When issues of public safety collide with the sanctity of human life, it’s always best to avoid actions that cause harm without a clear, outweighing benefit.
That was a key message Curtis Wichmer of the Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC) shared with two separate audiences in Columbia.
Mr. Wichmer, a legislative analyst and lobbyist for the MCC, was the featured speaker at Sacred Heart Parish’s “Nourishing Our Faith” events on June 25 and 26 in the Sacred Heart Activity Building.
The topic was the Church’s position on the death penalty.
Parishioners prepared dinner for about 60 people for the Sunday evening event, and brunch for about 20 people the following morning.
Participants listened to Mr. Wichmer’s overview of how the Church has refined its teaching on the death penalty. They asked questions and then continued the discussion over a shared meal.
It was the latest in an annual forum the parish sponsors in order to foster a deeper faith-based understanding of issues affecting society.
The subject of last year’s event was homelessness.
Mr. Wichmer noted that this year’s topic arouses strong emotions and is often difficult to discuss.
“It’s not a particularly uplifting topic,” he acknowledged. “I think you see a lot more controversy over the death penalty than you do with almost any other position the Catholic Church holds.”
One reason is that Church leaders in other eras of history sanctioned capital punishment as a means of protecting societies from people deemed dangerous.
“Now, when you hear the statements of our popes from the latter half of 20th century forward, people have a hard time reconciling that,” he said.
As with any contentious topic, there are no easy answers.
“This is one of those issues you really have to dig deep on,” said Mr. Wichmer.
The Death Penalty Information Center states that Missouri has carried out the fifth-highest number of executions since 1976 and the fourth-highest in proportion to the state’s population.
The MCC is the public-policy agency of Missouri’s four Roman Catholic dioceses, with the bishops serving as its board of directors and people from each diocese giving guidance on its public-policy committee.
Mr. Wichmer joined the agency’s staff last October. He holds a degree from the Saint Louis University School of Law with a focus on immigration and international law, criminal law and health law.
He said that relying on the Deposit of Faith dating back to Biblical times and the work of gifted theologians in every epoch since then, the Pope and his advisors make as detailed of a case for Church teaching as the rulings of any secular court.
“In this case, we hear how in the past, the death penalty was seen as necessary for maintaining law and order and for public safety,” he said.
He noted that St. Augustine, one of the Church’s most renowned theologians, worked in the fourth century to articulate a moral framework for properly administering the death penalty.
The understanding that developed through the ages was that the death penalty should not be administered for revenge or deterrence but only when an individual poses a continued risk to society.
Pope St. John Paul II (1978-2005) and his successors have taught that at least in developed nations, because of the ability to safely incarcerate dangerous people, the death penalty is no longer ever necessary for that purpose.
In 2018, Pope Francis, in union with the teaching body of the Church, updated the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state:
“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
“Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
“Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.” (#2267)
Mr. Wichmer spoke of that teaching through the lens of the Principle of the Double Effect.
“The Fifth Commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not kill,’” he noted. “However, if we kill a would-be murderer in self-defense, that is not a sinful act. This is because of the principle of double effect.
“If an act produces a double effect, part good and part bad, it is morally permissible if certain criteria are met,” Mr. Wichmer noted. “First, the action itself must be morally good; in the example I just used, the action would be to stop an assailant from committing murder.
“Second,” he continued, “you must not desire the negative consequence, and if you can produce a good result without any negative consequence, you should.”
Therefore, incapacitating an attacker is preferable if it’s possible, but if killing the attacker is the only way to stop him or her, then doing so is morally permissible.
“Third,” said Mr. Wichmer, “the good effect must be as immediate as the negative effect — because as the two effects become more distant in time from one another, the more likely it is that we are committing two separate acts, one good and one bad, rather than one action that has a double effect.”
In addition to all of this, death penalty opponents have been raising concerns for decades that the criminal justice system is imperfect and that innocent people or people who are incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions can be put to death.
Also of note are concerns about whether capital punishment is meted out in greater proportion to people who are poor and are members of ethnic and racial minority groups.
“As a law school grad who studied the system through which these penalties are imposed on someone convicted of a crime, I hope there are enough safeguards in place to keep people from being executed unjustly,” Mr. Wichmer said.
“But there have been situations and close calls that do give me pause.”
Causes and effects
Topics of the question-and-answer session ranged from the difference between justice and vengeance, to the root causes of violence, to the ability of anyone to ascertain a person’s motives and state of mind or soul at the moment a crime is being committed.
“I consider myself a proponent of strong families,” Mr. Wichmer stated. “The most important thing we can do in terms of intervention is contribute to a strong moral upbringing and protect the family unit in general.”
He noted that the MCC consistently advocates for access to healthcare and mental health services for people who are vulnerable and cannot afford it.
The MCC has been lobbying for decades to abolish the death penalty or at least to put executions on hold long enough for an in-depth study into whether it is being administered fairly and justly.
One audience member asked Mr. Wichmer whether he thought families of murder victims push the death penalty because they want revenge.
“I have never experienced a relative being murdered, so I wouldn’t know how those people would feel,” he replied. “I would only hope that someone in that situation would make the moral decision, though I’m certain it could be very difficult.”
Mr. Wichmer noted a shift in the death penalty landscape in the United States.
“The number of states that retain the death penalty has dropped pretty drastically,” he stated. “And even among states that do keep it legal, only a handful still execute criminals and schedule executions.
“But the ones that do —Missouri being one of them — are doing so at an accelerated rate,” he said.
“Interesting and helpful”
Monsignor Gregory L. Higley, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, thanked Mr. Wichmer for visiting Sacred Heart and providing helpful information and insight to the events’ participants.
“He did a very good job in explaining some of the history and the current reasons for the Church’s position on capital punishment that is now presented in the revised Catechism of the Catholic Church,” the priest stated.
“I think those who attended found it not only interesting but helpful in reevaluating their opinions about the use of capital punishment,” he said.
Mr. Wichmer invited everyone present to join the MCC Citizen Network by visiting mocatholic.org.
He said he was impressed both by the size of his audiences at Sacred Heart and their level of engagement at the Sacred Heart Parish events.
“It was wonderful to see so many people who were that interested in the topic and following up with insightful questions,” he stated.
He lauded Msgr. Higley, parishioner Leo Agnew and all of the event’s organizers.
“I’m just glad I didn’t scare the crowd away!” he added.