Can a Catholic Serve as a Juror in a Capital Case?

By Alice Ann Grayson

I write from the position of a Catholic in the pew regarding a Massachusetts Catholic priest’s homily on the death penalty. He spoke because a Massachusetts jury was poised to render either a death sentence or life imprisonment sentence to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, infamous “Marathon Bomber.” With nightly news reports on this trial, the conversations about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s were abundant, and everyone had an opinion.

Monsignor Steve framed his homily on his concern about those who are advocating death. He found them vengeful and angry. Catholics are taking pleasure in inflicting suffering. I too share that worry. Indeed, I had a friend say to me that as far as she was concerned Dzhokar Tsarnaev could “rot in hell.” Clearly, this sort of attitude is wrong and dangerous. Sadly, we have become an unforgiving society.

Msgr. Steve insisted that, a Catholic, horrified by the terrible crimes of Dzhokar Tsarnaev, should still remember that God created that person, and there is always the chance of repentance, forgiveness, conversion, and eternal life. In a word, justice with mercy. Msgr. Steve reported that he struggled with the issue, and he believed that John Paul II was correct in eliminating the death penalty in our modern times.

I am troubled however that Monsignor did not frame Pope John Paul II’s writings in the light of the traditional and historical teachings of the church regarding capital punishment. Without more background information, a Catholic in the pew could feel that Holy Mother Church has changed her mind on a significant moral matter. And, if on the death penalty, why not other social issues of the day.

In addition, he gave the impression that the Magisterium has already made the decision in this case, while, at the same time, he communicated how he wrestled with the Magisterium in a sort of values clarification methodology. In moral matters, do Catholics create a personal truth or is there an objective truth? Can Catholics think, “after all, the times, they are a changing…” ? Indeed, can a Catholic serve on a jury in a capital case?

Consider for a moment the script of a PBS Frontline presentation (WGBH Online) at the time of the release of Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (March 25, 1995):

“While the vast majority of U.S. Catholics support capital punishment, Pope John Paul II has declared the Church's near total opposition to the death penalty. In his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" (The Gospel of Life) issued March 25, 1995 after four years of consultations with the world's Roman Catholic bishops, John Paul II wrote that execution is only appropriate "in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." Until this encyclical, the death penalty was viewed as sometimes permissible as a means of protecting society. The universal catechism--book of rules--for Catholics had affirmed the right of the state to punish criminals with appropriate penalties ‘not excluding in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty’."

From Para. 56 of Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), an encyclical letter on various threats to human life which Pope John Paul II issued on March 25, 1995:

"This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offense."(46) Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.(47)

“It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.

“In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: 'If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.'"

(46) Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2266
(47) Cf. ibid.

Author, speaker, and Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, Los Angeles, Dr. Christopher Kaczor has written an article called ”Did the Church Change its Teachings on the death penalty?”
(Catholic Answers, Volume 21, #4; )

The article lists the four principles on which the church has historically taught as the purpose of punishment

  1. Retribution (justice)
  2. Defense of Society (good order)
  3. Deterrence
  4. Rehabilitation

His article is very informative, and it is worthwhile reading the whole piece. Essentially, Dr. Kaczor concludes that Pope John Paul II has not contradicted the historical teachings of the church, but rather developed them, as well as applying them to a particular situation regarding modern penal systems. Dr. Kaczor’s concluding paragraph says:

“In Evangelium Vitae, John Paul teaches that both defense of society and retribution are necessary for the legitimate exercise of capital punishment, and neither alone suffices. This teaching does not reverse any previous Church teaching, since no previous Church teaching had addressed the question of the relationship among the various purposes of punishment in the case of the death penalty. The contemporary Catholic teaching on the death penalty is not a simple rejection of traditional Catholic teaching on the topic, but it does substantially deepen the Church’s perennial dedication to the dignity of the human person and the common good of society.”

It would seem that John Paul II asks judges and jurors to consider both the gravity of the crime and the meaning of “necessity, for the common good” in a particular situation. He does not say that capital punishment is an intrinsic evil and never should be employed. He does not forbid Catholics to be jurors in Capital cases. He does not contradict the Catechism as PBS suggests. Instead, he asks for grave consideration of the particular circumstances and for an application of the traditional teachings of the church regarding punishment. And he underscores mercy. Perhaps this is the reason why Msgr. Steve has admitted struggling with this issue, rather than emphatically proclaiming and insisting from the pulpit that it is impossible to be a good Catholic and simultaneously believe that sometimes the death penalty is necessary.

I would now like to comment on the current trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Personally, I am grateful that I was not asked to serve on that jury, charged with such complex decisions.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is a young man, who did a terrible thing, and caused unfathomable suffering. He is the age of my granddaughter who is a freshman at Boston College. If any good could come from this tragedy, it would be the saving of Dzhokhar’s soul. Therefore, I ponder, what circumstances could effectively do that? Would life in prison or a death sentence be most likely to bring about conversion? Historically, in ordinary cases, a death sentence has produced repentance because it brings a man’s fate into sharp focus, while I think that a long dreary life sentence would not do that as effectively.

In addition, which sentence brings more peace and healing and closure to the victims’ families? That answer would depend on the individual families. It could go either way.

In the Tsarnaev case, in all probability, a conversion prospect is very unlikely. In fact, just the opposite. Death is considered an honorable, glorified martyrdom in Islam. So, from the safety of society issue, it is exceedingly likely that Tsarnaev’s death will inspire more Jihadists to enact more terror.

Let us consider the question of mercy. A life sentence with no parole, which would have to be upheld, is a terribly long time for a nineteen year old young man. Perhaps, death is the more merciful choice. If I were he, maybe I would rather die than linger seventy plus years behind bars.

However, suppose instead of repenting and converting, Dzhokar Tsarnaev becomes a mentor to budding Islamists. Suppose jail becomes a Jihadists school? Pope John Paul II is right. Escape is pretty unlikely, but not the legitimate release of fellow Islamist jihadist “wannabes”. What is safest for society and good order?

If I were on that jury, with great trepidation, I think that I would have chosen that Dzhokar Tsarnaev be sentenced to life imprisonment with no parole. I believe that Dzhokhar would have a greater chance to save his soul by the steady repeated encounters, year after year, with Christians there, especially the chaplains. Moreover, if he does convert, he would be able to offer his long suffering to God in reparation for his sins and for the salvation of souls. Also, regarding deterrence, because of Islam’s twisted theology, I think a life sentence would be safer for society. A death sentence will certainly inspire more Islamists to kill. However, I would worry about prison becoming an Islamic terror cell. I would pray like crazy that that would not happen.

I write because the gist of Monsignor Steve’s homily has probably been repeated across this nation. Therefore the Tsarnaev trial must have raised all sorts of doubt and unanswered questions in the hearts of the faithful, as well as conscience issues regarding anger and revenge. I am grateful that Monsignor had the courage and took the time to address a burning issue of the day, which could affect many souls. He concluded his homily with a challenge and a quote from Boston Globe’s columnist, Kevin Cullen: “If the guilt phase of the trial was about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the penalty phase which will begin next week is about us.” [Boston Globe April 9, 2015.]

Msgr. Steve then added: “Let us take the opportunity that this issue places before us as members of the Church, to deepen our understanding of our Catholic faith and be guided by its light. And let us unite in prayer for the members of the jury in their deliberations over the next few weeks.”
A thoughtful homily, delivered from the heart, certainly gets the Faithful’s attention. But there is a responsibility to reply and critique, for the honor of Holy Mother Church and the sake of souls. I believe that the answer to the question posed in the title of this essay is “Yes!” A Catholic can and should serve on the jury of a capital case, with the caveat that a judge’s instructions do not contradict Catholic teachings. (I question if a Muslim could serve in this case…)

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