By Christopher S. Pineo and Gregory L. Tracy

BOSTON (CNS) — As the trial of Boston Marathon bombing defendant Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went to the jury April 6, the Catholic bishops of Massachusetts released a statement reiterating the church’s teaching on the death penalty.

If convicted, Tsarnaev could be sentenced to death or to life without the possibility of parole.

Protesters against the death penalty hold signs before closing arguments took place April 6 in the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the federal courthouse in Boston. The bishops of Massachusetts urged against a death sentence for the bombing defendant, reiterating Catholic teaching that says cases where capital punishment is acceptable are practically nonexistent. (CNS photo/Dominick Reuter, Reuters) See DEATHPEN-BOSTON April 7, 2015.
Protesters against the death penalty hold signs before closing arguments took place April 6 in the trial of accused Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at the federal courthouse in Boston. The bishops of Massachusetts urged against a death sentence for the bombing defendant, reiterating Catholic teaching that says cases where capital punishment is acceptable are practically nonexistent. (CNS photo/Dominick Reuter, Reuters) See DEATHPEN-BOSTON April 7, 2015.

The Catholic Church opposes the death penalty except “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor,” but such cases “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

In Tsarnaev’s case, the Massachusetts bishops said, the defendant “has been neutralized and will never again have the ability to cause harm. Because of this, we … believe that society can do better than the death penalty.”

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev

Later, Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Sean Collier was killed as the brothers attempted to escape from the Boston area.

From their opening statements, his lawyers admitted that Tsarnaev participated in the crimes.

Instead, in an apparent attempt to avoid the death penalty, the defense centered their arguments on demonstrating that older brother Tamerlan was the mastermind behind the plot and that then 19-year-old Dzhokhar was merely a follower.

In their statement, the bishops acknowledged the profound effect of the bombings and their aftermath has had on the Boston area.

“The Boston Marathon Bombing trial is a painful reminder of the harm that impacts many people even beyond those who are killed or maimed by violent criminal acts,” the bishops said in their statement.

The statement also addressed the specifics of the Tsarnaev trial and reiterated Catholic Church teaching on the use of the death penalty.

“Given that the defendant, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, is being tried in federal court with the possibility of capital punishment, and that the bishops have testified against capital punishment in the past, we feel it is fitting to clarify the church’s teaching regarding the use of the death penalty,” it said.

Drawing on the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the statement said, “The church has taught that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are ‘rare, if not practically nonexistent.’ The church’s teaching is further developing in recognition of the inherent dignity of all life as a gift from God.”

The statement also quoted the March 20 remarks by Pope Francis to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, in which the pope called capital punishment “an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person.”

“When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of oppression, but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralized — they are already deprived of their liberty,” the pope said.

The bishops said with the defendant behind bars, the interest of protecting public safety has been fulfilled.

They added, “As the bishops of the United States said in their 2005 statement ‘A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,’ ‘No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.’ We believe these words remain true today in the face of this most terrible crime.”

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Pineo is a staff writer and Tracy is managing editor at The Pilot, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. The Catechism does not say what these bishops are reported as quoting.

    The Catechism does say this: “…teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty….If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means,…”

    In this case, terrorism, it is certainly of extreme gravity. Thus the Church teaches that the death penalty is permissible.

    And, in regard to protection of public order and the safety of persons, serious consideration must be given (1) to the real risk (for which there are ample precedents) that other terrorist allies/comrades of imprisoned offender(s) will take or threaten the lives of innocent others so as to force the release of the imprisoned, and (2) to the lack of firm deterrent that western world imprisonment presents.

    It is certainly legitimate to judge that, in this case, Church teaching allows the application of the death penalty, and that the death penalty might be appropriate.

    In the circumstances, this is not an occasion when bishops should enter the public arena in an attempt to pre-empt what might be a perfectly legitimate imposition of the death penalty.

  2. Tsarnaev has not been neutralized. He is a dedicated terrorist with a goal of killing non-Muslim (Christian) believers. Life in prison does not eliminate this goal and proclaimed dedication to kill apostates. Tsarney continues to threaten other Christian Prisoner’s and Guards’ Lives.

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