In late September a large number of Catholic theologians signed a statement arguing that the death penalty should be abolished. They said that two recent executions prompted them to write. Both executions occurred on September 21, 2011. In Georgia, Troy Anthony Davis, an African American man, was put to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. In Texas, Lawrence Brewer was executed for his participation in the racist hate murder of James Byrd in Jasper in 1998.
“As theologians, scholars, and social justice advocates who participate in the public discussion of Catholic theology, we protest the state-sanctioned killings of both of these men, and we call for the abolition of the death penalty in the US.”
In past centuries, Catholic teaching held that armed force and capital punishment could be used by a legitimate government in order to preserve the common good and resist aggression. Thus, the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC #2266) taught: “The traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.”
However, in 1997, CCC #2266 was modified. The reference to capital punishment was removed and placed in paragraph #2267, which was changed to include a stronger reference to “non-lethal means.” Paragraph #2267 now reads: “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
The modified CCC #2267 continues by referring to John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” which observed that today the cases in which execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” John Paul II argued that life in prison is more in keeping with human dignity, for it allows the offender the opportunity to repent. That view also appears in the modified paragraph #2267.
In 2005 the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops taught that: “The sanction of death, when it is not necessary to protect society, violates respect for human life and dignity. . .Its application is deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed. We have other ways to punish criminals and protect society.” The bishops called for abolition of the death penalty on moral grounds.
What is your opinion on this practical question? Do you think that it is obligatory to oppose the use of capital punishment today? Please leave your comment or reply below.
Photo Credit: PhotoXpress/Iryna Petrenko