Continue to oppose the death penalty Print
Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017 -- 12:00 AM

During October, which is observed as Respect Life Month in the U.S. Catholic Church, we publish a number of articles in the Catholic Herald about issues dealing with respect for life at all stages.

Perhaps one of the most difficult issues to discuss is the death penalty. If we admit it, I think many of us subscribe to the Old Testament belief in “an eye for an eye” when it comes to punishing those who harm others.

If someone murders another person, we may feel the death penalty is justified. After all, the murderer took someone’s life, so his life must be taken, too.

What’s wrong with this point of view? Quite a bit, if we start to look at it carefully.

All lives are sacred

First of all, if we believe that God is the author of life and all lives are sacred, then nobody should kill another person. Perhaps the only instance would be in self-defense, if there is no other alternative available.

So even if someone is a murderer, we — who believe in the sanctity of all life — cannot kill that person.

Pope Francis explained the Church’s opposition to capital punishment recently by saying, “It is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor.”

Seeking forgiveness

Secondly, killing someone by capital punishment also takes away that person’s opportunity to seek forgiveness by confessing his or her sins. Even the most hardened criminals have been known to repent.

Apparently one of those was Jeffrey Dahmer, the Wisconsin man who confessed to killing many people. Dahmer met with a minister while in prison and was baptized and said he was sorry for what he did.

Pope Francis emphasized that this is another reason to oppose capital punishment. The death penalty, he said, not only extinguishes a human life, it extinguishes the possibility that the person, recognizing his or her errors, will request forgiveness and begin a new life.

Teaching has evolved

The Holy Father pointed out that Church teaching on the death penalty has evolved. He noted that the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published by St. John Paul II in 1992, recognized “as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.” At the same time, it said, “bloodless means” that could protect human life should be used when possible.

A Catholic News Service article pointed out that the language was formally changed in 1997 after St. John Paul II issued his pro-life encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. Since then, the catechism has specified that the use of the death penalty is permissible only when the identity and responsibility of the condemned is certain and when capital punishment “is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”

These days, most countries can impose a sentence of life imprisonment rather than the death penalty. We don’t have to be as concerned about the safety of our citizens as societies might have been in the past.

Wisconsin outlawed the death penalty in the year 1853. Let’s make sure we resist any efforts to restore capital punishment in our state.