Why the Death Penalty is Haunting Me Now

By Joshua Charles Published on August 4, 2018

In considering the death penalty issue in light of Pope Francis’ recent actions, the possibilities of redemption are at the forefront of my mind.

My entire life, I have taken the death penalty as a given. Even now, I continue to lean in that direction.

But I remain haunted. Mostly because of what happened to the would-be assassin of Blessed Saint Pope John Paul II (more on that in a bit), as well as numerous other such testimonies.

Let us leave aside every other valid issue for the moment—the Bible, Catholic doctrine, history, tradition and so on. If God is Love, and the center of the Gospel is Love, then as a Christian, I must be about Love too. And what is Love? It is the conscious willing of the greatest good for another human being, even at personal cost to me. That is the Love Jesus exhibited on the Cross — a Love that suffers at the hands of enemies for the sake of those enemies.

The Greatest Good, the Greatest Love

Now, granting that some criminals objectively deserve death, what is, in the end, the greatest good for all human beings? To be in the presence of God, for all eternity. To behold what Catholics call “the Beatific Vision.”

As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states (1045): “The beatific vision, in which God opens himself in an inexhaustible way to the elect, will be the ever-flowing well-spring of happiness, peace and mutual communion.”

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Now, admitting objective guilt, if I am to love as fully as Christ Loves, and if Christ was willing to die for His enemies to save them, how does that affect my analysis? Does it entail that if it is up to me (leaving aside debates over the proper role of the State, for a moment), and if it is one of my loved ones who is murdered, that with God’s supernatural love and grace poured into my heart, I too bear that “cross”?

Does it mean that I stay the sword in the hope that the soul of that criminal, that murderer, may have every possible chance of avoiding Hell and entering Heaven? Because no doubt, that would be a cross to bear. But would I be willing to bear it? I’m not even saying I believe one would have to bear it, at this point. But would one be willing?

The Possibility of Redemption

To complicate it further: suppose God revealed to me somehow that by my bearing that cross of mercy for the murderer of my loved one, I would have showed them the example, allowed them the time to repent, thus avoiding an eternity in Hell. Would I consider that worth it? It’s hard for me to think a Christian could say anything other than “yes” to that question.

How could I conclude that would not have been worth it?

Obviously I could not be certain about that. That is part of what makes the choice of mercy a cross. There are no guarantees.

But what if? What if, by mercy, a result of the divine grace and supernatural love of God poured into my heart, another soul would avoid the eternal torment of Hell. What if that soul could be in Heaven instead — reconciled not just with me and the loved one they murdered, but also with God? How could I conclude that would not have been worth it?

Why I am Haunted

I have reached no conclusions on this issue. I’m just giving a scenario, a hypothetical, that genuinely haunts me. Would I be willing to sacrifice that much, for even the possibility that another soul would be saved? And if my answer to that is “no,” what does that say about the state of my own heart? If he didn’t repent, the criminal would get an eternity of punishment which would by all measures exceed anything man could do to him, or even think about doing to him. So ultimate punishment would not in any sense be avoided if he remained unrepentant.

Ultimate punishment would not in any sense be avoided if he remained unrepentant.

Many have objected over the centuries that the threat of execution could, in fact, compel the criminal to consider his eternal destiny in a way that languishing in prison would not. That is a valid objection, and one I don’t discount. At the same time, however, I don’t find it particularly convincing. Repentance and recognition of the truth is alwaysand normatively a matter of having the time to do so. Adults, normally, are more mature than children. The older, more than the young. The revelation of Jesus Christ more than the revelation of the Torah.

Time is an indispensable element for many when it comes to repentance. I know of few who would deny that for most people, having the time to consider, ponder and reflect is a means to recognize a truth previously unrecognized.

Redemption Proved

I am thus dealing with the dilemma of artificially limiting that time, when in fact the criminal can be imprisoned, denied every liberty and pleasure, and kept from harming society.

In modern circumstances, where we can imprison and prevent such people from harming others, I believe this is a genuinely important question. So it is one I am deeply considering. If we ended the death penalty, and Christians flooded our prisons with ministry to inmates, what would be the possibilities for ultimate redemption?

The story of Blessed Saint Pope John Paul II and his would-be assassin, and the change wrought in this man’s heart, compels me to consider it. “Long live Jesus Christ, the only Redeemer of the world,” says the former-Muslim, would-be murderer.

That would not have happened had he been executed.

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