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Part 4: Death Penalty

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By Marian Friedrichs (Mar 9, 2016)
The following is the fourth in our series on Catholic social teaching.

Hardly had our human family tree put down its roots and begin sprouting branches before the first murder was committed. Cain, the first human being born of a woman, became also the first killer when he lured his younger brother, Abel, into a lonely field and struck him down. The sole witness to the crime was the very blood of the victim, which testified by "crying out ... from the ground" (Gen 4:10). Moved by this cry and the limitless compassion of His own heart, Almighty God parted the clouds of Heaven to preside as Judge and Jury over the first murder trial in history.

If we are going to discuss the appropriate treatment of criminals and its delicate blend of justice, mercy, wisdom, and temperance, we cannot do better than to observe how the Omnipotent One dealt with Cain. Before the crime had been committed, He had lovingly reached out to this seething, jealous son of Adam: "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it" (Gen 4:6-7). After Cain had hardened his heart, rejected the grace God was offering him to resist temptation, and slain his brother, God gave him yet another opportunity to "do well" by confessing his crime. Instead of accepting the Lord's merciful invitation with humility and repentance, however, Cain hardened his heart yet again and replied with scorn to God's question of Abel's whereabouts, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4:9)

At this point, it would be reasonable to expect God to unleash His wrath and condemn Cain to the same fate Abel had met at his hands. Instead, the Lord decreed, "When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength; you will be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth" (Gen 4:12). When Cain lamented that this punishment would lead to his own murder, the Lord "put a mark on Cain, so that no one who came upon him would kill him" (Gen 4:16).

Our infallible Lord — who loved the murder victim dearly, who knew He could not be mistaken about Cain's guilt, who had done His best to correct the killer gently, who had given Cain his life and therefore had the right to take it away — chose to protect and uphold that life. This should give us pause when we consider how, when, and for what reasons and purposes our society chooses to make a criminal pay the ultimate price for his crimes.

It must be acknowledged here that the use of capital punishment is not absolutely forbidden by Church teaching. Even Pope St. John Paul II, who preached and wrote passionately about the need to recognize "that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil" (Papal Mass, St. Louis, Missouri, January 27, 1999), conceded that putting a criminal to death may be a regrettable but necessary recourse "when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society" (Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life). In the same encyclical, however, he points out that today, "such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

From John Paul II's perspective, we would be hard-pressed to justify the use of executions in our modern world, and yet the Holy Father did not declare the discussion closed. He knew there was a possibility that the death penalty would have to be used at certain times in certain situations. As the American bishops have warned us, however, "Public policies that treat some lives as unworthy of protection, or that are perceived as vengeful, fracture the moral conviction that human life is sacred" (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death").

From the beginning, God sought to teach His people to govern with level-headedness and prudence. Of the oft-cited Scriptural prescription "you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" (Ex 21:24), St. Augustine wrote, "This law tended to restrain, not to encourage, fury and revenge." By thus limiting the Israelites to the exaction of no more than fair restitution for crimes, God helped them control their human impulse to dole out revenge, rather than justice, on malefactors.

While we modern people have much more sophisticated judicial and penal systems than the ancient Israelites had, we must still guard against any temptation to substitute revenge for punishment. There is an important difference between executing a criminal because it would be genuinely impossible to protect society otherwise and doing so because he or she "deserves it." This latter attitude is what the bishops meant when they referred to public policies that are perceived as vengeful.

An approach to sentencing that treats the death penalty as a last resort when no other method of protecting the public can be relied upon sends the message that human life must not be destroyed lightly or as the result of a decision based on emotion or prejudice. On the other hand, a philosophy that claims killers should be killed simply because "they had it coming to them" enshrines vengefulness and bloodthirstiness in the law of the land and further cements the cultural assumption that the life of a sinful human is worth no more than that of a wild animal.

If we truly want to build a Culture of Life, we have to treat each and every human life as sacred, even the lives of those whose actions terrify and repulse us. We must become a country that would take a criminal's life not simply because we can, but because we cannot possibly do anything else. That might mean abolishing the death penalty because we realize that we do not strictly need it; it might mean rewriting the laws and policies concerning its use.

In this ongoing quest for discernment, Christians should participate prayerfully and with hearts firmly fixed on the goals of peace, mercy, and "justice for all."

View past articles from this series.

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Robert - Mar 15, 2016

Thanks for yet another great article in this series! In general, the Church calls us to abolish the death penalty as much as possible, for the good reasons you gave--as Pope Francis did before the US Congress last year. But I often wonder if there are not still rare instances where it would not be necessary for public safety to resort to it: for example, for the assassination of the president or vice-president, or for acts of the mass killing of the innocent involved in terrorism. These acts do not just take other lives: they break-down the very fabric of civilized order itself. Their destructive impact is national--even global. Not that such criminals should be executed out of revenge, but, perhaps, out of the need to protect humane society itself--and too express an abhorrence for such crimes that goes beyond just putting them in a jail cell. A relatively painless death by execution, after due time given for repentance, would surely be merciful compared to what terrorists and assassins "deserve," if we were resorting merely to "an eye for an eye."

God himself commanded the Israelites to use the death penalty in cases of cold-blooded murder in Gen 5:6. Today we have effective police forces and prisons that make such a wide use of the death penalty unnecessary for public safety in our time. But are there exceptional cases where it still should be used? Not sure myself, and would welcome the reflections of others on this.