Scheduled Execution of Timothy McViegh
It would be difficult to imagine a more heinous crime than the catastrophic
explosion of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April
1995. We can't imagine the full impact of the shocking loss of the families and
friends whose loved ones, including small children, were victims of human
madness. We continue to pray for the victims and their families.
What twisted mind could perpetrate such a crime against innocent humanity?
Not a foreign terrorist, but a citizen from America's heartland masterminded
this act of violence.
Timothy James McVeigh was tried and duly convicted of this sordid crime in a
court of law. He has been sentenced to death, and there is little sentiment in
favor of staying his execution, now less than a month away. As we approach the
first federal execution in our country in more than 38 years, many believe no
criminal is more deserving of the death penalty.
Like no other, the McVeigh case tests the mettle of the emerging Catholic
view about the inappropriateness of capital punishment. Rational analysis is
difficult in the face of the emotion that this man's crime evokes. The
"tantalizing" manner in which this is becoming a national media event compounds
the task. Yet, in matters such as this, the good of society requires that we
rise to the challenge of a measured and larger vision.
Last October, Jesuit theologian Avery Cardinal Dulles traced the history of
religious teaching on the death penalty through the ages and demonstrated that
the Catholic Church has consistently asserted that the state has the authority
to exact capital punishment and, in principle, does so today.
"It is agreed," Dulles said, "that crime deserves punishment in this life and
not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the state has the authority
to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that
this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death."
But what is "appropriate" punishment? This is the question raised for our day
by Pope John Paul II. Dulles outlined the four purposes of criminal punishment
- Rehabilitation. The penalty should try to bring the criminal to
repentance and to moral reform. (Under certain circumstances this could lead to
a return to normal civil life).
- Defense against the criminal. The government is obliged to protect
society by preventing the criminal from committing additional crimes. For
heinous crimes, the Church favors life imprisonment without parole rather than
- Deterrence. Punishment should discourage further violence and crime.
We believe life without parole does so.
- Retribution. Punishment should try to restore the right order
violated by the crime. A criminal should pay a price for the offense committed.
If possible, the victims of the crime should be compensated for the wrong
suffered. This does not mean revenge.
Dulles also summarized four objections to capital punishment in our day.
- Wrongful death. The possibility that the convict may be innocent is
the more common reason for opposition to the death penalty. A significant number
of wrongly accused criminals on Death Row have been proven innocent.
- Revenge not justice. The death penalty seems to fan the flames of
revenge (and violence) rather than foster a genuine sense of justice in society.
- Devaluation of human life. Capital punishment contributes
dramatically to the devaluation of human life in an escalating culture of death.
- Incompatibility with Christian forgiveness. While pardon does not
remove the obligation of justice, capital punishment seems incompatible with the
teaching of Jesus about forgiveness.
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.
Yet we must oppose the death penalty because the circumstances of our day do not
warrant it. Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Evangelium vitae (The
Gospel of Life), "As a result of steady improvements in the organization of
the penal system," cases in which the execution of the offender would be
absolutely necessary "are very rare, if not practically non-existent" (#56).
The Church's teaching about the state's authority does not change, but the
state should not exercise its right if the evil effects outweigh the good. In
recent times, the death penalty does more harm than good because it feeds a
frenzy for revenge, while there is no demonstrable proof that capital punishment
Revenge neither liberates the families of victims nor enables the victims of
crime. Only forgiveness liberates.
To be sure, we, as a society, must never forget the victims of crime and
their bereaved loved ones. The truly honorable memorial is to choose life rather
Most Rev. Daniel M. Buechlein, O.S.B.
Archbishop of Indianapolis
Indiana Catholic Conference
Member Committee on Pro-Life Activities
National Conference of Catholic Bishops
April 2, 2001