Tracks Capital Punishment

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Capital Punishment

The issue of Capital Punishment is one of justice or mercy, of the sacredness of all life regardless of circumstances or an eye for eye mentality. Because of the nature of the heinous crime committed by the perpetrator this issue becomes a hot bottom stirring up all kinds of emotions: from anger to hate, from revenge and the desire for retaliation to resentment and non-forgiveness.  Regardless of one’s personal feelings, this tract will attempt to present the Church’s teaching as objectively as possible.

I would like to begin with some statistical facts. In the United States alone, between 1976 till 2012, 1338 persons were executed for crimes they committed. A reason given for the need for capital punishment is that it deters heinous crime. However, this is not the belief of experts. According to a survey of the former and 2009 presidents of the country’s top academic criminological societies, 88% of these experts rejected the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder. (Radelet & Lacock, 2009)

A report by the National Research Council, titled Deterrence and the Death Penalty, stated that studies claiming that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on murder rates are “fundamentally flawed” and should not be used when making policy decisions. (2012)

A 2009 poll commissioned by DPIC found police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime. The police chiefs also considered the death penalty the least efficient use of taxpayers’ money.

A 2010 poll by Lake Research Partners found that a clear majority of voters (61%) would choose a punishment other than the death penalty for murder.

Now let’s look at the Church’s teaching on this issue:

The first principle is that all life is sacred: from the life of the unborn to the life of the elderly. Life is sacred because God is the origin and the destiny of all life. Human beings are the cooperators, recipients and stewards of life. This sacredness reflects the God-given dignity that each human person has from being created in the image and likeness of God. The dignity of both the one who causes the crime and the victim of the crime must be respected and upheld.

In his encyclical Gospel of Life “Evangelium Vitae”, Pope John Paul stated this very clearly. He said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform” (Gospel of Life, 27).

The second principle is that this sacredness of life is morally and physically violated when one intentionally—not in self-defense—take the life of an innocent person.  It is an offense against the law of nature and the moral law of God as found in the Fifth Commandment. As an intrinsic evil, it is an offense against God and of society.  Every act has consequences.  The consequence for this intrinsic evil demands some form of punishment to bring about both retribution and rehabilitation.

Cain is an example of this principle in the Old Testament. Cain shed the blood of his brother, Abel, because of jealousy.  How did God respond? He confronted Cain and brought the deed done in darkness into the light. Cain’s punishment was not death but banishment and the life of a nomad. God’s justice was laced with mercy for Cain’s rehabilitation not destruction.

The third principle is that the New Covenant established by Jesus through his death and resurrection fulfills the Old Covenant.  In the Old Testament there are at least twenty plus crimes that warrant the death penalty: including murder, idolatry, blasphemy, adultery, rape, apostasy, incest and kidnapping.  At the same time, as shown above with Cain, not all these crimes incurred the death of the offender.  When David committed adultery with Bathsheba, who then conceived a child, and David had Uriah, her husband killed so that he could cover up his evil deeds, God confronted David through the prophet, Nathan.  God did not require the life of David for his double sin.

The same is true in the New Testament.  The Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus to see what he would say. According to the Law she should have been stoned to death.  Instead, Jesus extended his mercy and pardon to her and told her to turn away from this sin.  Paul separated the Christian in the Corinthian community through excommunication for the sin of incest. His purpose was to reconcile and to   rehabilitate the individual, not to take his life.

The fourth principle is that the Church teaches that though the State has the right to carry out capital punishment, it should find other means to bring justice and restoration of right order. Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 2267:  The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.

If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to  defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit  itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender “today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (CCC 2267)

What this says is that though the State has the right in the order of justice to execute, it should not exercise that right because in the order of mercy there are other means that can be taken to bring justice and rehabilitation than the death penalty, such as life without parole. The reason given is it is better for the common good of society and it is in harmony with the God-given dignity of each human person, regardless of actions done.

Again, Pope John Paul II in his encyclical The Gospel of Life was very explicit about the teaching of the Church on Capital Punishment.  He wrote:

This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offence." (46) Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfills the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated.  (47)

Further he stated that the execution of the offender of a serious crime is only appropriate "in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." (56)
The Church’s teaching is consistent with the culture of life from natural birth to natural death. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for more than thirty years has called for the cessation of capital punishment. "Ending the death penalty would be one important step away from a culture of death and toward building a culture of life.”  (A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005)
In our consideration of capital punishment, we must never lose sight of the victims of the accused and their families. There is no way to fully understand the depth of their hurt and lost. At the same time we know that revenge and retaliation have never brought the innocent victim back nor alleviate the suffering of those left behind. There is no justification for the crime. What is needed is the compassionate love and support of others and the healing that only comes through forgiveness. Jesus gave us the example when from the cross he cried to the Father: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”  Through his example Jesus was showing that we do not condone the crime or the intent of the perpetrators, but we free ourselves from the bondage of anger, hate and revenge through the decision of forgiveness.

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