Statement by Cardinal Baum on the Death Penalty, December 27, 1976

Year Published
  • 2014
  • English

Feast of St. John the Evangelist
William Cardinal Baum
December 27, 1976

Capital punishment is today one of the most debated subjects in our community, indeed in our nation. The issue is a complicated one, and a comprehensive treatment of it requires a competence in various fields which Christians cannot claim simply because of their perception of God's Revelation. Nevertheless, a moral problem is also involved. Accordingly, there is a contribution to the discussion concerning capital punishment which the followers of Jesus Christ can and must make.

Catholics believe that the papal and episcopal teaching office is called to interpret "all the moral law, not only, that is, the law of the gospel, but also the natural law, which is also an expression of the will of God, the faithful fulfillment of which is equally necessary for salvation" (Humanae Vitae, 4).

In an effort to fulfill this responsibility, the bishops of the United States issued in 1974 a brief statement opposing capital punishment. In late November of this year, the United States Catholic Conference released a study paper prepared by the Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace which supports, "a pastoral attitude that says: for the ethical values and because of the lack of probative arguments to the contrary, the abolition of capital punishment is to be favored.

I ask you to reflect prayerfully on this conclusion, which I personally share. Some moral judgements are explicitly required by God's Revelation in Jesus Christ. In this case, no evaluation of the signs of the times can allow us to alter them. The Word of God is not evaluated by the prevailing social and cultural conditions. On the contrary, it is the Word of God which evaluates these conditions as being either in conformity with God' s design for salvation or hostile to it. There are however, other kinds of moral judgements. These judgements are the result of a growing awareness on the part of believers (and others) concerning the implications of God's plans for human development. These implications become clearer as social and cultural conditions change. The abolition of capital punishment is a development of this kind. Contemporary attempts to restore capital punishment represent a setback in the growing moral awareness of humanity concerning the God-given gift of life.

I encourage Catholics to think of our struggles to give legal protection to the right to life of the unborn. Under the guidance of our present Holy Father, the Church has intensified our efforts to promote peace and eliminate the curse of violence in the human community. This year's Message from Pope Paul VI for the World Day of Peace has as its theme: "If you want peace, defend life."

The question of capital punishment, of course, is not the same as any one of these other moral issues. But the same value is involved: human life. In my opinion, it is this overall concern about the dignity of human life which defines the "pastoral" need to speak out against the restoration of capital punishment

The recent Pastoral on the Moral Life adopted by the Bishops of the United States urges all those who experience difficulties with the Church' s teaching to undertake "a prayerful and studied reconsideration of their position." I ask those who support the restoration of capital punishment to do likewise.

Of course, in the words of this Pastoral: "Since the following of Christ calls for so much dedication and sacrifice on the part of His followers in the face of strong, contrary social pressures, Christ' s Church has a serious obligation to help His followers live up to the challenge. . . (and) assist those. . . who are striving to realize the ideals of Christ' s love in their lives. "

The same must be said concerning the victims of crimes and their relatives and friends. If we are going to ask them to understand our rejection of capital punishment, then we must do everything in our power not only to care for them and alleviate their sufferings, but to work for legislation and policies which express a concern for their plight and in this way give witness to our society's sense of justice.

The Church of Washington is in the midst of renewing its efforts of evangelization, the proclamation of the saving judgements of the gospel. The central one is the communication to us of God' s own justice, of His own goodness, holiness, and life: provided we accept it as an unmerited gift. Our life in the world is to be patterned on God' s forgiveness and acceptance of us in and through Christ Jesus, while we were His enemies (cf. Rom. 5, 1()). "This will prove that you are sons of your heavenly Father, for his sun rises on the bad and the good, he rains on the just and the unjust" (Mt. 5, 45).

May our efforts to proclaim and defend the sanctity of life testify to our acceptance of this Word of God, and to our own justification through its divine power.