Capital punishment is growingly considered in contemporary society as a crime against the inalienable right to life of every individual. Certainly, the number of countries that still have the death penalty in their penal codes is diminishing: about fifty today compared with one hundred twenty years ago. By the way, Macau is among the nations that have abolished the death penalty from its penal code.
In the Church, more and more Christian communities and individual Catholics label capital punishment as another inhuman and unchristian expression of the culture of death. How does the Church see the death penalty today?
Capital punishment is a crime against the right to life and – for most believers –, it is also against the sacredness of life, which belongs to God, the Lord of life and death. It is, moreover, against love of neighbour, solidarity. Like most cultures and societies, the Church was in favour of the death penalty yesterday. Is the Church in favour of capital punishment today?
Capital punishment is not mentioned in any Vatican II document. In the 1960s, the Church was silent. Pope Pius XII was the last Pope to speak explicitly in favour of the death penalty. The official silence of Vatican II – a significant silence – was continued by John XXIII and Paul VI. In the last half of the twentieth century, many ethicists and theologians were speaking for the abolition of the death penalty, and also the pro-life movement in the Church, which is steadily growing
There was some hesitation on the issue of the death penalty in the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC, The Vatican, 1992), although it was basically and generally against capital punishment and its application. There was a diminishing hesitation in John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae (EV, 1995, no. 56) and in the final edition of CCC (The Vatican, 1997, no. 2267). John Paul II writes in his pace-setting encyclical on the Gospel of Life: “Human life must be defended from the moment of conception to natural death” (EV 21, 28, 29, etc.), but still the door to the death penalty was not totally closed: The offender may be executed in cases of absolute necessity, “which are very rare if not practically non-existent” (EV 56).
St. John Paul II was the first Pope to speak openly – during the last fifteen years of his Pontificate and in a progressive rhythm – against the death penalty. By 1999, John Paul II defended clearly a consistent-life-ethic, that is, an ethics that respects life at its beginning and natural end, an ethics that is, therefore, not only against abortion and euthanasia and suicide and homicide, but also against the death penalty. By then, John Paul II was absolutely against capital punishment as was clearly stated in his homily in St. Louis, Missouri on November 7, 1999. “The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation… The death penalty is cruel and unnecessary.”
Benedict XVI has repeated that life must be defended up to “natural death.” In Caritas in Veritate, he writes: “If there is lack of respect for the right to life and to a natural death…, the conscience of society ends up losing the concept of human ecology and, along with it, that of environmental ecology” (VC 51). Pope Benedict XVI used the ethical principle of a consistent-life-ethic: “Human life ought to be defended from the moment of conception to natural death.” Obviously, the death penalty is not natural but violent.
Pope Francis has been consistently and openly against the death penalty since the time he was the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Let me quote some of his words from his latest statement on the matter: his Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty (The Vatican, March 20, 2015). The Argentinian Pope writes: “Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been. It is an offence to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge… Justice is never reached by killing a human being… There is no human form of killing another person.”
Capital punishment is vindictive not medicinal or restorative punishment. I remember the words of Gandhi: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth will leave the whole world blind and toothless.” Is the application of the death penalty, a deterrent to crime? Albert Camus writes incisively: “Murder has been punished with execution for centuries, yet the race of Cain has not disappeared.” A text written on a T-shirt that became very popular reads: Why kill to show that killing is wrong?
The defence and promotion of human life in a consistent manner include the beginning of life (against abortion), its end (against homicide, suicide, offensive war and the death penalty), and in-between its beginning and end (against poverty, injustice, violence, terrorism, human trafficking, and the exploitation of the environment.
I will never forget the lesson given by a first year medical student in Manila who said to me in our class in bioethics: “Father, I am in favour of the death penalty for criminals who murder people.” I asked her: “Are you a Christian?” The young girl responded: “Yes, I am a Catholic.” There is a crucifix in our classroom (the school is the Catholic University of Santo Tomas), so while pointing to the crucifix I asked her: “Do you see Christ on the cross? What do you think? Is Jesus Christ in favour or against the death penalty for criminals who murder – for any criminal? After a short pause (one could hear the silence of the whole class), she answered: “I think that Jesus is against the death penalty for anyone.” After another sounding silent pause she added: “Then, I am also totally against the death penalty.”
With all due respect I ask: how may a believer in Jesus proclaim the Sermon on the Mount and be in favour of the death penalty today? (cf. Mt chaps. 5-7). “You have heard how it was said to our ancestors: You shall not kill; and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say to you, anyone who is angry with a brother will answer for it before the court.” “You have heard how it was said: Eye for eye and tooth for tooth. But I say this to you: offer no resistance to the wicked. On the contrary, if anyone hits you on the right cheek, offer him the other as well.” “You have heard it was said: You will love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (Mt 5: 21-22, 38-39, 43-45).
As a human being, a member of the human family, I am against capital punishment: it is against love of neighbour, which is the meaning and value of life; it is against human dignity and the right to life of every human being; it is an incredible torture. As a Christian, a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, I am radically and absolutely against the death penalty: God is the Lord of life and death; life is sacred; a;; others are my brothers and sisters, Jesus is my way and my life.
Every man’s death diminishes me…
Therefore, never send to know for whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee (John Donne).
(This article was published by O Clarim, Macau Catholic Weekly, April 17, 2015, p. 5)
Fausto Gomez, OP
Macau, April 2015