Tim McVeigh deserved to die. But he shouldn't have been put to death.
This, in its simplest form, is the Catholic position on the death penalty. In the weeks following McVeigh's death, many other kinds of arguments have been put forward against his execution.
Most are wrong.
One goes something like this: McVeigh was friendly growing up and was even called “gracious” after he killed 168 people in Oklahoma City with a bomb six years ago. Yes, his crime was terrible; but no, he wasn't a monster. He was a living, breathing human being like you and me, and it's always wrong to kill a human being.
The problem with that argument is that it isn't wrong to kill a human being who is a clear danger to society. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says as much.
“Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined,” says the Catechism, “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” (No. 2267).
But in our own day, when sufficient means of incarcerating criminals exist, “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent,” it concludes.
That isn't to say that the argument about McVeigh's humanity isn't on to something. It is. But the conclusion is wrong. We don't oppose the death penalty because no one deserves to die. We oppose it because, in one sense, we all do.
Listen to the Catechism's wisdom again, this time in the section on death. “As a consequence of original sin, man must suffer bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned” (No. 1018).
By rejecting God's offer of eternal life, we all are born under a “death penalty.” It was Christ's acceptance of that sentence, once and for all, that frees us from eternal death. We therefore inhabit the world as a band of sinners under the mercy of God. And it's our job to give everyone access to his grace.
No, we are not all McVeighs, equally deserving to die. While he isn't a monster, his abominable act puts him in a different category from those of us who have not committed a crime of that magnitude. We don't point out our own state with God in order to exonerate McVeigh, but as an opportunity to look at our own lives.
When we look at him as a fellow sinner, we might find it easier to desire mercy for him—not the mercy of a commutation of his sentence (that, alas, is no longer possible) but mercy in the afterlife. We might find it easier to hope that, along with the last rites he received, he somehow repented of—and, far better, confessed—his sin.
After all, there is another example a man who was executed and who repented at the last minute. He was hanging beside Christ on a cross. Before he died, he admitted that he deserved to die for his crimes—much as McVeigh, in his recent interview, also seemed to accept that he deserved his sentence.
This example of the good thief is extraordinary. Christ told him “This day, you will be with me in Paradise.” That makes an executed felon the only person in the Bible told by Christ that he was on his way to heaven.
Perhaps Timothy McVeigh is in good company after all.