Time to End the Death Penalty for the Innocent in the Womb and the Guilty in the Prison System
Published on CATHOLIC NEWS AGENCY
On October 10, 2016, the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops released a letter entitled “Capital Punishment: The death penalty does not fulfill justice.” In this summary of Catholic teaching concerning the death penalty, the Bishops of Texas have provided a service for Catholics and other Christians.
After explaining Catholic social teaching, they summarized the current state of that teaching as it pertains to the death penalty. “Catholic teaching unequivocally states that ‘if non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means’ …” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2267).
The Bishops opined, “This simply means if alternatives to the death penalty exist that serve to protect society from violent criminals, society ‘must limit itself’ to these other means. There can be no doubt such means exist today in the United States, including in the State of Texas.”
I oppose the death penalty. I used to say my opposition was a part of my effort to follow a consistent ethic of life. Unfortunately, that expression is now a loaded one. It has been co-opted by some who want to blur the distinction between absolute opposition to procured abortion and discouraging the use of the death penalty.
There is no moral equivalence between these two positions.
From my ministry and activism across Christian confessional lines, I know many Christians who do not share my opposition to the death penalty. Among them are some fellow Catholics. I have always been uncomfortable with being labeled politically. I am first, last and all in between, a Catholic Christian. I embrace what my Church teaches because I believe that it is true.
I returned to the Catholic Church as a young man and stand in fidelity with her teaching office. In fact, I am grateful for that office. I think it is extremely important to clarify that current Catholic teaching opposing the death penalty is predicated upon a very different moral ground than the longstanding absolute opposition to procured abortion.
Procured abortion is intrinsically evil, meaning it is always and everywhere wrong. In his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II explained why: “The moral gravity of procured abortion is apparent in all its truth if we recognize that we are dealing with murder and, in particular, when we consider the specific elements involved. The one eliminated is a human being at the very beginning of life.”
“No one more absolutely innocent could be imagined. In no way could this human being ever be considered an aggressor, much less an unjust aggressor! He or she is weak, defenseless, even to the point of lacking that minimal form of defense consisting in the poignant power of a newborn baby’s cries and tears.”
“The unborn child is totally entrusted to the protection and care of the woman carrying him or her in the womb. And yet sometimes it is precisely the mother herself who makes the decision and asks for the child to be eliminated, and who then goes about having it done.” (#58)
This emphasis of the innocence of the child in the womb followed upon the Pope’s explanation of the authoritative basis of this teaching,
“Therefore, by the authority which Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors, and in communion with the Bishops of the Catholic Church, I confirm that the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral. This doctrine, based upon that unwritten law which man, in the light of reason, finds in his own heart (cf. Rom 2:14-15), is reaffirmed by Sacred Scripture, transmitted by the Tradition of the Church and taught by the ordinary and universal Magisterium.”
His impassioned defense of the right to life continued, “No circumstance, no purpose, no law whatsoever can ever make licit an act which is intrinsically illicit, since it is contrary to the Law of God which is written in every human heart, knowable by reason itself, and proclaimed by the Church.” (#62)
The Death Penalty
Current Catholic teaching opposes the death penalty because it can no longer be justified. We are also not dealing, at least presumably, with the death of the innocent. This opposition is a relatively new development. In other times in history, and in other circumstances, the Catholic Church did not oppose the death penalty. It was supported as within the purview of the state in the exercise of its obligation to protect the public and preserve the common good.
I am often asked my opinion as to whether the possibility exists wherein its use may once again be considered justified. I used to say it was highly unlikely. However, given the evil some of our Christian brethren are now suffering at the hands of the Islamic State in the Middle East and the North of Africa, the issue is more than a hypothetical question.
The contemporary opposition to the death penalty by the Catholic Church is affirmed in the Catholic Catechism:
“If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and 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 with the dignity of the human person” (#2267).
The Catechism was amended. The language surprised some in the Catholic Church and the broader Christian community. In Evangelium Vitae Pope St John Paul addressed government authorities charged with administering justice,
“the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except 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 improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare if not practically non-existent” (#56).
There is more at issue in the implementation of lethal punishment by the civil government. As a former prosecuting attorney, my experience informs my belief that there are many reasons to justify its elimination from both the federal and state criminal justice systems. The advance of the science of DNA continues to prove that we have made mistakes and convicted innocent people. Sadly, our history as a nation demonstrates a disparate application.
Then there are the growing number of news reports demonstrating the errors which have been made in past prosecutions when the science of DNA testing was unavailable. The accounts from the Innocence Project should be enough to give us pause.
I have also been cautious on the use of the death penalty, as a Christian. Remember the examples of significant leaders in both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament who could have been put to death for their offenses? Moses killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2). Saul of Tarsus stood by in what was arguably complicity at the death of Stephen, the first deacon/martyr of the nascent Christian Church. (Acts 8) In other words, people can and do change. Punishment can and does rehabilitate and offer opportunities for such change.
There is growing discomfort with the death penalty in America which crosses confessional and political lines. It is an issue where the political party labels have lost what little value they might have ever had. However, some Democrats and Republicans seem to be “out-toughing” one another on this issue.
It is more than ironic that some political liberals or progressives who oppose the death penalty fail to see the extraordinary duplicity in their approach to inflicting it upon children in the womb.
For example, some in the left wing of the civil rights community, like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, really know the complete hypocrisy of such an approach. He was formerly an ardent opponent of making procured abortion legal, until his political ambitions blinded him to the cry of the ones whom Mother Teresa called the “poorest of the poor”, children in the womb.
There are political conservatives who suffer from compassion confusion. They oppose the execution of innocent children in the womb but support the execution of convicted felons outside of it, without any reservation. On their right flank are libertarians who support both kinds of execution, though not all libertarians do.
I am addressing my fellow Catholics who oppose both abortion and capital punishment, but fail to make the vital distinction necessary in explaining this opposition. This difference matters. The different moral grounds I have discussed for the Church’s opposition to the death penalty and her opposition to abortion are much more than semantics.
The child in the womb is our innocent neighbor in the first home of the whole human race. Medical science confirms what our consciences long ago attested to: there is no justification for taking innocent life. Defending the fundamental human right to life of children in the womb is not simply a religious position. It is a fundamental human rights position.
The natural moral law, written on every human heart and knowable through the exercise of reason, affirms this undeniable truth. Some still pretend to hide behind the Orwellian new-speak of the rhetoric of choice – but even they know that taking innocent human life is never a right choice. We surgically operate on our neighbors in the womb. We send their beautiful photos around on social media. We write scholarly articles about the value of playing music to them and speaking words of warmth over their first home while we await their arrival.
Finally, there is no comparison between how procured abortions and capital executions are committed. The heinous and evil way in which our youngest neighbors are executed far exceeds the barbarism displayed by capital punishment.
There was a joint editorial from America magazine, the National Catholic Register, the National Catholic Reporter, and Our Sunday Visitor on March 15, 2015. They stood together in opposition to the death penalty. I suggest it is time for another editorial from the four, and opened up to more signers, rejecting procured abortion as always and everywhere wrong and calling for an immediate end to the legal execution of children in the womb.
It is time for a national discussion of the death penalty for many reasons. However, it is long past time to end legalized procured abortion. It is time to end the death penalty for the innocent in the womb and the guilty in the prison system.