August 2, 2019


Say ‘yes’ to life, ‘no’ to the death penalty

“The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person. … The Church works with determination for its abolition worldwide” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2267, as revised with the approval of Pope Francis in 2018).

Church teaching on the death penalty is simple but not easy. The death penalty is “inadmissible” because it violates the dignity of a human person, regardless of that person’s crimes against individuals, society or humanity at large.

This is a development of earlier Church teaching. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church notes, “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes, and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good” (#2267).

However, recent popes, including St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis, have moderated this position, noting that “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.”

In his recent address to the International Association of Criminal Law, Pope Francis said, “It is impossible to think that states do not have at their disposal means other than capital punishment to defend the life of other persons from unjust aggression. St. John Paul II condemned the death penalty (cf. encyclical letter “Evangelium Vitae,” #56) as does also the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2267).”

In his address, the Holy Father went on to say, “Therefore, all Christians and people of good will are called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also in order to improve the prison conditions, in respect of the human dignity of the persons deprived of freedom.”

The simple but all-important teaching of our Church is that all human persons are entitled to dignity, respect and, above all, protection of their lives. The taking of a human life is the ultimate violation of human dignity. This principle is absolute.

Critics of this development of Church teaching, including Cardinal Raymond L. Burke, refer to “sacred Scripture and the constant tradition of the ordinary and universal Magisterium” to make the argument that “the Church did not err in teaching that the civil power may lawfully exercise capital punishment on malefactors where this is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of societies.” And this is true. The Church’s previous stance on the exercise of capital punishment was not in error, but it was insufficient, or incomplete, in light of the Church’s further reflection on the inviolability of all human life.

Given the clear teaching of our Church, unequivocally expressed by our chief teacher and pastor Pope Francis, Catholics are right to oppose the recent decision of the Trump administration to reinstate the death penalty as the ultimate punishment for serious federal crimes. Even using the former understanding, there is absolutely no reason to believe that today in the United States of America capital punishment “is truly necessary to preserve the existence or just order of society,” as critics suggest. We can debate the wisdom of changing the wording of the catechism, but the fact remains that, given the alternatives, the death penalty is, at best, unnecessary and at worst, inhuman and unjust.

Catholics in central and southern Indiana should be especially concerned about the implications of the administration’s new directives, since the the U.S. Penitentiary, a federal prison in Terre Haute will become the site for five executions scheduled to take place later this year and early next year.

Pope Francis tells us, as “people called to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions in respect of the human dignity of the persons deprived of freedom,” we cannot stand by idly and do nothing.

What can we do? We can say “yes to life” from the moment of conception until natural death. And we can say “no” to all forms of death-dealing, including capital punishment, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms. This is simple because it’s the right thing to do. It’s not easy because aspects of Church teaching on the inviolability of all human life, including those who have committed heinous crimes, are often politically incorrect. We oppose abortion, euthanasia, neglect for the basic needs of migrants, the homeless and the poor because we say “yes to life” and “no” to all forms of cruelty and inhumanity.

Let’s pray for the abolition of capital punishment worldwide and in our own backyard. Let’s speak out forcefully against the death penalty out of respect for the human dignity of all persons. God alone is the giver of life, and only God should take this precious and inviolable gift away.

—Daniel Conway

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