Condemning use of the death penalty

I was heartened to read that the Holy See Permanent Observer at the United Nations, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, joined other international organizations in Geneva last week in condemning the use of the death penalty. He explained that “The Delegation of the Holy See…joins an increasing number of states in supporting the fifth U.N. General Assembly resolution calling for a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty. Public opinion in support of the various provisions aimed at abolishing the death penalty, or suspending its application, is growing. This provides a strong momentum which this delegation hopes will encourage states still applying the death penalty to move in the direction of its abolition.”

The movement to clarify church teaching on the permissibility of the death penalty in modern society was framed during the papacy of St. John Paul II. In his encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), he wrote, “This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely.”

The pope’s reasoning was, as Archbishop Tomasi explained, that it is proper for “legitimate authority to defend in a just manner the common good of society.”

He continued, “Considering the practical circumstances found in most states, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, it appears evident nowadays that means other than the death penalty are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons. For that reason, public authority must 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.”

Pope Benedict reaffirmed opposition to the death penalty in 2011, saying that “the political and legislative initiatives promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order are moving in the right direction.”

Pope Francis at an audience last year with delegates from the International Association of Penal Law, termed capital punishment as “penal populism” that promises to solve society’s problems by punishing crime instead of pursuing social justice. During his speech, Pope Francis called on “all Christians and people of goodwill…to fight for the abolition of the death penalty be it legal or illegal, in all of its forms.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

In a rare statement of solidarity, four divergent Catholic publications, America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor, published a joint editorial calling for an end to the death penalty in the United States. They called on their different Catholic readers to oppose capital punishment. They wrote, we “urge the readers of our diverse publications and the whole U.S. Catholic community and all people of faith to stand with us and say, ‘Capital punishment must end.’”

The joint editorial was in response to a death penalty case out of Oklahoma that the U.S. Supreme Court will hear next month. The case, Glossip v. Gross, involves the use of a lethal injection protocol used in many states in the U.S. that ended in cruel and unusual suffering before death for some convicted death row prisoners. It was wonderful that these publications, that tickle the ears of Catholics who run the gambit between liberal to conservative, joined together and published this statement confirming the deep belief and unanimity we Catholics share in condemning the taking of human life from conception to natural death for any reason.

We are hopeful that this antiquated method of punishment will end and the consistent and seamless teaching of the church that all human life is to be protected will triumph. Especially since all modern societies have the capacity to safely remove murderers from the midst of civil society.

Father Joseph D. Wallace is director, Ecumenical and Inter-religious Affairs, Diocese of Camden.