It is time for our country to put an end to the death penalty.
There is a case pending right now in the U.S. Supreme Court that is looking at the practical problems with the way capital punishment is administered through lethal injections. The justices will hear arguments on the issue next month.
The Supreme Court’s review comes at a time when many people are rethinking the issue of capital punishment.
Eighteen states have now banned the death penalty and the numbers of executions and death penalty convictions are decreasing every year. In 2014, there were 35 executions nationwide, the lowest number in 20 years.
In recent years, there have been highly publicized incidents where executions have been mishandled. In one instance, a convicted murderer spent more than 40 minutes in agony after receiving a lethal injection that was supposed to kill him within minutes.
There is also substantial evidence that the death penalty is imposed far more often on racial minorities and the poor. And sadly, in some cases we have seen that, due to judicial error, some of those sent to death row did not actually commit the crimes they were convicted of.
The Catholic Church has been calling for the abolition of the death penalty for more than 40 years.
Just a few weeks ago, Pope Francis’ representative to the United Nations again voiced the Church’s support for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty.
The Church has been thinking about these issues of crime and punishment and the common good for a long time, beginning with the teachings of Jesus and the apostolic writings of the New Testament.
Through the centuries, the Church has always recognized that governments have the duty to protect people and to punish those who threaten the safety of citizens and society’s good order.
St. Thomas Aquinas said public authorities are justified in taking a person’s life if that person endangers the common good. This is still the Catholic teaching.
The Catechism says that governments may impose the death penalty “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.”
And that is precisely the moral issue we face in our times.
Today, through advances in law enforcement and criminal justice, our society has many ways to punish violent offenders and to prevent them from committing further violence.
As St. John Paul II said in his great letter, The Gospel of Life, society should only choose “the extreme of executing the offender” in “cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”
But he added, in words that are quoted in the Catechism, in our times there is almost never any real justification to execute anyone. Cases where the death penalty might be justified are “very rare, if not practically non-existent,” St. John Paul said.
We do not need to kill criminals to defend our society.
More than that, the continued acceptance of the death penalty contributes to a culture in which people too often think their problems can be “solved” by violence and killing.
The death penalty is not at all like abortion or euthanasia. Abortion is the killing of innocent life in the womb and euthanasia is the killing of the sick and defenseless.
We recognize that those on death row are not innocent. They have been convicted of grave evil. Not only have they taken the lives of their victims, they have caused deep and lasting trauma to their victims’ families, loved ones and neighbors.
So we can never compare the state’s use of capital punishment with the fundamental evils of abortion and euthanasia.
But we do say that even the lives of the worst and most dangerous criminals are sacred and we hold out the hope that even these lives can be changed and rehabilitated — through the mercy of God.
As a nation and as a society, our justice must be tempered with mercy or we risk losing something of our own humanity.
And as Christians we are called to proclaim the Gospel of life and to work so that our criminal justice system always respects the dignity of every human person.
So let’s keep praying for one another this week. Let’s pray for the grace to be more open to the light of Christ and the social teachings of his Church.
And may our Blessed Mother Mary help us to follow her Son more closely and to hear his call that we be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful.