ROME – After the death of the infamous mass murderer and cult leader Charles Manson made headlines all over the world, debates around capital punishment have once again come to the fore. While the Vatican has become increasingly outspoken in its opposition, the topic still leaves Catholics at the grassroots divided.
Manson’s charisma won him the devotion of many followers, who accepted his strange scenario of a coming race-war, which would lead to the eventual rule of the world by Manson and his followers, known as “the Manson Family.”
The group are responsible for two separate murders in July 1969: Bernard Crowe and Gary Hinman.
On August 9, 1969, Manson ordered three of his inner circle to commit a “gruesome” murder at a particular address in Los Angeles, which was the home of Roman Polanski and his 8 1/2-month pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate.
Polanski was out of the country, but Tate, her unborn child, and four visitors were murdered. The next night, Manson and six members of his Family sought out more victims, and ended up murdering Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in their Los Feliz home.
On August 26, former Hollywood stuntman Donald Shea was also murdered by the Manson Family.
He and three of his acolytes were sentenced to death in 1971, but these were reduced to life in prison the next year, after the California Supreme Court temporarily abolished the death penalty in the state. (Manson had been given an additional life sentence after being convicted of the murders of Hinman and Shea in a separate trail.)
After nine life terms spent in California prisons, Manson died of natural causes at the age of 83 on Nov. 19.
“The Manson case raises a question that is often avoided, which is: Aren’t there crimes that actually deserve the death penalty?” asked Father John Paul Wauck in an interview with Crux. Wauck is an American who’s a former political speechwriter in Washington and is today a communications professor in Rome.
“It’s not simply a case of being merciful, or keeping the guy off the street. It’s a question of a punishment that is proportionate,” Wauck said. “When you face something really heinous such as Manson, then there are a lot of people who actually say that the appropriate punishment is the death penalty.”
Several court cases in California suspended the death sentence for Manson, creating a legal vacuum that led the state to develop a sentence of life imprisonment without parole in 1978, partly due to fear that he might walk free.
The Catholic perspective on capital punishment has evolved in an increasingly abolitionist direction, compared to what Wauck refers to as a “pre-modern way of thinking,” where death as a penalty for serious crimes was largely accepted by faithful and society as a whole.
History is full of saints and philosophers who accepted the death penalty, including St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.
“It reminds you of the way people used to think about punishment, that was more in terms of just retribution than in terms of rehabilitation or defending the community and keeping dangerous people off the street,” Wauck said. “The whole idea of jail is a relatively modern practice and for most of history it was solely a temporary holding place for people before they were punished, usually corporally,” he said.
Both Pope St. John Paul II and Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI repeatedly called for the abolition of the death penalty and encouraged nations to work towards just means of punishment and public order without recourse to this extreme measure.
In an Oct. 11 speech at a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis built on that legacy by reinforcing in clear terms the Catholic opposition to capital punishment. Francis called the death penalty “contrary to the Gospel because it is voluntarily decided to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of which God only in the final analysis is the true judge and guarantor.”
Francis criticized the “legalistic mentality” that motivated certain circles in favor of the death penalty and said that the “harmonious development of doctrine” requires that new treatments on the death penalty “leave out positions in defense of arguments which now appear decisively contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth.”
Francis has also marked his pontificate by launching a Jubilee of Mercy in 2016, which dedicated special attention to people sentenced to prison. During Holy Thursday Mass he washed the feet of twelve inmates and in many speeches the pope has advocated the dignity of prisoners.
“When people are called to be merciful and to exercise forgiveness, the person who is in a position to forgive is the person who has been offended,” said Wauck.
“In the case of homicide, the most definitive person is no longer capable to exercise mercy. The state is in a different position. Is the public in a position to be merciful to Charles Manson?” he asked.
The priest said that while faithful are called to forgive those who trespass against them, when civil authorities are involved in administering justice they are moved by a very different obligation, “otherwise the state would never punish anyone.
“If we solely think of capital punishment as imposing a killing in response to another killing we are forgetting the difference between what is properly punishment and what is a crime,” he continued. “We wouldn’t think of a fine imposed in a case of robbery as a crime. We see punishment as a separate category.”
Manson’s serpentine ability to persuade and manipulate people to do his bidding, his relishing of chaos and disruption and his total lack of remorse over his actions has won him a place among the great villains of history. His tactics and persona shocked the entire nation sending shockwaves that still resonate in today’s pop culture.
In a 2015 interview with Religion News Service, Reverend Earl Smith, former chaplain of San Quentin prison in California, described his experience of playing chess with the famed murderer.
“I went away in awe of his ability to capture a moment and claim it as his,” Smith said. “Charles wanted people to see him, hear his name and fear him. The problem is that Charles is a little person who sees his height in terms of emotional and psychological dominance. Psychological warfare was his means of survival. […] Charles was interested in the manipulation of people for the sole purpose of seeing if he could manipulate them.”
Manson would describe himself to his followers as a union between Jesus and the Devil, which mixed with the ferocity of his crimes, promoted his image as the personification of evil. Media worldwide echoed this sentiment, with the Associated Press describing him on Thursday as “a demonic presence” and “the living embodiment of evil.”
While Manson’s actions were certainly evil, Wauck said that the possibility of repentance must be left open regardless of the crime, though he added that this is a separate matter from whether offenders should be punished.
Wauck pointed to the many confraternities dedicated to visiting people in jail with the explicit purpose of leading them to contrition. Such orders are tasked with accompanying prisoners and encouraging them to repent of their crimes, even up to the scaffold, with the main concern of ensuring their salvation always in mind.
“Some of the spiritual counseling of condemned prisoners was designed to help them see the redemptive value of their punishment, whether it was capital punishment or not,” Wauck said.
“Ideally, Christians would recognize that and hope that the person being punished would profit from the punishment, but not necessarily escape from the punishment,” he said.
In the ‘pre-modern’ perspective, punishment was not seen as appropriate only for a person who was unrepentant, he explained, and even the repentant person could see the justice of the punishment.
“It was good for the person who was being punished if they allowed it to be and if the person recognized it as being just and actually doing something that was appropriate for their spiritual rehabilitation,” he said.
“That’s a very different view from one that sees punishment, and the predominant modern form of punishment – which is jail – in terms of prevention. That wasn’t the argument for capital punishment in the past.”
During Manson’s 46 years in prison, the perspective toward the death penalty has shifted many times moving progressively toward its abolition.
In his October speech, Francis said capital punishment “cannot be reduced to a mere memory of a historic teaching” and called all faithful to refuse a consensual attitude.
“It must be strongly confirmed that condemning a person to the death penalty is an inhumane measure that humiliates, in any way it is pursued, human dignity,” he said.