Can Catholics support capital punishment for terrorists?

A man weeps outside the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich (PA)

I know this is a subject that is controversial, but I’ll raise it anyway. It was prompted by a post from someone called Kevin in response to my blog on Wednesday about abortion. Kevin says he doesn’t doubt that abortion is always an important subject, but he wanted to raise a different one: the question of capital punishment. This question was stimulated by the deliberate killing of a young, off-duty soldier near Woolwich Barracks that same day. Kevin comments that Catholics regard the abolition of the death penalty as the “only consistent pro-life position”. He asks: “But is [the alternative] actually an immoral position?”

He quotes from the Tridentine Catechism, which states on this subject that “another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities…The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to the [Fifth] commandment which prohibits murder.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2266, has slightly altered the teaching on capital punishment. Kevin quotes from it: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude [in cases of extreme gravity] recourse to the death penalty.” He adds a further paragraph from the same section: “When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party [punishment] assumes the value of expiation.”

My husband, who was a prison welfare officer for many years, has always been against the death penalty. He says it does not act as a deterrent and also brutalises those who are charged with carrying it out. Against this, he agrees that locking someone up for a whole life tariff, as with Ian Brady, the so-called “Moors murderer”, can be another kind of (slow) death – which can also brutalise the prison officers who have to guard such prisoners.

Although Kevin doesn’t spell it out, he does seem to be asking implicitly for brutal crimes of terrorism as seems to have taken place in Woolwich, would it not be more just to execute the perpetrators rather than incarcerate them? Critics would say that execution might make them martyrs for the cause. Yet keeping them imprisoned for years will also keep their memory alive for those who sympathise with them. Nonetheless, those who are very opposed to capital punishment – such as the late Pope John Paul II – see it as using (judicial) violence in response to violence, something that no civilised country should contemplate.

As you see, I am swayed by both sides and both sets of arguments. I recall the story of St Thérèse of Lisieux praying for an unrepentant convicted murderer who, seconds before he was guillotined, asked for a crucifix, which he kissed – and also the story of John Amery, hanged for treason at the end of the last war. He died very bravely but, given his long history of mental instability, it seems clear that he should never have been condemned to death in the first place.