Social Justice: We remain firmly, consistently against the death penalty
By Barbara Budde
The death penalty is in the news again due to the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma in late April. The Catholic bishops for several decades have been clear and consistent in their teaching that there is no need for any entity in the U.S. to put another human being to death.
Saying that there is no need in the U.S. to put someone to death is not the same as saying that the governments do not have the right. It all goes back to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was published during the papacy of St. John Paul II. The first edition of the Catechism acknowledges the right of the state to punish offenders including the use of the death penalty, although bloodless means should be used if such means would be sufficient “to defend human lives against an aggressor…” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, first edition, 2267).
Then St. John Paul II wrote his famous encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (The Gospel of Life) calling all in the church to give witness to “… the greatness and the inestimable value of human life ... also the incomparable value of every person.” (2) In this encyclical St. John Paul II addressed the death penalty acknowledging that the church and civil society were moving toward very limited use or “even that it be abolished completely.” (56) The pope went on to speak about the right of civil authorities to punish offenders and then wrote: “It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, 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)
It is this teaching that influenced the Vatican commission producing the Catechism. Although the first edition was published, it was not the final edition. In 1997 the official Latin text was promulgated by Pope John Paul II and this second edition included new language on the death penalty influenced by “Evangelium Vitae.” Now the Catechism in paragraph 2267 quotes St. John Paul II stating that the need to execute an offender would be “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
As St. John Paul II wrote in “Evangelium Vitae,” many were already moving toward the elimination of the use of the death penalty. Prominent among such opponents were the bishops of the U.S. The website for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has testimony from bishops going back to the 1970s, including testimony from Bishop Vincent M. Harris, the second bishop of Austin. Over and over the bishops recognize that while the state might have the right to execute a person that such a right need not and should not be utilized. Over and over they taught and continue to teach that the use of the death penalty is an affront on the dignity of the human person.
The Catholic Mobilizing Network works to educate Catholics on this church teaching so that as we practice Faithful Citizenship we can bring informed knowledge to the public debate. For more information, visit www.catholicsmobilizing.org. Here in Texas the Texas Catholic Conference just launched the Texas Mercy Project, an initiative to raise public awareness and provoke collaboration on the issues of criminal justice and the death penalty across the state. Visit this website at www.txcatholicmercyproject.org to join with the bishops of Texas in petitioning our state leaders to end the use of the death penalty.
As we celebrate the great feast of Pentecost this month, let us pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit to open our minds and hearts to the teaching of St. John Paul II and our bishops and let us renew our efforts to respect every person and defend every life.