OKLAHOMA CITY — Last week, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin struggled to defend the state’s April 29 execution of death-row inmate Clayton Lockett after witnesses reported that he moaned and convulsed before he died, following the administration of a sedative and a lethal injection.
“I believe in the legal process. And I believe that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for those who commit heinous crimes against their fellow men and women,” said Fallin, who announced a stay on the second execution planned for the same evening and an “independent review of Department of Correction procedures.”
But Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City condemned the execution and said the news story “really highlights the brutality of the death penalty, and I hope it leads us to consider whether we should adopt a moratorium on the death penalty or even abolish it altogether.”
Judging from public-opinion polls, many Americans, including Catholics, agree with Fallin’s view that retribution for especially grave crimes demands the death penalty, though a 2013 study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that support for capital punishment is sliding.
Lockett, 38, was convicted of rape and murder — and watching while his accomplices buried his victim alive. Archbishop Coakley did not deny the need “to administer justice with due consideration for the victims of crime.”
But, he argued, society and the criminal-justice system should not adopt practices that advance “the culture of death, which threatens to completely erode our sense of the innate dignity of the human person and of the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death.”
“Once we recover our understanding that life is a gift from our Creator, wholly unearned and wholly unmerited by any of us, we will begin to recognize that there are and ought to be very strict limits to the legitimate use of the death penalty,” he added.
Archbishop Coakley’s April 30 statement drew criticism from many Oklahomans, including members of his flock, who attacked his comments on Facebook and other forums.
During an interview with the Register, the archbishop acknowledged that “many of the people who reacted rather negatively to my statement and proposed arguments in favor of capital punishment cited legitimate authorities in our Tradition” to bolster their argument, a reference to St. Thomas Aquinas, who justified the use of the death penalty to protect the common good.
“But no one made reference to Evangelium Vitae or the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which present a much more nuanced teaching than either side of the argument will acknowledge,” he noted.
Church’s Nuanced Teaching
The archbishop’s comments reflected the decisive impact of St. John Paul II on Church teaching on the morality of capital punishment. In his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), he upheld the right of the state to impose the death penalty, but concluded that cases where capital punishment was morally justified “are very rare, if not practically non-existent,” due to “steady improvements in the organization of the penal code.”
The state, he wrote, “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender, except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”
The Catechism further states, “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (2267).
Church leaders and Catholic theologians credit this passage from Evangelium Vitae, which was incorporated into the Catechism, as a new development of Catholic teaching, though not a repudiation of the Church’s previous acceptance of the practice.
But while John Paul has inspired Church leaders like Archbishop Coakley to push for a broad reassessment of the use of the death penalty, many Catholics are confused about what the Church actually teaches and know little of the moral reasoning that guided the late pope’s judgment.
A Tradition of Support
Catholic resistance to the Church’s relatively new stance on this issue, say some experts, is further complicated by the fact that many opponents of capital punishment part ways from the Church on other life issues.
“Historically, the Church has viewed the death penalty as a form of justifiable homicide. Only in the last 30 years has the Church begun to speak out against it,” noted E. Christian Brugger, the author of Capital Punishment and Catholic Moral Tradition, who has completed a second edition of his book that includes the contribution of Pope Benedict XVI.
He noted, however, that in the early Church, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen and Cyprian of Carthage, all Fathers of the Church, "taught that Christians could have nothing to do with the sentencing or carrying out of capital punishments," but, over time, that teaching changed.
Now, the Church’s incorporation of John Paul's moral reasoning on this matter has prompted some Catholics to ask, “How, at one time, could we have defended, and even been complicit in, a practice and now speak out in a compelling way against it?” said Brugger, a senior fellow at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington.
For some, the confusion is deepened by the fact that many secular critics of the death penalty, like the American Civil Liberties Union, reject the Church’s position on other life issues like abortion.
“Many Catholics tend to associate abolition of the death penalty with the faulty moral reasoning that stands behind a permissive mentality, and that raises the question: Are we going in the right direction?” said Brugger, who noted that the early Christians opposed the death penalty, but the Church gradually accommodated the practice.
Traditionally, Catholic teaching on capital punishment has incorporated four specific goals: retribution, defense of society, deterrence and rehabilitation.
But St. John Paul II determined that the practice could only be morally justified when the defense of society and retribution are both secured. He further argued that modern states could protect society without recourse to the death penalty.
Meanwhile, many secular opponents of capital punishment argue that the death penalty poses a range of moral, legal and practical problems, from the costs associated with such cases to the disproportionate number of black offenders on death row.
After Lockett’s execution, President Obama affirmed his support for capital punishment in certain cases, but said he had asked the attorney general to review the imposition of the death penalty in the states that permit it.
Cara Drinan, an associate professor of law at The Catholic University of America, told the Register that in the past four decades, since the death penalty was reinstated, “there have been four fault lines in the debate”: racism influencing the prosecution and sentencing process, false convictions, offenders who are mentally handicapped or mentally ill and the high costs associated with capital cases.
“For decades, Justice [Antonin] Scalia was famous for saying that no innocent person has been executed. But, in recent years, because of the Innocence Project, people have been exonerated,” Drinan noted.
Some legal experts also assert that the use of lethal injection violates the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment.
But Drinan suggested that a fresh legal challenge based on the Eighth Amendment was unlikely to succeed on the merits, given a 2008 U.S. Supreme ruling that found that the use of lethal injection in a Kentucky execution was constitutional.
The “Constitution does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain in carrying out executions,” Chief Justice John Roberts said in that ruling.
In contrast, European nations have moved away from the practice and now sharply criticize the acceptance of capital punishment in the United States.
International human-rights groups like Amnesty International, a leading global opponent of the death penalty, have condemned the Oklahoma execution as “cruel” and “inhumane.”
Amnesty International reports that 141 countries do not permit the death penalty, and 18 U.S. states do not allow it. The organization also reported that, in the past 14 years, executions in the United States have declined from 150 in 2000 to 39 executions last year.
That news will give hope to Catholic leaders like Archbishop Coakley, who acknowledged that the Church must do more to educate believers — and the general public — about the nuances of Catholic teaching on the death penalty.
“The Catechism says that the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude the death penalty. We don’t categorically deny the right of the state to use the death penalty,” Archbishop Coakley told the Register. “But what is happening is that, in many states, the courts are resorting to the death penalty without any legitimate need to do so and without acknowledging that there are other ways to defend society.”
Archbishop Coakley said that the criticism of his statement condemning the execution taught him that Catholic leaders must do more to explain the rationale behind St. John Paul II’s teaching. He also expressed his wish that the mishandled execution, and the delay of the second planned execution, might result in a moratorium on the death penalty and “give the citizens of this state an opportunity to ask, ‘Is this something we want to be doing?’” he said. “I am not sure we’ll get there, but I hope so.”
Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.