A Catholic Exchangeon the Death Penalty

I am a big fan of Mark Shea. I read his blog regularly, and yesterday I finished listening to every episode of his podcast, Rock Solid. I’m also proud to say that he reads tdaxp. A bit ago we talked about my analysis of early Christianity as a political movement, and we agreed that because grace perfects nature, the rise of Christianity is an appropriate subject for scientific study.

However, Mark is less enthusiastic about my recent post on Mike Nifong, the disbarred prosecutor who knowingly, falsely accused three youths of rape. He writes:

Blog Entries Like This Are Why I am *So* Glad We Do Not Live in a Pure Democracy

The blogosphere is a daily reminder of the sinister moody mercurial power of the bloodthirsty mob.

Specifically, Mark objects to my contention that, had the laws allowed, Mike Nifong should be executed by the State of North Carolina. Or more generally, what is the appropriate Catholic view of the death penalty?


The answer: Catholics should support the use of the death penalty to the extent that it reduces crime. Christians not only may, but must, advocate the use of lethal punishment by the State.

Many Christians are bothered by the State’s penal apparatus. We pray to Our Father in Heaven that He “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who tresspass against us.” And certainly we should forgive: not just those who ask for it, and not just those who deserve it, but especially forgive those who do not seek and do not deserve forgiveness.

This shouldn’t keep the State from killing them.

It is prideful to confuse yourself with the State, but many Christians do just that when they confuse individual forgiveness with State clemency. We cause no harm when we forgive, aside from the odd Jonah perturbed by grace. But the State causes great harm when it releases criminals: it sacrifices the health, safety, and lives of innocents to criminals.

A prideful Christian, who forces the State to release a criminal because he has confused himself and the State, is condemning an innocent and releasing a criminal out of a misplaced feeling of self-righteousness. The prideful Christian who sacrifices the innocent out of concern for the guilty answers Pilate’s question, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” the same way the question was answered two thousand years ago.

This is why the Bible (Romans 13:1-7) supports capital punishment.

Now that capital punishment is supported, the next question is: should Mike Nifong be executed, if the laws would allow such a thing? The answer is yes. Corrupt officials are a particularly odious form of criminal, because they use the machinery and offices of the State to do their evil. Nifong attempted to condemn innocent youths into decades of captivity, rape, and misery, bankrupt their family, and inflame divisions in the community, and while ordering the police to do his bidding.

If the laws would allow Mike Nifong to be executed, Christians must ask themselves: Do we prefer to condemn guilty men or innocent men? Are we as grand as the State?

Sin (Guilty, Yes) and virtue (Innocent, No) give different answers to this question.

2 thoughts on “A Catholic Exchangeon the Death Penalty”

  1. This reminds me of Jesus's response to the Pharisees when (attempting to trap Jesus) they asked if they should pay tribute to Rome. His response (“Give to Caesar what is Caesar's …”) laid the foundation for our entire body of thought on “Just War”.

    Just to preempt casual observers who may cite the most mis-quote Commandment, Exodus 20:12 reads “Thou shalt not murder” — *not* “Thou shalt not kill”. Check out Leviticus for all the reason to kill your neighbor…

    That said, I don't personally agree that Nifong deserves the death penalty. Public humiliation and as much restitution as can be offered to the defamed Duke lacrosse players works for me (besides, they'll all be able to milk this for book deals, movie deals, made-for-TV mini-series, etc.). Ain't capitalism grand? 🙂

  2. Shane,

    I agree completely with your first two paragraphs.

    The role of money in this case is interesting. Nifong would probably prefer a prison sentence of a few years if he could keep his pension and escape civil liability. At the same time, no amount of money and compensate for the terror his victims and their families felt.


    Thanks for Jayson of Edgewise [1] for emailing the link to Shea's post in!

    [1] http://edgewise.motime.com/

  3. Some reviews on the current errors by the Catholic Church on the death penalty

    (1)”The Death Penalty”, Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, by Romano Amerio,

    in a blog (replace dot) http://domid.blogspot.com/2007/05/amerio-on-capital-punishment.html
    titled “Amerio on capital punishment “Friday, May 25, 2007

    NOTE: Thoughtful deconstruction of current Roman Catholic teaching on capital punishment by a faithful Catholic Vatican insider.

    (2) “Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty”, at

    (3) “Capital Punishment: A Catholic Perspective” at

    (4) “The Purpose of Punishment (in the Catholic tradition)”, by R. Michael Dunningan, J.D., J.C.L., CHRISTIFIDELIS, Vol.21,No.4, sept 14, 2003



    (7) Forgotten Truths: “Is The Church Against Abortion and The Death Penalty”, by Luiz Sergio Solimeo, Crusade Magazine, p14-16, May/June 2007

    (8) “God’s Justice and Ours” by Antonin Scalia, First Things, 5/2002

  4. Dan,
    I disagree that Nifong should be executed, and commented on that post with the reasoning just before this comment.

    The rest, however, I agree with; I believe Shane is absolutely correct concerning “kill” and “murder,” and that there is a difference between forgiving someone and the state punishing them. It’d be great of more people could or would grasp that concept.

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