularly gives speeches and testimony before legislative committees.
Most importantly, her efforts have helped her family move on from the horror of Shannon’s murder. “There really is amazing power in forgiveness to bring healing and strength to go on,” she said.
Sabrina Arena Ferrisi is a staff writer for Legatus Magazine.
Just the facts
States with the death penalty: 35
Inmates on death row: 3,307
Death row inmates exonerated since 1973: 131
Executions since 1976: 1,158
Cost of California’s annual death penalty system: $114 million*
Countries with death penalty: 62+
Most executions in 2008: China (1,718), Iran (346), Saudi Arabia (102), USA (37), Pakistan (36).
* This is over and above the cost of life imprisonment. In Indiana, the total cost of the death penalty exceeds the complete costs of life without parole by 38%.
Source: Death Penalty Information Center