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Why the Church condemns the death penalty



Virginia is moving toward abolishing capital punishment as a penalty for grievous crimes committed within its borders. The commonwealth’s Catholic bishops actively, and publicly, are supporting this step.

Last fall, federal authorities executed a number of people convicted of serious crimes by United States federal courts. Catholic bishops implored then-President Donald Trump to halt this process.

Many Catholics earnestly cannot understand why these bishops argued against the death penalty and for the lives of criminals whom courts found guilty, in a fair and totally legal proceedings, of outrageous assaults upon innocent people.

For that matter, many sincere Catholics are unable to see why popes have spoken against the death sentence in criminal cases, and why this opposition has been included in official Church teachings.

What prompted the Virginia bishops, and the bishops who appealed for the lives of the people condemned in federal cases? What led the late Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis in their open rejection of capital punishment? Nobody today remembers the case, but whatever caused Pope Pius XII, that fervent opponent of communism, personally to beg, as the world watched, American President Dwight D. Eisenhower to commute the death sentence applied in the cases of convicted Soviet spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg?

The best place to start in answering these questions is to be curious. Question conventional thinking. Read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 2266, and the following section. Popes have explained the Catechism repeatedly. Google “Catholic Popes and capital punishment.” Follow the Catholic media.

Remember that, first and foremost, always, Catholic teaching holds that each individual human life is precious. Nothing ultimately reduces its value. Underline that thought. Therefore, the Catholic Church demands respect for all life and opposes abortion, euthanasia, genocide, kidnapping, human trafficking, larceny, oppression and assault.

Realizing this majesty of each and every human life, the Church also emphatically teaches that governments have not only the right, but the solemn duty, of protecting the lives of citizens. Laws forbidding murder and assigning penalties are thoroughly appropriate — indeed, mandatory. Armies are maintained to protect citizens on a broader scale. Measures prevent disease. Shaky buildings are condemned. But taking another life, in battle or in self-defense, is the last resort, acceptable if all else fails.

So the Church opposes the death penalty. Protecting people is not served by executing criminals. Other options provide this protection. Employ them. Respect life.

In advancing its views, the Church does not whitewash crime. It demands that crime be confronted. Victims are harmed. Human dignity is insulted. Deal with crime effectively, but morally.

Capital punishment is defended on several grounds. First, it removes from society threats to the innocent. So does incarceration. This is a problem, quite related to this entire discussion. Many people, with good reason, think that the corrections system, or the criminal justice process, is inadequate. If so, make the system right. This country has the money and talent required.

Second, executions deter crime. Study after study has been conducted. Bottom line? This argument limps.

Revenge never can be accepted by a Christian. Think about it. How in the world does capital punishment, solely in itself, above all other available penalties, bring “justice” to victims? Crime occurred. Lives are not resurrected. Losses are not replaced. Nothing is restored.

Years ago, an intruder searching for the Sunday collection murdered a recently ordained priest in a rectory in the Diocese of Memphis, Tennessee. The culprit was captured, tried and sentenced to die. When the sentence was to be pronounced, the priest’s widowed mother and her other children walked into the courtroom to plead against executing the man. The court complied.

Love for that fine, young priest, longing for him, and disgust at his senseless, brutal murder never left his mother, but she was at peace.

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.

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