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Professors debate death penalty: retribution or mercy?

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.”

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