Jacques Fesch was a murderer.
Fesch grew up in Belgium, living a life of luxury with his father’s wealth. He traveled extensively, he raced horses and sailboats and sports cars. Fesch never held a job or a relationship for very long. By the time he was 24, Fesch had fathered two children, neither of whom he supported. He had defected from the army and quit the jobs he’d been given. In the hopes of changing Fesch’s ways, his father cut off his access to family funds.
Jacques Fesch was irresponsible. Facing the obligations of fatherhood and mounting debt, he decided to steal enough money to sail to the South Pacific. In 1954 a robbery went bad and while being pursued, Fesch shot and killed a police officer.
Fesch was sentenced to death and sent to prison. He was executed in France on Oct. 1, 1957.
Fesch was executed because he represented a danger to social stability. And he was executed because most people believed a man who killed a police officer could never change his life—could never become a man worth saving. Jacques Fesch was killed to show that violence was intolerable in French society—and that murder would be met with justice
The Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is not always wrong. In situations of real, absolute necessity, taking a life might be just. If a killer could not be contained or controlled or reformed it would be just for the state to take his life to protect society. But Blessed John Paul II reflected in “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”) that it seems hard to imagine that a killer in America or in much of the world could not be controlled or contained in prison.
Executions do not teach that violence is intolerable—violence is not a true deterrence to violence. Execution is an act of violence. It reinforces the idea that violence solves problems. It teaches vengeance. Christ commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us—this is not what execution is about. If we want to teach that violence is intolerable, we need to stop responding to violence with violence. To solve the problem of evil, we need to respond with love.
In civil society, responding to evil with love means finding punishments that are swift and severe, but which are also just. Justice means acting in accord with natural law—true justice requires us to respect the dignity of all human persons, even criminals. Except in cases of absolute necessity, we do not have the right to take another’s life. It was wrong for Jacques Fesch to kill. It was no less wrong for France to kill him.
The problem with the death penalty is that in trying to solve the problem of violence, we take up violence as our tool. Christians need to stop the cycles of violence that erode our souls—we need to stop participating in the culture of death. Instead of deterring crime, the culture of death makes all of us more open to evil and violence and crime.
I support the abolition of the death penalty because I want to respond to evil with love. It is my hope that every person on death row, indeed every person, will have the opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ, to repent, and to know the Father’s mercy and love.
When Jacques Fesch went to prison, he mocked the Catholic faith and mocked his Catholic lawyer. But every day, his lawyer prayed for Fesch. And visited him. And cared for him. In the love of his lawyer, Jacques Fesch encountered the love of Jesus Christ. He repented for his sins. He rejoiced in God’s mercy.
His life was transformed—he spent the rest of his life as a witness to life in Jesus Christ. Guards and other prisoners said that his life became committed to the virtue of charity. Today, he is being considered for canonization. Jacques Fesch, who killed a police officer in cold blood, may one day be proclaimed a saint because of the conversion of his heart—his deep faith in Jesus Christ and in the Church made him anew. I encourage you to read his story and his words. They are beautiful.
This week, the Colorado Legislature will take up the question of abolishing the death penalty. I support its abolition. I pray you will too.
I urge all of you to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Nos. 2263-2267; and the “Gospel of Life,” Nos. 27, 40 and 54-57, in order to understand Catholic teaching on the subject.
I pray that all of us may respond to violence with charity and justice in the light of the teaching of Jesus Christ. May we continue to speak the truth in the public square and build a culture of life!