Professors debate death penalty: retribution or mercy?

Nissa LaPoint

Heightened debate on the death penalty found a platform at a university campus last week when two Christian professors argued over its tradition, morality and the ultimate meaning of justice.

University of Colorado’s professor E. Christian Kopff argued the United States should support the death penalty while Msgr. Stuart Swetland of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland argued for abolition.

The two professors rallied before students and residents on the Boulder campus Jan. 31 for the annual Great Debate, hosted by the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought.

Kopff, who’s written a book about America’s need for classical tradition, argued for the death penalty based on the extensive history of cultures and Christian thinkers who supported it.

“The widespread acceptance of capital punishment … in so many different cultures and nations is a solid argument in its favor,” he said.

In Western tradition, he mentioned ancient Jews, Greeks and Romans who acknowledged the right to capital punishment. The Church’s Council of Trent and leading Christians like Pope Pius XII, St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas all wrote in favor of it, even using logical arguments not based on tradition, he said.

Ignoring these traditions, Kopff said, would be foolish.

“There are more reasons for widespread traditions, cultural and universal, that contain richer stores of information than any one person or nation or age can grasp,” he told the crowd. “No one can foresee the unintended consequences of eliminating them.”

Msgr. Swetland agreed with Kopff’s recitation of historical and Christian support for capital punishment but said there are many reasons against it.

He listed the nations that like the United States employ the death penalty—including China, Iran, Yemen and North Korea—which puts the nation “in bad company,” he said.

Furthermore, statistically it does not deter crime nor is it applied fairly or justly, he argued, citing that 42 percent of those on death row are African American even though the ethnic group comprises 13 percent of the nation’s population.

Msgr. Swetland also argued the death penalty has taken innocent lives and is more expensive than alternatives.

Yet, even if these reasons were ignored or reformed, he said, “It’s morally wrong to intend the death of someone.”

The death penalty is not akin to a soldier or police officer’s intent to stop a violent act and protect the innocent from harm.

“The difference in the intent of the executions is that at the end of the procedure, there is a cadaver,” he said. “(A death) should only be accepted as a side consequence. It never ought to be intended.”

Kopff replied that the underlying issue to the question is justice.

He quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states killing is morally justifiable if done in self-defense. But this reasoning applies to private citizens, not to the state, whose function it is to defend the common good, he argued.

“To say the state can only use it in self-defense like an individual can use it in self-defense is to do in one of the greatest contributions Christianity ever made to the secular world, which is the idea of two kingdoms, the separation of Church and state,” Kopff said.

Msgr. Swetland acknowledged a society’s need for justice, understood as retribution.

“Ultimately, I don’t think it is about justice,” he said. “It’s about mercy.”

He said that justice is rather rightly understood as fidelity to relationships. People live in relationship with everyone, who is considered a brother or sister in Christ, he said.

The death penalty should be abolished because “mercy is the justice of the kingdom,” Msgr. Swetland concluded, adding, “and authentic justice is fidelity to relationships, meaning we never give up even on the most hardened of sinners.”

COMING UP: From Columbine to Christ: “Not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”

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Every school day for almost two years, Jenica Thornby would spend her lunch hour in the library at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Every day, except April 20, 1999.

“I was sitting in my art class when all of the sudden I had this urge to leave school. I remember thinking, there is no way I am going to be talked into staying.”

Thornby found her friend that she always studied with and talked her into leaving too. As they drove away in a car her father had bought her just a week earlier, behind them they saw hundreds of other students running out of the school. Thinking it was maybe a fire drill, Thornby kept driving.

Back inside the school, two students had entered with guns, where they would kill 12 students and a teacher, and wound over 20 more people before taking their own lives.

In the days that followed, Thornby would learn that many of the casualties took place in the library, where on any other day she would have been sitting.

“I remember thinking, I always went to the library, and the only reason I wasn’t there was because I had this urge to leave. That was really hard to wrap my mind around, and so I really wondered, ‘What gave me that urge, why wasn’t I there?’”

Two decades later, Thornby is now Sister Mary Gianna, a religious sister of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and on the 20th Anniversary of the Columbine massacre, she shared her story with the Denver Catholic of how God led her out of her high school that day, and through a series of events, led her into a deep relationship with Christ.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)


Sister Mary Gianna said growing up in Texas, California and then Colorado, she had loving parents, but as a family they did not practice any religion or faith.

After the school shooting, like many of her classmates, Sister Mary Gianna struggled coming to grips with what had happened. Coupled with emotional scars from bullying in her teenage years and other insecurities, she said she tried desperately just to fit in.

“I started drinking and going to parties, thinking if I was in a relationship, then I’ll be happy,” Sister Mary Gianna recalled. “I was searching for fulfilment.”

But near the end of her junior year a classmate of hers who seemingly had everything going for him committed suicide, and Sister Mary Gianna said her senior year she hit rock bottom.

“If he was in so much pain and suffering and took his life, what do I do with all my suffering and all my pain?” Sister Mary Gianna said she asked herself. “I thought I was going to take my own life by my 18th birthday.”

It was that year that a friend invited her to come to a youth group at St. Frances Cabrini Catholic Church, where Sister Mary would meet a youth minister named Kate.

“I remember seeing something different in (Kate),” said Sister Mary Gianna. “She was so bright, so full of life. I could tell that she had something in her life that was missing in mine.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Kate and the youth group introduced her to a God that loved her, and that had a plan for her life.

“I felt like I was junk to be thrown away, and (Kate) would tell me you are made in God’s image and his likeness, and if God created you, how can you call yourself junk?” recalled Sister Mary Gianna. “I realized God did have a plan, and I love the words of St. Augustine: ‘Our hearts are restless until they rest in God,” and I realized not only did God lead me out of Columbine, he was leading me to himself.”


After high school graduation, with the support of her parents Sister Mary Gianna chose to attend Franciscan University of Steubenville, where her freshman year she went through RCIA and was received into the Catholic Church at the Easter Vigil of 2002.

After college, she spent a year with NET (National Evangelization Team), sharing her testimony with teenagers across the country. At the same time, through the encouragement of others, she began to consider religious life.

“I felt God wanted to use me to lead others to Christ as my youth minister had led me to Christ,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “And I felt God was calling me to share how he had worked in my life, my personal testimony.”

Sister Mary Gianna said words in a book by Father Benedict Groeschel really impacted her.

“He wrote, ‘Instead of asking God why something happened, ask him, what would you have me do?’” Sister Mary Gianna said. “So instead of reflecting on my life and why did this happen or that happen, I began to ask God, ‘What would you have me do?’”

In 2010, Jenica Thornby entered religious life as a member of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, was given the name Sister Mary Gianna, and last year on August 4, 2018, took her final vows. She now serves at The Ark and The Dove retreat center in Pittsburgh.


Standing in the center of the Columbine Memorial at Clement Park, Sister Mary Gianna is drawn to the plaque that remembers Rachel Joy Scott.

Sr. Mary Gianna DLJC poses for a portrait at the Columbine Memorial on April 18, 2019, in Littleton, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

Rachel was one of the first students shot on April 20, 1999, and after being wounded, one of the gunmen reportedly asked her if she still believed in God, to which Rachel replied, “You know I do,” before the gunman shot her in the head.

“Unfortunately the two boys talked about how they wanted to start a chain reaction of death and violence and destruction,” Sister Mary Gianna said. “However, Rachel had a theory that if one person could go out of their way and show compassion and kindness, we would never know how far it would go, it just might start its own chain reaction.”

Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s story has become an inspiration to her, and coincidently, Rachel’s family played a role in her own conversion. Sister Mary Gianna said the day after the shooting she was at a friend’s house and her friend’s mom told Rachel’s aunt about how she had left just before the shooting began. Sister Mary Gianna said Rachel’s aunt replied, “God must have a plan for your life.”

It was one of the first seeds planted in Sister Mary Gianna’s heart, that started to grow, and as Sister Mary Gianna continued to say ‘yes’ to God, led her to the life she has today.

“Even when I didn’t know God that day at Columbine, he led me out of school, he protected me,” said Sister Mary Gianna. “He loved me so much that he drew near to me and has shown me this path of life.”

“Even in the midst of tragedy, God can bring good, God could bring life out of death. The worst tragedy was Jesus being put to death on the Cross, and it led to our salvation. And even in the midst of this tragedy of Columbine, God could bring good.”