In order still further to enkindle my ardour, Our Divine Master soon proved to me how pleasing to him was my desire. Just then I heard much talk of a notorious criminal, Pranzini, who was sentenced to death for several shocking murders, and, as he was quite impenitent, everyone feared he would be eternally lost. How I longed to avert this irreparable calamity! In order to do so I employed all the spiritual means I could think of, and, knowing that my own efforts were unavailing, I offered for his pardon the infinite merits of Our Saviour and the treasures of Holy Church.Look at this beautiful act of Love and Mercy that brought true Peace to all parties involved! This "little giant" of a Saint sure knew how to put things in perspective and bring justice and peace to society! But how can this be if she stood by and let him receive the death penalty? How could this Doctor of the Church fail to uphold the sanctity of life? Something must be wrong.
... I said in all simplicity: "My God, I am quite sure that Thou wilt pardon this unhappy Pranzini. I should still think so if he did not confess his sins or give any sign of sorrow, because I have such confidence in Thy unbounded Mercy; but this is my first sinner, and therefore I beg for just one sign of repentance to reassure me." My prayer was granted to the letter.
The day after his execution I hastily opened the paper, La Croix, and what did I see? Tears betrayed my emotion; I was obliged to run out of the room. Pranzini had mounted the scaffold without confessing or receiving absolution, and the executioners were already dragging him towards the fatal block, when all at once, apparently in answer to a sudden inspiration, he turned round, seized the crucifix which the Priest was offering to him, and kissed Our Lord's Sacred Wounds three times. . . . I had obtained the sign I asked for, and to me it was especially sweet. (Chapter 5)
Maybe another Doctor of the Church can help explain St Therese's thoughts and actions; let's take St Thomas Aquinas:
In Romans (13:4) it is said of earthly power that “he does not carry the sword in vain: for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath upon him who does evil.” And in 1 Peter (2:13-14) it is said: “Be subject therefore to every human creature for God’s sake: whether it be to the king as excelling, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and for the praise of the good.” Now, by this we set aside the error of some who say that corporeal punishments are illicit to use.
The fact that the evil [men], as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at the critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers. (Contra Gentes 3:146:6,7,10)Not only does St Thomas put the primary focus on the salvation of the soul, he upholds the legitimacy of the death penalty while doing so!
There is unfortunately a lot of confusion surrounding the subject of the death penalty, particularly in light of the Pro-Life movement over the last few decades. The argument usually comes in a form such as this: "You cannot be Pro-Life if you support the death penalty, because killing someone at any stage of life is intrinsically wrong." This argument is not only terribly erroneous, one of the most dangerous applications of this bogus argument is that Pro-Abortion advocates will argue that a Pro-Abortion candidate for elected office is just as viable as a Anti-Abortion advocate who also supports the death penalty. This not only serves to confuse the general public, it falsely puts abortion and death penalty on equal footing. And one of the most embarrassing issues about this subject is that many otherwise reasonable Catholics will engage in such argumentation.
As already noted above, Romans 13:1-6 and 1 Peter 2:13-14 already establish that the death penalty is a legitimate God-given right to those in authority. This teaching is based upon Natural Law (specifically that government is natural part of life and ultimately derives its authority from God), which precedes even the Church's further views on the subject. Now if one wants to claim the death penalty is intrinsically evil, they must claim Natural Law permits something intrinsically evil, which is absurd. And to further drive home this point, St Paul reaffirms this as perfectly applicable to the Christian community, meaning the its gone beyond just Natural Law to Church sanctioned law.
Even a brief look at the Old Testament Scriptures, particularly the Torah, shows that the death penalty is not only not intrinsically evil, but that it's fully sanctioned by express rules and regulations given by God to the Israelites through Moses. Consider some examples from Exodus: Ex 21:12; Ex 21:15; Ex 21:16; Ex 21:17; Ex 22:18; Ex 31:15. There are numerous other examples throughout the Old Testament of God commanding his leaders to make use of the death penalty for a variety of sins and crimes. Again, if the death penalty were intrinsically evil, God could not favorably sanction it at any time in history.
I will now address some common objections to the death penalty for those who reluctantly admit the mountain of evidence in Scripture and Tradition for its legitimacy but that none the less the death penalty "option" should be eliminated today.
- "The Pro-Life cause will be weakened". On the subject of abortion, nowhere in Scripture or at any time in Church history do we see it permitted under any circumstances. And the reason why is because it is intrinsically evil because it is the deliberate taking of innocent life. In every single instance where the death penalty is invoked, it is never in reference innocent life, but instead guilty persons who have committed serious crimes. This is all elementary and quite plain; it is unfortunate that Satan has managed to confuse so many millions. The Pro-Life cause is only weakened in so far as people either cannot think straight or are deliberately trying to confuse the subject.
- "Though the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2267 says that 'the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty,' it goes onto quote Pope John Paul II's Encyclical Evangelium Vitae and explain that 'the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'" The context from which this quote is being given in the Catechism is under the heading of "Legitimate Defense," which explains: "The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing," (#2263) and "those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility." (#2265) So the context of unnecessary need to execute is only speaking in so far as someone poses a violent danger to society and must be subdued, because jails are sufficient for subduing a dangerous person. The Catechism is arguing something different and basically side-steps the 'traditional' rational for the death penalty, which was to punish the wicked for committing a monstrous crime (not just protect society).
- "Many people who are in favor of the death penalty are also in favor of war, which takes innocent life." This argument suffers from the same flaws as the first two. First of all, war does not require the taking of innocent life, because as the above quote from the Catechism shows, authorities have a duty at times to defend their citizens, and this includes "the right to use arms to repel aggressors" (CCC#2265). So there can be instances of legitimate moments of defense, which by definition is not taking innocent life. Now where things get complicated is when individuals are in favor of wars where defense is not the primary motive, and innocent life is being taken. In such a case, that individual is not genuinely Pro-Life. However, a person's rationale for going to war must be considered on a case-by-case basis, to distinguish the legitimate, illegitimate, and even difficult war scenarios.
- "Sometimes innocent people are unfortunately found guilty (for whatever reason, e.g. bad evidence) and are put to death." This is truly lamentable and unfortunate, but that doesn't automatically make the practice evil or impractical. A similar argument could be made for eliminating any number of laws or rules because innocent people can end up getting hurt. All this is due to the fact we live in a fallen world. By that same argument, even putting someone in prison would have to be considered wrong, because people are wrongly imprisoned all over the world, even life sentences. It would be quite a stretch to say a life sentence of an innocent person in prison is proportionally more "humane" than the death penalty for an innocent person.