He was among the most notorious criminals of his time, and certainly one of the most brutal. Henri Pranzini—tall, charming, and charismatic—was a life-long petty thief who took advantage of vulnerable women in nineteenth century France, a vice that eventually destroyed him.
On the morning of March 17, 1887, the bodies of Marie Regnault, a prominent Parisian women, her servant, Annette Gremeret, and the servant’s daughter, Marie, were all found lifeless in an apartment. The New York Times described the terrible scene:
Regnault . . . was found on the floor of her chamber dead, her throat cut and her body terribly mutilated. Lying near the door leading from the chamber to the drawing room was the dead body of Annette, whose throat had also been cut, and in her bed in another apartment was little Marie . . . her head almost severed from her body by the murderer’s knife. It was obvious that Annette had gone to the rescue . . . and had been struck down by the assassin, and that the little girl had been murdered to put out of the way the only other witness of the terrible crime.
The motive was robbery—in this case, lucrative jewelry. When he was caught several days later, Pranzini indignantly protested his innocence, but signs of his guilt were everywhere, and the evidence mounted. In July, a jury took only two hours to convict him of the triple-murder, and he was condemned to die in August.
Shocking as it was, Pranzini’s crime would have likely been forgotten, had it not been for an extraordinary French teenager. Therese Martin—later to become St. Therese of Lisieux, and made a Doctor of the Church—was just 14 at the time, but she felt compelled to intervene. As she recounts in her autobiography, The Story of a Soul, she stormed Heaven for a man many thought beyond redemption:
Everything led to the belief that he would die impenitent. I wanted at all costs to keep him from falling into hell, and to succeed I employed all means imaginable, feeling that of myself I could do nothing. I offered to God all the infinite merits of Our Lord.
As Pranzini’s fate approached, Therese increased her prayers until he was brought before the guillotine on August 31. The next day, Therese read what happened in the paper and recorded how when he was about to put his head into the device, “he turned, took hold of the crucifix the priest was holding out to him, and kissed the sacred wounds three times! Then his soul went to receive the merciful sentence of him who declares that in heaven there will be more joy over one sinner who does penance than over ninety-nine who have no need of repentance!”
Therese was convinced her prayers had helped save the forsaken Pranzini from damnation. He became for her “mon premier enfant”—“my first child”—and the experience strengthened her conviction to become a Carmelite nun, and intercede for others in desperate need of God’s love.
The story of the Little Flower (as St. Therese became known) and the penitent has since become famous, and still moves people’s imaginations, albeit in unpredictable ways. Even though the story is utterly transcendent—and far removed from partisan politics—it’s somehow become injected into today’s death penalty wars.
In “A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment,” legal analyst Carrie Severino argues, as have others, that the death penalty may actually encourage the condemned to repent—once they see death staring them in the face—and invokes St. Therese’s narrative about Pranzini in favor of that position. Similarly, Nick’s Catholic Blog has a lengthy post outlining both Biblical and theological support for capital punishment, within the Catholic tradition, and cites St. Therese’s treatment of Pranzini as supporting it: “Look at this beautiful act of love and mercy that brought true peace to all parties involved! This ‘little giant’ of a Saint sure knew how to put things in perspective and bring justice and peace to society!” And at the Tradition in Action website, a commentary inveighs against Cardinal Renato Martino for opposing the death penalty, invoking the Little Flower: “Therese Martin, soon to be St. Therese of Lisieux, understood that the most important thing was the criminal should repent and die well so as to be received in the kingdom of God.”
Meanwhile, Therese’s insightful if sometimes misguided biographer, Thomas Nevin, assails the Little Flower since her involvement in Pranzini’s story supposedly “implicates her in the obscene and anachronistic procedure” of capital punishment. He goes on:
Therese’s adolescent solicitude for Pranzini seems touching yet oblique, if not impertinent, and her rejoicing in his putative salvation notwithstanding, her role in the case reminds us of how the Church sanctimoniously abetted the state which despised it, each an accomplice to the other’s hypocrisy.
But Sr. Ann LaForest completely disagrees, maintaining that “Therese disapproved of the death penalty,” commenting:
Therese modeled forgiveness . . . [She] ignored the vengeance that the newspapers expressed toward Pranzini, the condemned criminal. Although this man brutally murdered two women and a little girl—a heinous crime that Therese in no way condoned—she did not condemn the man himself. Rather, in the spirit of the Gospel, she prayed for his conversion . . . Therese found it within her heart to be willing to forgive his terrible crime.
Sister also highlights the saint’s statement that the murderer, after he died, “went to receive the merciful sentence” of God, commenting: “In her usual way of hiding her wisdom, she only indirectly says that human courts were not in accord with God’s way of thinking. The human court was not merciful. At least that’s how I read her.”
Adding his voice to this view is Bishop James Johnston of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri who wrote a column, based upon St. Therese’s story, highlighting it to explain why the death penalty—though not comparable to intrinsic evils like abortion, euthanasia, and the destruction of human embryos—is no longer needed, and undermines contemporary Christian witness.
It is a measure of the depth and complexity of St. Therese’s testimony that both opponents and supporters of capital punishment are convinced they have the Little Flower on their side.
Personally, I don’t think there is any way to interpret a saint’s innermost thoughts with mathematical certitude. All we can offer is our best thoughts and evaluations, and here I side with Sr. Laforest and Bishop Johnston.
While it is true St. Therese does not sermonize against the death penalty, neither does she explicitly endorse it (hence, it is wrong for Nevin to accuse her of abetting the state); and while its also arguable that capital punishment has led some to repent, how many unrepentant convicts have been put to death—and quite possibly sent to hell—because they did not have more time to turn to God?
To my mind, given her devotion to the papacy, and that she always wanted to think and act with the Church—as expressed in Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism—St. Therese would have agreed with the modern pontiffs that the death penalty, while not intrinsically wrong, was not necessary today, and so would oppose its practical application. The idea that the Little Flower would be an active supporter of the modern death penalty—even with clear alternatives available, and against the appeals of Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict—strikes me as unimaginable. Being extremely sensitive to human suffering, however, one feels certain she would have offered her profound compassion to every victim’s family, while still hoping to bring evildoers back to Christ, through prayer and effective prison ministry.
If I’m correct that St. Therese would have taken a stand against the death penalty, however, I believe she also would have taken issue with many opponents. For one thing, many crusaders against the death penalty are complete secularists who reject the supernatural, and ridicule the idea of “saving sinners” from hell. Furthermore, even some Christians who oppose capital punishment never speak about the reality and danger of hell, within that context; and still others embrace universal salvation, which makes a mockery of St. Therese’s whole intent. Bishop Johnston is on much firmer ground when he writes:
It is important to note that among the reasons for the Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty is the Christian hope for the criminal’s repentance and as the Little Flower puts it “to prevent him from falling into hell.”
If Catholics and other Christians want to give powerful witness against the death penalty, they need to view the debate through the lens of eternity, and the full reality of heaven and hell, combined with God’s perfect mercy and judgment—not transient, secular or philosophical arguments.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
The Story of a Soul: The Autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, translated by John Clarke (1996)
The Story of a Life: St. Theresa of Lisieux by Guy Gaucher (1993).
The Spiritual Genius of St. Theresa of Lisieux by Jean Guitton (1997)
Evangelium Vitae, encyclical letter of Blessed John Paul II, March 25, 1995.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church on legitimate defense and the death penalty, sections 2263- 2267
“The Execution of Pranzini,” The New York Times, August 31, 1887.
“The Guillotine’s Work: Terrible Scenes Attending the Execution of Pranzini,” New York Times, September 1, 1887.
“Execution of Pranzini: Shocking Scene on the Scaffold,” Te Aroha News, Octobeer 22, 1887.
“Pranzini’s Career,” Te Aroha News, October 22, 1887.
Studies of French Criminals of the Nineteenth Century (1901) by Henry Brodbribb Irving.
“A Catholic Defense of the Death Penalty,” by Carrie Severino, Altcatholicah, September 13, 2011.
“The Little Flower and the Death Penalty,” Nick’s Catholic Blog, September 11, 2011.
“Cardinal Martino Against St. Thomas on the Death Penalty,” by Lyle J. Arnold Jr.Tradition in Action, November 29, 2007.
Therese of Lisieux: God’s Gentle Warrior by Thomas Nevin (2006)
The Way to Love: Therese of Lisieux by Ann Laforest, O.C.D. (Sheed and Ward, 2000)
“Church Opposes the Death Penalty,” by Bishop James Johnston, Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, January 16, 2009.
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