The Colosseum in Rome was lit up on November 29, 2012 in honor of Connecticut’s repeal of the death penalty back in April.  Former California death row inmate Shujaa Graham, who was a featured speaker at the annual conference of the College Theology Society two years ago at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York, was also in Rome to see the illuminated Colosseum and to attend what John Allen over at National Catholic Reporter refers to as a “high-profile international conference in Rome on Tuesday promoting global abolition of the death penalty, which was organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio.” The conference’s title was “A World without the Death Penalty: No Justice without Life.”

Allen notes that a dossier compiled for the conference asserted the existence of a “clear global trend toward abolition of the death penalty.”As of October, more than two-thirds of the planet’s nations have eliminated capital punishment either by law or in practice. Ninety-six nations have legally abolished the death penalty entirely; nine have eliminated it except for exceptional crimes committed during wartime; and thirty-five nations have not executed anyone in at least ten years.

This growing opposition to capital punishment was evident also on November 19 when 110 countries voted for a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions. This was a record number of votes in support of such a resolution. Among the countries supporting it were the European Union nations, Australia, Brazil, South Africa and Israel. Thirty-six countries abstained. Thirty-nine nations, including the United States, opposed the non-binding resolution. Interestingly, the U.S. is in agreement with China, Iran, North Korea, and Syria on the death penalty. 

A year ago Pope Benedict XVI praised such developments: “I greet the distinguished delegations from various countries taking part in the meeting promoted by the Community of Sant’Egidio on the theme: No Justice without Life. I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order. Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims present, including those from the United States, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!” The pope believes the growing opposition to the death penalty is morally and theologically congruent with respect for the dignity of the human person as made in the image of God. 

Another prominent Catholic, however, reads these abolitionist developments differently. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in an article on “God’s Justice and Ours” that appeared in May 2002 in First Things, writes: “In my view, the major impetus behind modern aversion to the death penalty is the equation of private morality with governmental morality. This is a predictable (though I believe erroneous and regrettable) reaction to modern, democratic self–government.” Scalia asserts that citizens of western democracies are now more secular and less Christian in our beliefs. We no longer, for example, believe in the divine right of kings, which included the power to execute offenders (Scalia cites Romans 13 in this connection, though recent scholarship questions its direct relevance on the subject). He claims, “Few doubted the morality of the death penalty in the age that believed in the divine right of kings.” Of course, it should be noted that in that era few also doubted the morality of conquest, slavery, and a host of other things we no longer morally and legally permit!

According to Scalia, we are, in addition, now afraid of death, given that westerners are less Christian and no longer believe in an afterlife. For “the believing Christian, Scalia suggests, “death is no big deal.” In his view, “the modern view that the death penalty is immoral…has little to do with the fact that the West has a Christian tradition, and everything to do with the fact that the West is the home of democracy. Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post–Christian Europe, and has least support in the church–going United States.”

I disagree with Scalia’s reading. He puts things too simply as an either-or here. In contrast, for John Howard Yoder the growing opposition to the death penalty is both secular and Christian: “The fact that modern secular society has abandoned the idea of expiation in its interpretation of the death penalty is a result not only of secularization and loss of faith, but also of the indirect influence of Christ on modern culture” (The End of Sacrifice: The Capital Punishment Writings of John Howard Yoder, 49). On constitutional democracy, human rights, and other similar developments, including the “striking diminution of the use of the death penalty” (123), Yoder adds, “None of these developments is directly or uniquely Christian, but in general it could be shown that they have been derived—whether by a sequence of rational arguments or by historical experience—from the impact upon society of biblically derived understandings” (121). Yoder refers to such developments “as cultural transformation under the pressure of the gospel, or as humanization” (126). All this is fine, because in his view, “The God of creation, making humankind in his image, was the first humanist. The story of the ‘humanization’ of Western culture—limping, imperfect as it is, but real—is part of the work of the God of Abraham, Father of Jesus, partly done through his body, the church” (126). I suspect Pope Benedict XVI would pretty much agree with Yoder’s over Scalia’s reading of the growing global opposition to capital punishment.

Moreover, recent polls are showing that active Christians, including Catholics, are—contrary to Scalia’s claim—becoming increasingly critical of the death penalty. A recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, released on January 6, 2012, indicates that a majority (62 percent) of Americans—including 59 percent of Catholics and 67 percent of Protestants—favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. These percentages for Catholic and Protestant Christians who support capital punishment are slightly lower than was the case in a Gallup Poll several years earlier in 2004, when 66 percent of Catholics and 71 percent of Protestants viewed state-sanctioned executions as morally justified, so there may be a bit of a decline in support for the death penalty trending at this time. Interestingly, according to the 2004 Gallup Poll, there was less support for the death penalty among those Americans who attend religious services on a regular basis. Those who worship weekly were less likely to support the death penalty than those who worship on a monthly basis, and those who worship on a monthly basis support capital punishment less than those who worship seldom or never. Likewise, in March 2005 Zogby International published a national poll of Roman Catholics revealing that regular churchgoers are less likely than those who attend Mass infrequently to support capital punishment.  Most recently, the Public Religion Research Institute released a 2012 American Values Survey with similar data.  

Of course, more distinctively theological arguments are also being mustered against the death penalty. A new book, Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty, edited by Vicki Schieber, Trudy D. Conway, and David Matzko McCarthy, looks promising. There was also the statement signed by almost 400 Catholic theologians, scholars, activists, clergy, and religious posted here a little over a year ago. I also was asked by Sojourners magazine to write an article that theologically addresses the topic, and I attempted to do so in connection with a conversation between Gandalf and Frodo about Gollum. So stay tuned, because there is more to come, I’m sure, on the subject of capital punishment!