Verbum Incarnatum


Roger C. Barnes
University of the Incarnate Word


Catholic social teaching has a great deal to guide us on the topic of the death penalty, especially with respect to the inherent dignity of the human person.  The death penalty remains a staple of the American criminal justice system for a majority of the fifty states and federal government, but public sentiment is becoming increasingly skeptical about its ultimate effectiveness.  In the following I review that part of Catholic social teaching that speaks to the death penalty and I reflect on the struggle to abolish the death penalty. 


     In 1972 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down existing death penalty statutes in the famous case of Furman v. Georgia.  The Justices writing for the court majority referred to the death penalty as “wantonly and freakishly imposed,” “arbitrarily inflicted,” and “degrading to human dignity.”  They described it as “debasing and brutalizing to us all,” noting that the “discretionary statutes…are pregnant with discrimination.”  One Justice observed simply that the death penalty was “abhorrent to currently existing moral values” (Bedau, 1982, p. 247-270).

     What strikes this reader is the moral tone of the pronouncements rendered by the 5-4 majority: “Degrading to human dignity.”  “Abhorrent to currently existing moral values.”  This sounds like the language one might hear from a pulpit, or at a meeting of Amnesty International.  But, no, this is the wording of the U.S. Supreme Court in one of the century’s most famous decisions.  The irony, of course, is that thirty-four years after Furman, these same words describe today’s ultimate punishment, a punishment reinstated in the case of Gregg v. Georgia (1976).

     Why do we have a death penalty in Texas?  I contend that the death penalty is carried out not because Texans actively demand it, but because Texans are largely indifferent to it.  In short, Texas is a death penalty culture.  This means that it is possible for one to grow up in Texas and never have a teacher educate you about the death penalty, never hear a religious leader preach on the death penalty, never have a governor oppose it, and never read a newspaper editorial against it.  As a result, one can simply conclude that, as a friend of mine once said, “It must be okay to have a death penalty since nobody seems to object to it.” 

ΚΚΚΚ But things are not, as is always the case, so clear or unanimous.  Public support for the death penalty is at a 19-year low, down to 65 percent support compared to over 85 percent support in the early 1980s.  Anti-death penalty advocate Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, is one of the most popular public speakers in the U.S.,