Catholic News Service
People hold a banner and signs on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta during a vigil for a death-row inmate before his 2011 execution.
Catholic News Service
People hold a banner and signs on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta during a vigil for a death-row inmate before his 2011 execution.
It's not easy to offer human dignity to a murderer.

Murderers kill people; they rape and strangle children. They are disreputable, disagreeable, violent and nasty. They do not belong in society.

But neither do they deserve to be wantonly killed. Despite it all, they deserve the right to human dignity.

Capital punishment has a long and ugly history.

Once, the Catholic Church enthusiastically embraced the right of the state to execute criminals. In the 19th century, even the Papal States frequently employed it. The right is enshrined in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas.

But today, the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges the death penalty but demands its rare use, and only when nonlethal forms of correction are unavailable. Popes and bishops speak against the practice, and the average Catholic in the pew is coming around to the idea, though slowly.

And then Oklahoma happened.

In April, Oklahoma tried to execute a murderer by lethal injection. The previously untried mix of chemicals failed, and the condemned man suffered intensely before he finally died ... of a heart attack.

The debacle again thrust capital punishment into the limelight, reminding Catholics that popes and bishops have decried it as part of social justice and pro-life efforts.

Following the botched execution, Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley said, "We certainly need to administer justice ... but we must find a way of doing so that does not contribute to the culture of death."

Several states eagerly employ capital punishment, while others have wisely abandoned it. Still, for the average Catholic, antagonism to capital punishment remains low key compared to other respect-life issues such as abortion.

Yes, times change. Capital punishment has gone from lopping off heads -- a la "Game of Thrones" -- to firing squads to hanging, to gas chambers to lethal injection. All with the paradoxical goal of killing the criminal without actually hurting him.

At the same time, our understanding of human nature, punishment and rehabilitation have also changed. Change is scary, especially when it comes to matters of faith. There are matters of faith that have been -- and should be -- immutable. There are others that may deserve, after careful and faithful study, consideration for change.

As a pro-life issue, capital punishment belongs in this category.

"We've always done it this way" is a terrible phrase on which to base taking a life, even a murderer's life. Yes, there is a hierarchy of values that places opposition to abortion above others. And the vocal groups that seek an end to that barbarous practice continue to do well to keep their fight in the forefront. But neither is it right to place other pro-life issues on the backburner. Being pro-life cuts across a wide swath of our culture. Even immigration has been proclaimed a pro-life issue.

Sadly, capital punishment has taken on the role of public revenge. Not even Aquinas approved of that. At its best, the goal of execution is accepted as protecting the common good, not as a feel-good eye-for-an-eye. But imprisonment without parole also works, and even offers the possibility of redemption. Execution doesn't.

Some Catholics continue to have trouble with that. One devout Catholic, responding to an online debate over the death penalty, stated with conviction: "I fully agree with the public and frequent use of the death penalty, for a wide variety of offenses. Frankly, I believe that the criminal justice system should be geared toward exterminating as many criminals as possible."

There's obviously something missing there. Call it compassion or lack of trust in a loving God, or simply hubris. We believe that God is never-changing. But how we understand God -- and ourselves -- must grow and change. Human dignity belongs to us all. Even murderers.