By Bishop Thomas Zinkula
The Catholic Messenger
Last week the Holy Father issued a new formulation of paragraph 2267 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the death penalty. Pope Francis declared capital punishment to be inadmissible under all circumstances. I have been waiting and praying for this new, definitive development of doctrine my entire priesthood, maybe even longer. It never seemed consistent to me to treat capital punishment different from other life issues.
One argument has been that the state sometimes needs to kill someone in order to safeguard the common good. In 1997 Pope John Paul II revised the catechism to state that such cases “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” Pope Francis is now saying that modern society possesses more efficient detention systems so the death penalty no longer is necessary for the protection of the life of innocent people.
Another argument is that this situation is different because someone condemned to die is not innocent. But should not such a person, like all the rest of us, be given the opportunity of repentance, rehabilitation and redemption? Isn’t that why Jesus gave his life for us? In fact, while Jesus was dying on the cross, he promised the repentant, condemned “good thief” that he would be with him in Paradise. The church teaches that we are to show respect for every single human life. Pope John Paul II recognized that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.
There is no good reason for the death penalty. It is arbitrary; people who are black, poor or mentally disturbed are disproportionately put to death. It is much more expensive than alternative sentences (prosecution and incarceration). It sometimes puts to death innocent people; 162 people sentenced to death have been exonerated. There is no good evidence or credible argument that it deters crime.
The pain and suffering of the victims and their families must be acknowledged. We can and should reach out to them and support them as they journey through their grief. But the execution of the person responsible for that pain and suffering will not take away the loss or bring closure.
Proponents of capital punishment sometimes cite a passage from the Old Testament: “An eye for an eye.” But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explicitly rejects this doctrine when he tells us we should turn the other cheek and love our neighbor, which includes our enemies (Mt. 5:38-48).
If we are truly honest, the dark, underlying reason for supporting the death penalty is revenge, which is totally incompatible with our Catholic Christian teaching and beliefs.