Last week’s showing of “Dead Man Walking” succeeded at an impressive feat: challenging its viewers to re-examine their opinions on the death penalty. The students in attendance were forced to question their preconceived opinions.
In the film, Matthew Poncelot (Sean Penn) is guilty of murder. Although he spends the majority of the movie trying to convince the other characters that he is innocent, and thus undeserving of the lethal injection to which he has been sentenced, he finally confesses and reveals the truth when his appeal for a commuted sentence is denied. At this point in the film, Poncelot confesses and, for the first time, shows remorse for his crimes.
The way he and his partner attacked, raped and then brutally killed a teenage couple was undeniably horrific. It is even doubtful whether he would ever have admitted guilt and had a conversion experience of sorts if he were not facing death.
On the other hand, Poncelot’s equally guilty partner manages to get a life sentence. The justice system clearly does not treat everyone with equality. Furthermore, as Sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) asserted throughout the film, his life has dignity regardless of his crime. Redemption and repentance are always possible. T
he families of the victims clearly do not gain any meaningful comfort out of Poncelot’s death, though that was their reason for originally pushing for the death penalty.
At this point it is interesting to note that the Catholic Church does not actually repudiate the use of the death penalty as is commonly assumed. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
“The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” (CCC 2267).
According to Catholic teaching, Death is not the end of the soul, so a death sentence does not constitute an eternal sentence of the soul. That is why Poncelot, even after execution for a mortal sin, is given a proper Christian burial. Nevertheless, the death penalty should be seen as a last resort, permissible only when it is the only realistic option.
This last provision is where one must judge the morality of the sentence. That said, clearly the death sentence in the United States cannot be the only possible way of effectively defending human lives.
But what about the families of the victims? Don’t they deserve justice? Yes, but only to a point. The idea that one person’s violation of the sacredness of life entitles others to retaliate in kind is preposterous.
Tragedy should not and does not allow its sufferers to become arbiters of morality. This does not mean that they are evil people. They are justifiably hurt, angry and confused, and they need to be loved. Since death is not the end, even an unjust death sentence carries with it a bit of hope. Death can, and in the movie did, lead to conversion. Poncelot’s conversion came about as a result of his death sentence.
As American Catholics, however, it is our duty to work for alternatives to the death sentence that mete justice but also respect the dignity of human life.