John Zmirak has a sensible article at First Things arguing that Kermit Gosnell, from a Catholic and Christian perspective on civil justice, deserved the death penalty for murdering babies who were born alive during attempted abortions. Of course, Gosnell agreed to not appeal his convictions to avoid possible capital punishment. But the question is still theoretically important. Zmirak writes:
In fact, one may not practice mercy without having first satisfied justice—and then only when an act of mercy will not enable or excuse the given crime. Surely, if we can see that an excessive or cruel punishment violates justice, we should likewise be outraged when the guilty are slapped on the wrist—as bigoted white juries used to do to white defendants who savaged blacks.
The mercy we ask of God is different in kind than we as men are asked, or even permitted, to dispense. God’s resources are infinite, and (as Jesus reminded us in the parable of the workers in the vineyard) what he gives to one of us need not be taken from anyone else. Even then, he pardons only the penitent. Human rulers are obliged to insist on the fair distribution of limited goods on earth.
Some had urged clemency for Gosnell as a witness to God’s grace. Others, of course, oppose capital punishment altogether. The late Chuck Colson of Prison Ministries, a hero of the faith, for many years opposed capital punishment because he believed life incarceration instead offered time for repentance. He later shifted his stance, affirming capital punishment in “extreme cases,” saying there can be “no mercy when justice is not satisfied.”
The average convicted murderer sentenced to capital punishment spends many, many years in prison during the appeals process. So seemingly there is plenty of time for repentance. I wonder if a lifetime of incarceration among hardened criminals is just as likely to further dispose a convict to further hardness and evil as it is to provide time for repentance. I also recall C.S. Lewis noting, with his World War I experience in mind, that nothing so inclines interest in the Almighty and afterlife than directly confronting death. And yet, even if capital punishment is theologically defensible, individual appeals for clemency can be a powerful witness. Several years ago a family I know lost a family member to murder. As Catholics, they pleaded for the killer’s life in court after he was convicted. The killer in prison later became a Catholic. The family’s witness of course was morally and spiritually courageous.
As Zmirak writes, correcting widespread misunderstanding, Catholic doctrine still teaches that the state is divinely ordained to execute the guilty in some circumstances. The last several popes have expressed their hope, without of course disputing their church’s dogma, that wealthy modern societies would in most cases incarcerate rather than execute. The late Avery Cardinal Dulles explained this distinction very well, as I once reported.
In the U.S., the Southern Baptist Convention affirms capital punishment, as does, as least on paper, the National Association of Evangelicals. Universal Christianity traditionally has taught capital punishment is just in some circumstances, recalling St. Paul’s describing the state as divinely ordained to “wield the sword” in vengeance against evil doers. There is also the divine command to Noah that whosoever sheds innocent blood, so shall his blood be shed. This command precedes the Mosaic’ law’s no longer binding civil punishments, and the universal church has typically seen it as still in force.
Liberal old-line Protestants rejected capital punishment starting in the 1950’s, as part of their trajectory away from historic Christian doctrine. The Methodist Church first rejected it in 1956. In 1970, The United Methodist Church first affirmed legalized abortion. The denomination’s Capitol Hill lobby, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) has steadfastly advocated for unrestricted abortion rights ever since. It the 1990s it even fought restrictions on late term partial-birth abortions, until the 2000 General Conference specifically opposed the procedure, after which GBCS has remained silent on it, not affirming the church’s official stance nor specifically violating it. Of course, GBCS belongs to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which celebrates unlimited abortion rights as an intrinsic human right.
After Gosnell’s conviction, GBCS finally spoke to his horrors, pronouncing that “justice has been served,” and claiming, “Both those who oppose abortion and those who support it find the illegal and immoral actions of Dr. Gosnell reprehensible.” GBCS said it’s “unclear” why the Gosnell case “has become the latest battlefield in the abortion debate.” It concluded: “All members of The United Methodist Church must take seriously our shared responsibility for the sanctity of all human life – at all stages of life.” Interesting, since in January a GBCS official commemorated 40th anniversary of Roe versus Wade with no negative words about over 50 million innocent unborn destroyed. It’s not exactly clear why GBCS agrees Gosnell’s murders were horrific while it still defends the legality of destroying the same late term unborn babies if not yet fully emerged from the womb.
Some otherwise laudable pro-life voices oppose capital punishment by claiming they are comprehensively pro-life, making no moral distinctions between executing a convicted mass murderer and killing an innocent unborn baby. There are naturally major ethical distinctions. Meanwhile, United Methodism’s witness on human life remains starkly contradictory, defending all murderers from any possible death penalty, while legally supporting the option of killing virtually any unborn baby at virtually any stage, even supporting government funding.
In other words, life for the killers, and subsidized death for the innocent. This incoherence will eventually give way to more accurately Christian teaching on the ethics of life as global United Methodism’s returns to orthodoxy. And in future decades, United Methodists will recall the church’s abortion advocacy as akin to the onetime defense by some Methodists of slavery.