"Sixteen hundred years is a long, long time for a religious body to uphold state killing, and the principles on which Catholic teaching has endured for so many centuries are clearly enunciated: For the protection of society, the state has the right to kill those who have committed 'grave' crimes. Catholic teaching always stressed self-defense of society more than revenge or divine retribution as the reason for capital punishment, though in popular piety, God's 'just punishments' was always writ large, with God pictured as Divine Judge so intent on 'justice' that He (always imagined as male) was willing to accept the death of his own son as atonement for human sinfulness. The theological reasoning went that because a Divine Being has been offended, the offense was infinite, so only a divine being could offer fitting infinite reparation no mere 'creature' sacrifice would do. So surely such an expiation-seeking God would not quibble about throwing a guilty mortal into hell for all eternity a theme stressed by DA Harry Connick Sr. when he debated me on the issue of the death penalty on a New Orleans television program. He reasoned that if a just God could punish wayward souls by condemning them to an eternity of hellfire, surely as DA he was justified in seeking the death penalty for criminals. He explained that the punishment he sought was a lesser punishment than burning in 'unquenchable' fire for all eternity. Besides, Connick reasoned (as judges of the Inquisition once reasoned), imposing the death penalty could have the salutary effect of giving murderers time to repent and save their souls from hell.
"When I first heard Connick express this idea, I was so appalled that I hardly knew how to respond. On reflection, however, I have found his argument helpful because it so transparently reveals the image of God that hovers behind many religious believers' support for the death penalty.
"Is God vengeful, demanding a death for a death? Or is God compassionate, luring souls into love so great that no one can be considered 'enemy'?
"Since I had discovered that the Gospel of Jesus inaugurated a radically new community that included everybody and where no person was considered to be 'outside the pale' of humanness, my soul expanded and I felt more compassion toward all sorts of people, even criminals, and even toward the ravaged earth itself and species threatened daily with extinction. With such compassion growing in me, how could I worship a God less compassionate than I ? This compassion had lured me into the lives of indigent, struggling African Americans in a housing project in New Orleans and from there onto death row, a journey I recounted in Dead Man Walking and a journey I continue today. On this path I have learned that love, far from being passive in the face of injustice, is a vibrant force that resists and takes bold action to 'build a new society within the shell of the old,' as Dorothy Day used to say.
"The Catholic Church has not been the only Christian denomination to teach support for the death penalty. Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, most mainstream Christian denominations in the United States blessed the state's right to kill criminals."