The Death Penalty and the President

Loverde’s statement represents a rising tide of Catholic opinion against the death penalty, which has been slowly changing since the success of the pope’s 1999 appeal in St. Louis to pardon Darryll Mease. A written appeal was recently sent by the Vatican to the White House on behalf of McVeigh.

Loverde rightly points out the mistake of inviting victims’ families to view the McVeigh execution – such a gesture misrepresents the meaning of punishment administered by the law. Punishment is not intended to provide psychological satisfaction to victims, or provide “closure” as media deadheads are fond of saying.

Retribution is a matter of justice – reestablishing the right order of things – not a matter of eliciting positive feeling states in injured parties.

Yet the meaning and importance of retribution appears to be the central issue both in Loverde’s statement and in the development of Catholic teaching on the death penalty. The question is whether the principle of retributive justice still plays a central role in the Catholic understanding of civil punishment. Or has this central rationale been replaced by the rehabilitation of the criminal and the defense of society?

Even though retribution may now sound like a dirty word, it is still integral to the Church’s position. Bishop Loverde knows this. For example, where he says, “Justice dictates that punishment be inflicted to redress the disorder caused by the offense,” he means the objective disorder created by the crime, not the disorder within the criminal. He quotes directly from section #2266 of the Catechism where the principle of retributive justice is clearly stated: “Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime.”

For centuries the Catholic Church has taught that the death penalty was commensurate with the intentional taking of an innocent life. And the Church has not changed that view, but has added a crucial caveat: the death penalty should only be administered when society cannot be protected in any other way, adding that such cases “are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (#2267).

Although the principle of retributive justice remains in play, it is trumped by the Church’s promotion of a culture of life through the priority given to “bloodless means” for the protection of society.

President Bush, in my opinion, still sees the death penalty as a simple matter of retributive justice. And many older Catholics, according the polls, agree with him. But younger Catholics and minority Catholics will be watching to see if he makes any sympathetic gestures toward those who see the matter differently. The death penalty did not emerge as a serious issue in the last election because Gore’s position was no different.

Catholics seeking to eliminate the death penalty have already questioned the president’s pro-life credentials because of the number of executions while he was Governor of Texas. Bush would gain more Catholic support if he listened to these concerns, as expressed by Bishop Loverde, and conveyed his appreciation of their cogency.

(Deal Hudson is editor and publisher of CRISIS, America's fastest growing Catholic magazine. He is also a top Catholic advisor to President Bush. You can reach Deal at

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