Mercy vs. justice: What do religious leaders say about the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber?

It's complicated.

Asking where religious communities stand on capital punishment is not a simple question.

But in the wake of the death sentence handed down Friday for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, give the Boston Globe credit for recognizing the news value in that question:

The Globe's compelling lede captures the emotional nature of the faithful's reactions:

They are torn.
The congregation at St. Ann Church where the family of Martin Richard attends Mass is struggling with a federal jury’s decision Friday to sentence Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death.
“You don’t want to see another life gone, but when you know the family, you’re sad,” said Kathy Costello, 54, a member of the Dorchester church and a teacher at Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy, where Martin went to school.
The video showed he placed the bomb very close to the Richard family, she noted. “We’re torn.”
A similar sentiment was expressed in Greater Boston’s churches, mosques, and temples Sunday as religious leaders and congregants largely condemned the sentence.

Keep reading, and the Globe quotes a half-dozen other sources, including more Catholics, Muslim leaders, a Jewish rabbi and Protestant pastors.

While I applaud the Boston newspaper pursuing this timely angle and reflecting a diversity of sources, the story itself presents a rather shallow view of this complicated subject. 

For instance, the Globe boils down official Catholic teaching on the subject this way:

The Catholic Church has long opposed the death penalty.
“We believe that society can do better than the death penalty,” the Catholic Bishops of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts said in a statement released in April. “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,” the bishops said.

But when it comes to Catholics and capital punishment, we might add (at the risk of sounding like a broken record): It's complicated.

A Pew Research Center primer on religious groups' official positions on the death penalty notes:

Although the Catechism of the Catholic Church sanctions the use of the death penalty as a last recourse, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has repeatedly called for the abolition of capital punishment in the United States in all circumstances.

Earlier this year, we praised a USA Today story by religion writer G. Jeffrey MacDonald that touched on the theological intricacies:

In the Bush post, we noted that the Catholic church hierarchy views the death penalty differently than, say, abortion or euthanasia:

As I understand it, there are two levels of church doctrine and authority here. While recent popes have stated their opposition to the death penalty, as practiced in most modern societies, a Catholic's position on capital punishment is more of a matter of individual conscience. Opposition to abortion, however, is a matter of firmly stated doctrine. Thus, a Catholic politician who publicly opposes church teachings on abortion might be denied Holy Communion.

In other words, it's complicated.

So while the Globe deserves praise for tackling this subject, I wish the newspaper had devoted more space and serious attention to it.

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