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: Synod: Topics from the final document on young people

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After intense days of dialogue and discussion among bishops and invited young people, the Synod on young people, the faith and vocational discernment came to a close in Rome on Oct. 28.

Here we offer a brief summary of the document which was approved a few days before the closing. It contains 167 points and proposals which seek to transmit the Word of God and address the needs of young people throughout the world.

The citations provided are not approved English translations of the document. The document has only been released in Italian.


The document states that the Church works “to communicate the beauty of the Christian vision of corporeality and sexuality.” It asks for more adequate methods to communicate it. “An anthropology of affectivity and sexuality, capable of also giving a fair value to chastity, must be proposed to young people.” To do so, “it is necessary to tend to the formation of pastoral workers, so that they may be credible [witnesses], beginning with the maturity of their own affective and sexual dimensions.”


Another recommendation asks for better accompaniment to help young people “read their own story” and live out their baptismal call “freely” and “responsibly.” The document also asks for better accompaniment of people with same-sex attraction, reaffirming the “decisive anthropological relevance of the difference and reciprocity between man and woman,” and considering it “reductive” to define a person’s identity based on his or her sexual orientation.


The difference between men and women can be a realm “in which many forms of dominion, inclusion and discrimination can emerge,” elements the Church must free itself from, the document says. It says that among the youth, there is a desire for a “greater acknowledgment and valuing” of women in the Church and society. Furthermore, it says that the absence of the feminine voice and outlook “impoverishes” debate and the path of the Church, robbing it of a “beautiful contribution.”


The final synodal document calls for a “true and specific vocational culture” and a “constant prayer commitment” for vocations. It affirms that the mission of many consecrated men and women who give of themselves to those in the peripheries of the world “manifests concretely the dedication of an outward Church.”

It highlights that the Church has always had a particular care for vocations to the priestly order, knowing that it is a “constituent element of her identity and necessary for the Christian life.” Moreover, the Synod acknowledges the condition of the single life, which, assumed with a logic of faith and self-gift, can lead to paths through which “the grace of baptism acts and directs toward that holiness we are all called to.”

“The Eucharistic celebration generates the communal life of the Church. It is the place for transmission of the faith and formation for mission,” the document states. Young people have shown “to appreciate and live with intensity authentic celebrations in which the beauty of the signs, the care for preaching and the communal involvement truly speak of God.”

It encourages that young people discover “the value of Eucharistic adoration as an extension of the celebration, in which contemplation and silent prayer can be lived out.”


The document expresses the Church’s preoccupation regarding those who “escape war, violence, political and religious persecutions, natural disasters … and extreme poverty.” In general, immigrants leave their countries in search of “opportunities for themselves and for their families” and are exposed to violence on their journey. Many leave with an idealized version of Western culture, “at times feeding it with unrealistic expectations that expose them to hard disappointments.”

The synodal fathers highlight the particular vulnerability of “unaccompanied migrant minors” and see that “it is necessary to decisively reject” a xenophobic mentality regarding migration events “frequently promoted and exploited for political ends.”

Featured image by L’Osservatore Romano