Abortion,euthanasia, domestic abuse, gang related violence, terrorism, murder, mass shootings,
expressions of hatred or racism and other acts contrary to the dignity of
persons… all of these crimes cry out for justice. Yet we are a people of hope,
and St. Paul reminds us that "in hope we were saved" (Rom 8:24).
Damon Thibodeaux spent 15 years in solitary confinement on Louisiana’s death row for a murder he didn’t commit. He was allowed out of his cell for only one hour each day to sit in the hallway or walk in a yard the size of a dog pen. In 2012 he became the 300th prisoner to be exonerated and freed through DNA testing, thanks to the work of the Innocence Project.
are confident that we serve a God of life, of hope and mercy. We know that all
human life is a gift from God, a gift that God charges us to protect. To be
worthy of being called his disciples, Jesus urges us to love others as he has
loved us (Jn 13:34-35). Our response then to a culture in which hostility towards
others is commonplace, in which killing is often considered a legitimate
solution to social problems, is to both live and proclaim a gospel of life,
hope and mercy.
For people committed to upholding the sanctity of human life, the
death penalty can present a challenge. Properly understood, however, Catholic
teaching against the death penalty is both persuasive and eminently pro-life. It
begins with the affirmation that human dignity applies to every human being, to
victims as well as those who have committed crimes against life. Our teaching
also holds that recourse to the death penalty may be justified only under the
most narrow circumstance, namely, if it "is the only possible way of
effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 2267). The teaching reminds us that if
non-lethal means are capable of protecting society, these are preferable as "more
in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity
with the dignity of the human person" (CCC, no. 2267).
John Paul II was instrumental in challenging the world to reconsider the use of
the death penalty. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium
Gospel of Life, "EV"
), he explained that, "The Gospel of God's love for man, the Gospel of the dignity
of the person and the Gospel of life are a single and indivisible Gospel" (no.
2). Quoting the Second Vatican Council's Gaudium
(no. 22), "By his incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every
man," he added that, "This saving event reveals to humanity not only the boundless
love of God… but also the incomparable value of every human person" (EV
, no. 2).
the first chapter of EV, "The
Voice of Your Brother's Blood Cries to Me from the Ground" (Gen 4:10), Blessed
John Paul II presents the story of Cain and Abel to illustrate that God's mercy
embraces even a murderer. Despite Cain's deliberate killing of his brother, despite
his lack of remorse, his arrogance, his lies to God and utter callousness about
what he had done ("I do not know [where Abel is]. Am I my brother's keeper?"
Gen 4:9), God nevertheless refuses to take Cain's life as punishment. But he does
not leave the crime unpunished. He tells Cain that he will not be able to grow crops
and that he will be a fugitive and wanderer on the earth. Cain complains that such
leniency is still too harsh, fearing that someone might kill him on sight.
then reveals still greater mercy towards Cain, putting a mark on him "so that
no one would kill him at sight" (Gen 4:15) and promising that "If anyone kills
[you], [you] shall be avenged seven times" (Gen 4:15). Although Cain is spared execution,
justice requires that he live the rest of his earthly life alone and outcast,
but with time to reflect on his crime, to perhaps feel remorse and at last seek
forgiveness and reconciliation with God.
The story of Cain and Abel shows that, though we reject and betray God
through our sinfulness, his love for human beings is always faithful, merciful, compassionate
and patient. Writing about this passage, Blessed John Paul II observed, "Not
even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to
guarantee this" (EV
, 9). We
must never lose our conviction that even the worst offenders are our brothers
and sisters in Christ.
a purely secular perspective, it is a fact that simply because states have
always exercised the power to kill persons convicted of murder or treason, it
does not follow that this power always has been exercised wisely or well. Given
mankind's seemingly infinite capacity to err, we must admit that the death penalty
poses significant problems. With scandalous frequency, people on death row have
later been shown to be innocent of the crime for which they were convicted. As
of 2012, 141 people incarcerated on death row in 26 states have been exonerated
and freed when conclusive evidence of their innocence was later discovered. But
we cannot always rely on DNA evidence to demonstrate guilt or innocence because
DNA evidence exists in only 10 percent of cases.
if the death penalty were always imposed without error, should we support its use?
We teach that killing is wrong by responding with mercy and justice, not more killing.
We don't want a government that kills when society can be protected fully by the
bloodless means of life imprisonment. By fostering a spirit of vengeance, which
should have no role in the administration of justice, the death penalty
contributes to the increasing disrespect for human life in our culture.
a growing movement in the United States, led by Catholics, opposes the use of the
death penalty. As a result, more states are restricting or abolishing its use,
but many other states retain this penalty.
Catholics, we believe and put our hope in a merciful and loving God. We are
conscious of our own brokenness and need for redemption. Our Lord calls us to
imitate him more perfectly by witnessing to the inherent dignity of every human
being, including those whose actions have been despicable. Our faith and hope
is in the mercy of God who says to us, "Blessed are the merciful for they shall
be shown mercy (Mt 5:7) and "I desire mercy, not sacrifices" (Mt 9:13). As Christians
we are called to oppose the culture of death by witnessing to something greater
and more perfect: a gospel of life,
hope and mercy.
J. Chaput, Archbishop of Philadelphia, recently summed up the case against the
death penalty in these words: "As children of God, we're better than this, and we
need to start acting like it. We need to end the death penalty now." Let us
then join in efforts to end the death penalty and show that we are people of
life, hope and mercy.
Granado is a Policy Advisor in the Office of Domestic Social Development of the
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.