Church teaches that death penalty is unnecessary, rarely justifiable

Published: March 25, 2006

By Deacon John Marschewski

Our readings for last Sunday talked about covenant — the covenant of love that Jesus gives us through his life, death and resurrection, his culture of life, which is an example for all of us. In the context of that new covenant and the culture of Jesus’ life, it might be beneficial if we took a moment to reflect on recent Catholic Church guidance on the death penalty.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently issued “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death.” It is a document that clearly lays out the bishops’ collective wisdom and provides guidance to us in the American Catholic flock. It states, “The use of the death penalty is unnecessary and unjustified in our time and circumstances.”

For many Catholics this is a hard right to life issue to swallow. It is much clearer to defend the sanctity of life for the unborn than the life of someone who has taken the life of another. Pope John Paul II, who nearly lost his life from an assassin’s gun in 1981, clearly explains in his “Gospel of Life” that while governments have the recourse to impose the death penalty on those who have committed terrible crimes, it must be as a last resort as the only way to protect society — not used as a means of retribution.

Clearly, in today’s society, we have the means to protect society and still avoid taking human life. Many experts have stated there is no clear evidence the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. However, the U.S. bishops do highlight their concern for those who have suffered at the hands of the guilty — the violence that has torn asunder the lives of so many innocent.

We all have a responsibility to minister to those who have endured the pain of losing a loved one. Our Scriptures are filled with messages about the sanctity of life. The opening chapter of the Book of Genesis (2:7, 21- 23) states that God created us in his likeness and image — that those in power must respect and protect his gift of life in all situations. Another Old Testament example of God’s mercy is found in the Cain and Abel story. When Cain killed Abel, God did not kill Cain. Some argue that Scripture requires “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” (Exodus 21:23-25; Leviticus 24:17; Deuteronomy 19:21)

In the New Testament Jesus refuses to stone the woman accused of adultery. (John 8:1-11) The idea that violence can overcome violence is foreign to Jesus Christ and his message — Jesus always taught that hatred could never heal. To believe that we are protecting life by taking life is to continue down a path contrary to the core of God’s message. Our call today is to learn more about our Church’s teaching on the death penalty.

It is a very complex subject and there are excellent insights from ur bishops, from our catechism, and from the writings of our popes. Do not be afraid to carry the mantel of Jesus Christ and his Catholic Church in all that we do — a covenant of love of God and love of neighbor as ourselves.