It might seem to some that a topic as fraught with controversy as the death penalty might not be the best topic for this ‘Sunday Sermon’ series that I have going as a regular feature here at the website.
However, these are not normal times, and these times have resulted not only in my own personal re-evaluation of the issue, but also have resulted in my own increased research into the topic.
These ‘times’ that I am speaking about involve the murder of four on-duty uniformed Philadelphia police officers within the past calendar year, including last week’s cold-blooded assassination of P/O Pat McDonald. This follows on the heels of another similar murder of P/O Gary Skerski just 2 1/2 years ago.
Gary was the only one of these recently murdered officers whom I knew personally. He was alternately gruff and gregarious, but if you knew him well enough to be taken into his inner confidences it was usually the humor that you were exposed to: Gary was quite simply a very funny guy.
He also was a man who cared a great deal about supporting his family, and although his career had taken him to a relatively safe position in community relations, he would go back onto the often hard streets, making overtime as a part of the ‘Safe Streets’ effort to lower the drug trade in Philadelphia. While working this detail one night, Gary was gunned down by an armed robber.
When Gary Skerski was murdered, I lost someone whom I had laughed with, ate meals with, even worked a few shifts on the same details and in the same vehicles with. For some reason though, throughout the entirety of my police career, even through most of these recent murders, I maintained my status as one of the few police officers who were not in support of the death penalty.
I believe that these are personal, individual decisions that each of us has to make, coming to peace with the decision in our own hearts and minds.
I fully understand why police officers in particular support the measure as a legitimate penalty. Without opening up to the details of my feelings, they were based on an opposition to retribution in the form of vengeance, as well as an inability to reconcile the killing of many guilty murderers with the death of even one innocent man.
I believe that killing other human beings is the single worst thing that any of us can do, be that by abortion, homicide, accident, capital punishment, what have you.
Sometimes it is justified, such as our actions as police officers in trying to save our own lives or the lives of others that are in immediate mortal danger. For these same considerations, I see the justification during times of war, when an enemy is trying to kill you and your forces, and will do so if you don’t get them first. And of course accidents, as long as they are truly that and not the result of our negligence, such as in a DUI, are unfortunate and should result in our sorrow, but certainly nothing that we should be or feel guilty about for long.
But to kill a person just because they killed someone else always seemed to me to be a simple ‘tit for tat’, a product simply of vengeance that lowered us as individuals and as a society to the original murderers level.
The second consideration, the innocent man, is also strong with me. If we eliminated all the problems with the death penalty as currently constituted, if we made it swift, sure, and certain, we still would put innocent people to death from time to time. The deterrence produced by numerous executions would not reconcile for me if we put even one truly innocent man to death, and the odds are that it would happen over time.
But then this series of police murders happened, and when Pat McDonald was killed it was too much for me. The last straw had finally broken this camel’s back.
In my research, it turns out that the Catholic Church is not in opposition to the civil authority of the State in carrying out capital punishment, as I always believed it was. This power derives much of its authority from scripture itself, though the advisability of executing that power depends on all the circumstances around a particular case.
I do not know what the magic answer might be, but we as a society need to come up with a way to make the punishment meet sure, certain, and swift criteria. If we can do that, then I have reached the point where I personally am willing to support the death penalty. Perhaps such swift executions of cop killers, spousal murderers, neighborhood drug-related killers, serial killers and others will indeed prove to be a deterrent, and maybe they will result in fewer police funerals.
The Church is not in opposition to the idea of capital punishment, with the Catechism stating that it is allowable in situations of extreme gravity. With that being the official position of my Church, which matters to me and which should matter to all Catholics, then neither am I against the death penalty based on the individual situation.
NOTE: This is the continuation of a regular ‘Sunday Sermon’ series, each topic of which can be read by clicking on to that below “Label”