Last night I attended mass in Foxfield, Colorado, and listened intently to our pastor, Monsignor Edward Buelt, as he homilized about the failure of the James Holmes jury in the Arapaho County Courthouse, just a few miles down the road, to pass a death sentence upon Mr. Holmes.
The Good Monsignor speaks with some authority on the matter, being currently engaged with ministering to a number of the relatives and survivors of the 2012 Aurora Theater Shooting, acting as liaison between them and Holmes in prison, in some cases. When not standing to speak, Father Ed also sits in one of the chairs made for and used by Pope Saint John Paul II when he was in Denver years ago, and it was JP2 who wrote the current Roman Catholic Church teachings on capital punishment.
As it is his job to do, Fr. Ed faithfully relayed those teachings to us last night, pointing out that the life sentence was the best possible outcome, according to the Church, because Holmes will now have the rest of his life to repent and receive grace, locked safe in maximum security prison in Canon City. Perhaps that is true, ideally, but the reality may be more complex for this case, and for the wider handling of capital crimes across America and in the teachings of her Christian churches.
In this particular case, the sentencing was quite dysfunctional. The entire jury, save one woman only, agreed that a death sentence was both appropriate and necessary. The hold-out, as reported, adamantly refused to be moved in what seems to be an indication of a personal opposition to capital punishment. If true, that indicates that she may have lied while under oath during jury selection, since jury candidates are screened for previous convictions that would bias their handling of the case at hand. Jury members are generally expected to be open, at least, to the possibility of a death sentence if it is called for.
And let’s be clear, even religious convictions need not interfere with a juror being open to the possibility of a death sentence. Most Christian denominations, including the Catholic Church, recognize explicitly that the State has the right – and the obligation – to protect its citizens and keep them safe, even if it means killing bad guys when necessary. They strongly urge the State, generally, to avoid this whenever possible, and the Catholic Church adds, in the words of JP2, that it is almost inconceivable that in modern times, and in the Western World, that we would be unable to avoid putting criminals to death in order to protect people.
This seems cut and dried enough, but it isn’t at all. With respect for JP2’s hopes on what is possible in the modern Western World, his proviso does nothing to change the fact that the decision is squarely on the shoulders of the judicial system, and on jurors in particular. The churches should not, and have not the right, to pre-judge cases. When they attempt to do so, as when the American Catholic Bishops or other pacifistic church leaders, state that capital punishment is always wrong, they are actually making a grave error that should be called out. The teaching of the Catholic Church, as stated in the Catechism, as most recently written by JP2, stops short of doing so, and so should the bishops. Shame on them when they don’t.
The result is that most Christian Americans have no idea whether it’s moral to sentence a criminal to death. It most certainly is, provided it is necessary to protect the innocent from unnecessary threats. And are not the not-so-innocent worthy of being protected as well? No one thinks about them, but a large percent of the US population is behind bars for minor crimes, and we think nothing of subjecting them to routine murder and death at the hands of monsters that we are too morally conflicted to properly judge and sentence.
So confusion reigns, and we dwell in a state of dysfunction in which it is almost impossible to sentence any criminal to death for capital crimes. At least it is in most of the USA, that is, not including Texas. That should change.