Last week John Errol Ferguson was executed in Florida State Prison. He had savagely killed eight people in two separate incidents after being released from a mental institution. His execution followed the final refusal of the Supreme Court to hear his appeal, despite it being clear to a number of observers that Ferguson’s execution was likely to be unconstitutional given his mental illness. He believed himself to be the “Prince of God” who, after dying, would rise up again to life to save America from communism.
Several pieces have appeared here recently on the death penalty. Andrew Haines has weighed in twice, most recently highlighting Pope Francis’s opposition to capital punishment. Michael Bradley’s "Kermit Gosnell and (Divine) Justice" argues that, regardless of the justice of executing killers, we should be thankful that God doesn’t deal with our souls the way our criminal justice system deals with its worst offenders; and in "Capital Punishment and Public Safety" I gave a different perspective, suggesting that for public authorities to flinch from executions when they are genuinely necessary to protect the public would be a vice, not a virtue.
But in traditional Catholic thought, the death penalty was seen not merely as an exercise in securing justice, nor simply as a means of removing a threat to public safety. “The punishments of this life are sought,” Thomas Aquinas informs us, “not for their own sake, because this is not the final time of retribution, but in their character of medicine.” And the primary medicinal effect with which punishment must be concerned is “the amendment of the sinner.” Thus, in Christendom, capital punishment was seen not only as just, but, more importantly, as merciful. Giving the worst criminals a fixed time for their death, and access to sacramental and spiritual resources which would prompt them down the path to repentance, was believed to put them in a better prepared position at death than most other people, who do not know the time of their passing in advance, and may not have the benefit of the last sacraments. In addition, it was believed that by accepting death, and offering his own life in expiation for his crimes, the criminal could completely efface any temporal punishment due to his sins.
It takes little imagination to understand why this view is wholly incompatible with the execution of the mentally incompetent, regardless of whether they were mentally competent at the time they committed their crimes. From the perspective of a Christian who believes in a life (or a second death) after death which will go on for eternity, sending someone prematurely into that life without the opportunity to make adequate preparation is a punishment too severe for any crime that can be committed in this life.
It is to be expected that the abolitionist Catholic bishops in Florida and organizations like Pax Christi opposed Ferguson’s execution, but why didn't those Catholics who support capital punishment, but claim that their support is grounded on Christian moral principles, speak out against such a gross violation of those principles?
Even Christians who support capital punishment in principle cannot fail to speak out against a particular system in which this punishment is administered unjustly. I said a brief prayer for the repose of the soul of John Errol Ferguson after hearing he had been executed, but perhaps my prayers would have been better spent on those responsible for his death.