The erudite Fr. George Rutler gently puts capital punishment in perspective with respect to Catholic doctrine in his latest article for Crisis Magazine, “Hanging Concentrates the Mind”:
“It is not my concern here to take a position on capital punishment which the Catechism (# 2266) acknowledges is not an intrinsic evil and is rightly part of the state’s authority. This is nuanced by the same Catechism’s proposition that its use today would be ‘rare, if not practically non-existent. (#2267)’ As a highly unusual insertion of a prudential opinion in a catechetical formula, this would seem to be more mercurial in application than the doctrine of the legitimacy of the death penalty. What is oddly lacking, however, is reference to capital punishment as medicinal as well as punitive. Tradition has understood that the spiritual aspect of the death penalty is to ‘concentrate the mind’ so that the victim dies in a state of grace. Simply put, the less I believe heartily in eternal life, the more disheartened I shall be about entering ‘a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.'”
Fr. Rutler proceeds to recount the history of sainted popes who imposed capital punishment in the Papal States, surrounding it with ritualistic dignity for the condemned man, making the sacraments available to him, even exhorting the citizens to fast and pray for him. The very antithesis of cruel bloodlust, it seems to me. It’s also worth remembering that a pope as recent as Pius XII was eager to see justice done in this way.
Earlier this week, the Catholic bishops of Louisiana lobbied governor Bobby Jindal, also a Catholic, to stop the execution of Christopher Sepulvado (on Ash Wednesday!), another Catholic whom they said is repentant and active in his faith. Governor Jindal declined, which was well within his rights, his office responding that the “trial was handled appropriately, and the punishment decided on by a jury of Mr. Sepulvado’s peers is proportional to the crime he committed.” I can’t help but think it unfair of the bishops to place the governor in a position of seeming to oppose the Church on a question of prudential judgment legitimately belonging to the state. Would that Governor Jindal of Catholic Louisiana also exhorted his fellow citizens to fast and pray for the soul of Mr. Sepulvado!