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Pope Francis’s visit to the United States brought a tide of stories not directly associated with his address to Congress, but one matter he did discuss — and subsequently followed-up on — seems to have slipped past with little discussion. To wit, Francis found time between his surreptitious visit with Kim Davis and various other activities to have a curious letter be written on his behalf to a Georgia parole board requesting clemency to one Kelly Gissendaner, who had been sentenced to death for her involvement with the murder of her husband in 1997 by her lover. Regardless, Gissendaner was executed on Wednesday after various appeals were denied.
The pope’s position on the death penalty is, at the very minimum, consistent with his position on abortion. But foolish consistency can be the hobgoblin of small minds. It’s one thing to be consistent, but it’s another thing entirely to be morally consistent. That’s where my position on the death penalty comes in. It seems appropriate to draw distinctions between the taking of innocent versus guilty life.
Our system of criminal justice — and, thus, our use of the death penalty — is based upon retributive justice. This is distinct from “revenge,” which has a connotation of arbitrariness, disproportion, and emotionality. Under retributive justice, we punish wrongdoers in a fashion meant to be in proportion to their offense. In the case of property crime, offenders will frequently be imprisoned for some period of time in proportion to the severity of the damage suffered by their victims and, in some cases, face a financial penalty. In the case of murder, it should be obvious that nothing could replace that which was taken. What financial sum could replace a life? What term in prison could serve as just retribution equal to another person’s value to society? The answer, of course, is none but we attempt to do so by imprisoning people for the remainder of their natural life without the possibility of parole.