Faith, Fully: Melissa Kae Fronckowiak (Prompt #2)

Prompt #2: What is the one aspect of your faith/belief system that troubles you the most?

In Letter 1, I asked you to introduce yourself to me and tell me about your belief system, whether religious or not. But no matter how strong you believe in something, there are always bits and pieces that cause us doubt. In Letter 2, I’d like you to tell me about the aspect of your personal belief that gives you the most trouble. This should be specific. Don’t be general. I want to hear what you struggle with, and why that struggle is so hard for you. I believe we learn as much about people by listening to what causes them to struggle as we do by listening to what causes them to celebrate.

Please remember to send your responses as both a snail mail letter (please!) and as an email. I’ll use the email to post your response on the website and cross-post them on the Faith, Fully Facebook page. The snail mail letters will be used for a physical project that’s coming later! 

You can read every Letter 2 starting in September 19, and you can find out more about the Faith, Fully project here.

Dear Brad and friends,

Although I wouldn’t say I disagree with any of the actual teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, I guess there is one area that has trouble me enough to pray for a reconciliation of my personal beliefs with that of the Church…namely, my stance on the death penalty.

I’ve been extremely active with Pro-Life organizations and events since before I was in High School. The idea that all life is precious and should be treated with respect and dignity from conception to natural death is one of my strongest held beliefs and an area I’ve been the most active in supporting by giving talks, going on marches, writing letters, participating in protests, etc. However, the role of capital punishment in the Justice System was something I accepted and either didn’t really care about either way or actually supported. Thinking that a true supporter of life shouldn’t see the difference between an innocent, unborn child and a murderer didn’t cause me struggle until pretty recently, actually.

Now, for the record, the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church does leave some grey area when it comes to the death penalty:

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Part Three, Section Two, Chapter Two, Article 5, section 2267:

2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, 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.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

In “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death” published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) they confirm that teaching, saying “In Catholic teaching the state has the recourse to impose the death penalty upon criminals convicted of heinous crimes if this ultimate sanction is the only available means to protect society from a grave threat to human life. However, this right should not be exercised when other ways are available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life.” So while my support of the death penalty doesn’t truly go against these beliefs, I can’t ignore that the Church has been very active in trying to get modernized societies to repeal capital punishment overall, especially in America.

One of the most influential figures in the Catholic Church in recent history, Saint John Paul II, called the death penalty “cruel and unnecessary” when he appealed for “a consensus to end the death penalty” during a Mass in St. Louis, MO in 1999. The former Pope said “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” While I absolutely believe that sentiment, I don’t necessarily think the death penalty always takes away the dignity of human life from the offender. In fact, I’ve heard it argued that the death penalty honors human dignity because each person is free to control their own destiny for good or ill. I don’t know if I buy that idea, but maybe there is some point to thinking someone who knows the penalties of intentional homicide could include death then still consciously commits a heinous murder chose their fate. That doesn’t really help me with my struggle for or against, though, because I don’t think people should ever choose to end their life and I also actively fight against euthanasia and fight for suicide prevention.

But I still feel there are times when the best move for society is for some criminals to be put to death. I feel terrible even typing that. It’s a struggle for me between the spiritual, the emotional and the intellectual. I don’t actually think the death penalty is as much as a deterrent as some supporters would hope. While, yes, I think the fear of death is a shared fear for most people and could be the only fear to possibly detract some would-be criminals, the way it’s handled in the U.S. does not work. Yet instead of repealing the death penalty overall, I would typically be in favor of a revised way of handling it if deterrence is a goal. I also think it should be reserved for the absolute worst crimes and only if committed intentionally. If it’s possible the person would commit the same crimes again if given the opportunity, it is in the best interest of society to make sure that person never has the opportunity and death is an efficient way to guarantee the chance never arises. I also know some people believe the death penalty can bring some sort of closure to victim’s families while others think it only continues the pain, but everyone experiences grief differently and I don’t think either benefit or harm to the victim’s families can be the sole deciding factor, either. In truth, I can’t fully explain why I think it’s sometimes ok to execute the worst violent offenders but I’m beginning to understand why I don’t feel right about thinking it’s sometimes ok.

My mind and heart have been in a fight.

This past Lent, as I may have mentioned previously, I found great benefit in the meditations presented in “Introduction to the Devout Life” by Saint Francis De Dales. In one exercise, he encourages the reader to spend time contemplating Hell by imagining being in “a dark city, reeking with the flames of sulphur and brimstone, inhabited by citizens who cannot get forth…suffering indescribable torture in every sense and every member.” If you’ve ever seen the 2005 movie “Constantine” with Keanu Reeves, my vision may have been influenced by one of the scenes a bit…but so deep was my contemplation, I could almost smell the sulfur and feel the heat. I was quite shaken. Tears rolled down my face as I realized I wouldn’t wish what I just imagined on the worse person to ever live, let alone knowing that the actual place and experiences are probably much more terrible than I could possibly fathom. Hitler, Manson, Bin Laden…anyone that comes to mind when you think of the worst this world has seen…I prayed they would be spared that eternal torture in that horrible place. It was that moment when I began to struggle with the death penalty.

I understand that many of the contributors to this project don’t believe in a Heaven or a Hell and, of those that do, most might not agree on what either will be like and none actually know. Honestly, the threat of eternal damnation was never a motivator for me when it came to my moral code or practice of my religious beliefs. Not only do I think God never intended for humans to actually go to Hell (though I’m sure it’s possible), I never thought I’d be at risk for that punishment because I’m a “good girl” even if I sometimes go off track a little bit. Plus, I believe in Purgatory, which now seems comforting just because it is temporary even though it isn’t supposed to be much of a step up from the fire and brimstone. That mediation made me realize how much I want to help the souls currently in Purgatory make it to Heaven, if at all possible, and realize how much I didn’t want anyone to face an eternity in Hell.

I think God wants us to be with Him in Paradise. He wants us to love and praise Him forever…but we have free will. So, I do think God will give His children, even the bad ones, every chance possible to repent before handing down eternal punishment and I can only imagine His sadness when He actually has to enforce the consequences we deserve when we reject Him consistently.

If a murderer seeks God and forgiveness, not only will he most likely avoid Hell, it’s also possible he is no longer a threat to society in need of execution, but how do we know the reformation is legitimate? But…if a murderer hasn’t reached the point of wanting God and/or forgiveness, does carrying out the death penalty send him to his final judgement without any more chance for redemption? I want everyone to experience the peace found in God’s love…but I don’t know what will turn a heart only that it’s more likely a heart will turn when it’s still beating. So I’m definitely to the point where I don’t want anyone sentenced to or put to death…for any reason… from conception to natural death…but I guess my brain still realizes there is a big difference between what we want and what is needed at times and clings to thinking the death penalty should still be an option left to individual states to decide. But I pray for a country and world without crimes that make the death penalty seem necessary.

My dad and his priest were talking during a RCIA class they were teaching about what to do when things you think don’t match up with what the Church teaches. It was my dad that said he prays that either the Church will change their stance or that he’ll be led to change his…but he doesn’t give up. I am open to changing my mind and have already felt a change in my heart.

October is “Respect Life Month” and as a member of the Pro-Life Committee at my parish, I recommended we add a prayer to the Mass intentions for the month for those currently on death row and one also for an end to the death penalty.

My heart and faith might be starting to win this internal struggle, but change, though possible, is often painful.

Until next time,

Melissa Kae Fronckowiak