OKLAHOMA CITY — As the force of the explosion lifted a retreating Timothy McVeigh off his feet, the young Gulf War veteran looked back to see what he'd done to Oklahoma's Alfred Murrah building.

The only thought that occurred to him, according to a recent interview with Buffalo News reporters, was: “Damn. I didn't knock the building down. I didn't take it down.”

The April 19, 1995, bombing killed 168 people, 19 of them children. McVeigh, 32, is scheduled to be executed May 16.

For advocates of the death penalty, the enormity of McVeigh's crime, coupled with his persistent lack of regret, make his case a textbook argument.

No single person has ever murdered more people on American soil in American history. Justice and the protection of society both demand his execution, death penalty proponents insist.

Opponents of the death penalty, on the other hand, argue that the negative effects of the death penalty on society overall outweigh its value — even in the case of Timothy McVeigh.

As Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput recently wrote in opposing McVeigh's execution:

“Capital punishment is just another drug we take to ease other, much deeper anxieties about the direction of our culture. Executions may take away some of the symptoms for a time … but the underlying illness — today's contempt for human life — remains and grows worse.”

University of Notre Dame Law Professor Charles Rice quoted Archbishop Chaput's comments in a Jan. 30 article he wrote for the Notre Dame Observer. A onetime defender of the death penalty, Rice changed his mind on the subject after reading Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium Vitae.

That document, in which the Pope articulated his comprehensive vision for a “culture of life,” included a brief discussion on the death penalty. In contemporary societies, he wrote, cases that warrant capital punishment as a means to defend society are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

The Pope also quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states, “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (No. 2267).

According to Rice, this means that human persons have a dignity that “transcends the power of the state” to take their lives.

“In his challenge to our pagan culture,” Rice wrote, John Paul insists that God — not the individual and not the state — is in charge of the ending as well as the beginning of life.

Yet the state's right to impose capital punishment was defended in a recent lecture on the topic by Cardinal Avery Dulles.

Speaking at Fordham University, Cardinal Dulles said “Pope John Paul II spoke for the whole Catholic tradition when he proclaimed that ‘the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.'

“But he wisely included in that statement the word ‘innocent.’ He has never said that every criminal has a right to live nor has he denied that the state has the right in some cases to execute the guilty.”

But, Cardinal Dulles continued, this principle — that the state has the right to execute criminals — leaves open the question of “whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied.”

Extreme Case

According to New York arch-diocesan priest and popular speaker Father George Rutler, the case of Timothy McVeigh is clearly one in which the state should exercise its right to execute.

“It would be hard to think of a case any more extreme,” Father Rutler said.

“It becomes disingenuous to say that this is not an extreme situation. How many people do you have to kill” for it to be extreme? he asked.

Father Rutler said he fears that an “absolutist” position against the death penalty confuses the Church's traditional teaching on the subject.

“Unlike abortion, in which innocent life is taken, Father Rutler said, the death penalty is not “evil in itself,” but “plausible and just” in certain cases.

Moreover, he added, the state's authority to impose the death penalty is granted directly from God, not through the Church.

“I would object to an abuse of clericalism which suggests that the authority of the state to execute is delegated by the Church,” Father Rutler said.

Speaking in general terms, however, Cardinal Dulles explained that while the Church does not automatically assume that every application of the death penalty is evil in itself, it can also hold that the state may be acting contrary to God's will in applying it today.

In American society today, Cardinal Dulles said, “the state is not seen as having divine authority, but rather as just executing the desire of the people for vengeance — not as God's minister, but as taking dominion over human life.

“I think the symbolic significance of the death penalty doesn't appear with any clarity in our society. In principle, the state has the right and maybe in some cases the duty [to execute criminals], but that presumes it will not do more harm than good.”

Archbishop Buechlein's View

Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, in whose diocese Timothy McVeigh is scheduled to be executed, opposes the punishment on the same grounds.

“Even as our Church opposes the death penalty in a case as awful as McVeigh's, we do not question, in principle, the state's right to impose the death penalty,” Archbishop Buechlein said in an April 3 statement.

“Yet we must oppose the death penalty because the circumstances of our day do not warrant it,” he added.

“In recent times, the death penalty does more harm than goo,” he concluded, “because it feeds a frenzy for revenge, while there is no demonstrable proof that capital punishment deters violence.”