Dignity & the Death Penalty

Demonstrators protest the death penalty in California in 2017 (CNS photo/Andrew Cullen, Reuters)

Well before Pope Francis’s revision to the Catechism declaring use of the death penalty “inadmissible,” there was ample reason for Americans to oppose it. It is a cruel form of punishment, as a spate of botched executions by lethal injection in recent years has demonstrated. It is unequally applied, with the economically marginalized and people of color disproportionately accounting for both the number of those executed and those still on death row. It is, of course, irreversible—a reality brought into further relief whenever new evidence exonerates someone awaiting execution, and tragically underscored when such evidence comes too late. Its deterrent value is debatable at best (consider the low murder rates in nations where capital punishment is outlawed), while its justification as a way to protect the population from convicted murderers who might escape and kill again is hard to take seriously, given advances in detention practices and technologies that have made breaking out of maximum-security prison all but impossible.

But ultimately, the best reason is the one articulated by Francis: it “is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” This is something his predecessors regularly reiterated in the course of their papacies. An emphasis on working toward consistent affirmation of the dignity of all human beings was apparent in John Paul II’s first encyclical, 1979’s Redemptor hominis. His increasingly urgent calls to severely limit, if not end, the use of the death penalty culminated in his statement in Evangelium vitae (1995) that cases in which an execution could be justified as “an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Language reflecting this shift was added to the Catechism in 1997. In 2011, Benedict XVI praised the “political and legislative initiatives being 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.” Francis has simply pushed this development to its logical conclusion.

If Francis’s move encourages Catholics to reexamine their attitude toward capital punishment in light of the church’s commitment to a culture of life, then we will all be the better for it.

In announcing the revision, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith said it expressed “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.” This point anticipated predictable objections. Of course the move contradicts previous teaching, some critics say, citing well-known Scriptural warrants for the death penalty while noting that nowhere in the Gospels does Jesus explicitly deny the right of civil authorities to resort to execution. Critics also reference the writing of church fathers and centuries’ worth of magisterial codification. The CDF’s eagerness to pacify such critics is understandable, but it would have done better to acknowledge that the new teaching on the death penalty does contradict the church’s enthusiastic endorsement—and practice—of the death penalty for much of its history. Here the words of the late federal judge John T. Noonan seem apt: “Change is not a thing to be ashamed of, to be whispered about, to be disguised or held from the light of day, as grave guardians sometimes think. Change, in continuity with roots, is the rule of life. It has been the way of the life of the Church.”

How will such change play out in the United States, one of the few countries—along with China and North Korea—that still permit capital punishment? After a period of steady drop-off, support for the death penalty has risen since 2014 to 54 percent of the American public, with 53 percent of Catholics approving. Pete Ricketts, the Republican governor of Nebraska and a Catholic, overrode his own legislature in 2015 to reinstate capital punishment; on August 15, convicted murderer Carey Dean Moore was executed, receiving a lethal injection that included the synthetic opioid fentanyl. And it bears repeating that about half of U.S. Catholics voted for Donald Trump, whose support for executing several categories of criminal hasn’t wavered since he took out full-page ads in 1989 calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, black and Latino teenagers convicted of rape and later cleared of all wrongdoing.

Since when, one might ask, have Catholic Americans as a bloc abided by the Catechism or the pronouncements of a pope? As on abortion, immigration, labor rights, poverty, and a host of other issues, there will be no unanimity on the death penalty. But if Francis’s move encourages Catholics to reexamine their attitude toward capital punishment in light of the church’s commitment to a culture of life, then we will all be the better for it.

Published in the September 21, 2018 issue: 
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