The presence of thousands of pro-lifers at the annual March for Life in Washington on…
Benefit of the doubt
It will happen. The recent words of Pope Francis stating that the death penalty, under any circumstances, is wrong will not likely be music to the ears of many Americans, including many Catholics.
Our country has remained the only major, developed democracy in the world ready to permit the execution of persons convicted of certain very serious crimes because popular opinion in the United States still tolerates the practice, although many Americans oppose capital punishment.
Moreover, it is an emotional subject for many people, pro and con. Feelings run high.
The U.S. bishops, recent popes and the Catechism of the Catholic Church have disapproved of the death penalty on moral grounds for a while. None has excused crime.
To understand this past, and what Pope Francis said a week or so ago, consider these points.
Think about the abortion debate. If Catholics have entered the political and legal conversations in our country and abroad about anything in the past three or four decades, it has been regarding abortion on demand.
Regarding abortion, the teaching of the Catholic Church is solid and unqualified. While people give reasons to allow abortion — “unwanted pregnancy” or health problems of either the unborn or the mother — the ultimate fact is that abortion is the willful destruction of an innocent human life.
The Catholic Church’s doctrine hardly is farfetched from a scientific point of view. In fact, it rests on science, as well as common sense and divine Revelation. This is basic. The unborn, from that first moment of conception, is a separate being, alive with its own distinct genetic code. But many people do not accept this. The courts do not accept it. Our law does not accept it.
I cannot count the number of times that I have been in private or public conversations with people who think that abortion should be a legal option for any pregnant person.
When I have had to argue my view, and the Church’s view, I at times have urged those people who think the other way at least to give human life the benefit of the doubt. Face facts. They cannot scientifically prove that life does not begin at conception or that an unborn fetus is not a distinct being.
Regarding the Church’s position on capital punishment in general, people give many reasons. Test these reasons. Take none for granted. Face facts. As Pope Francis urges, give human life the benefit of the doubt. This is Catholic tradition.
Here is one reason often heard: The death penalty deters commission of similar crimes in the future. No professional study shows that this is true. Too many crimes occur on the spur of the moment, with no forethought given to murdering anyone. Almost always, surveys show, people who plot terrible crimes think they will not be apprehended. Plotting to avoid capture goes with the territory.
A second reason: Executions settle scores. How? A family’s provider is murdered. No execution will thereby produce the resources that the provider, now deceased, would have earned.
Thirdly: Executions remove criminals from society. So do prisons. The American corrections system is in a mess, but this country has all the resources needed to solve the problem.
Fourthly: The Old Testament said, “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.” But Jesus did not support this idea, just the opposite.
Finally: Victims deserve revenge. Revenge is a serious sin. It insults everything Christian.
Most of all, realize that we live amid violence and are afraid. Security, however, cannot come at any price. The death penalty is extreme, irreversible and unnecessary. Again, give life the benefit of the doubt.
Why? Human life always is sacred.
Msgr. Owen Campion is OSV’s chaplain.