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Protecting life by taking it away

(Last of two parts)

LAST MONTH, by a vote of 237-4, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a pastoral statement calling for an end to the death penalty. The 11-page document makes a number of claims. Among them: that the execution of murderers ''violates respect for human life and dignity," that it fuels a ''cycle of violence [that] diminishes us all," and that ''we have other ways to punish criminals and protect society." The bishops acknowledge in passing that Catholic teaching has never banned the death penalty outright or declared it ''intrinsically evil." Nevertheless, they insist, since the modern state ''has other nonlethal means to protect its citizens, the state should not use the death penalty."

They aren't breaking new theological ground. Pope John Paul II made a similar argument in his 1995 encyclical ''Evangelium Vitae." But the new document is shockingly blunt in brushing aside the suffering of the victims, or the viciousness of the murder, as irrelevant to the question of capital punishment. ''No matter how heinous the crime," it says, ''if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so."

Executing killers, in other words, has nothing to do with justice. No act of murder, however calculated or cruel or catastrophic, requires as a matter of sheer decency that the murderer forfeit his life. In the world according to bishops, the death penalty never balances the scales of moral judgment. Timothy McVeigh shouldn't have been executed. Ted Bundy shouldn't have been executed. Not even Osama bin Laden, with the blood of thousands on his hands, would deserve to be executed if we had him in our power.

This is what it means, the bishops claim, ''to reject a culture of death, and to build a culture of life." Their pastoral statement closes with a quotation from Deuteronomy 30: ''I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live." Choose life, that is, by keeping murderers alive.

But is that really what Deuteronomy teaches? Does God frown on the death penalty even when it comes to the worst killers in our midst?

I am neither Catholic nor a theologian, and I wouldn't presume to teach religion to a bishop. But the point of view the bishops express is sharply at odds with the Judeo-Christian tradition in which American law is rooted. It is no coincidence that the United States is the only advanced Western nation in which (some) murderers are still put to death. The United States was founded by religious believers; its culture to this day remains deeply influenced by faith and the Bible. And on this point, biblical tradition is unambiguous: For premeditated murder, death is an appropriate punishment.

No passage in the Bible -- Old or New Testament -- disapproves of the death penalty, which is why the bishops do not cite one. The Sixth Commandment (in Catholic reckoning, the Fifth) is clearly no bar to capital punishment. The penalty for those who violate ''You shall not murder" (Exodus 20:13) is made explicit just a few lines later: ''Whoever strikes a man and kills him shall surely be put to death" (Exodus 21:12). The text goes on to specify that this applies only to deliberate murder, not unintentional killing. Accidents are not capital crimes. For a willful killer, there can be no sanctuary: ''Take him even from My altar and put him to death" (Exodus 21:14).

Similar declarations appear in all five books of Moses, nowhere more dramatically or universally than in Genesis. Speaking to Noah after the Flood, God enjoins him -- and through him, all of human society -- to affirm the sanctity of human life by making murderers pay the ultimate price for their crime. ''Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has man been made" (Genesis 9:6). By man shall his blood be shed. Scripture could hardly be more explicit, yet the bishops make no mention of Genesis 9:6. They deride the idea that we can ''teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill."

But Judeo-Christian teaching has always been clear: When murderers keep their lives, human blood is cheapened. That is why reverence for life and capital punishment belong to the same ethical tradition. Civilized communities have not only the right but the responsibility to execute murderers. It may be a difficult responsibility to carry out. It may involve an assertion of moral authority that modern thinkers condemn.

But easy or not, popular or not, the duty is ours to perform. The protection of human life is a grave obligation -- never more so than when it involves taking a life away.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is

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