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Affirming Justice and Mercy
June 28, 1996
Ohio Catholic Bishops
In 1987 we issued a statement "Justice and Mercy: Reassessing the Death Penalty. "We also published several educational booklets as tools for further prayer, reflection and study."1 In these documents we emphasized our conviction: that capital punishment is not the most effective way for today's society to punish criminals and protect society. It does not rehabilitate; it is no more effective as a deterrent to violence than other less dire penalties; and as a form of retribution, it adds to the confusion in our society about the sacredness of life. We continue to stand by these convictions.
We offer these further reflections now because we know how easy it is to "harden one's heart" against those persons on death row.
One of the most challenging teachings of Jesus Christ was His command for us to love our enemies (Lk.6:27; Matt.5:43). It is so easy for retribution to become revenge; for angers, fears and prejudices to exercise negative influence on our public actions. The very violence that frightens us so much ought not make us proponents of violence.
We are keenly aware of the anger, pain and grief experienced by victims of violent crime and their families. Their sense of loss and outrage can be overwhelming. As Christians we are called to help victims and their families bear these burdens so that even in the midst of their suffering, they can experience the comfort and support of a caring Christian community.
In our national bishops' message "Confronting a Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action", we lament the increased use of violent measures to deal with difficult social problems, we observe how abortion is used in addressing problem pregnancies; euthanasia and assisted suicide are advocated to cope with burdens of age and illness; and the death penalty is promoted to deal with crime. We write: "A society which destroys its children, abandons its old and relies on vengeance fails fundamental moral tests. Violence is not the solution; it is the most clear sign of our failures."2
We believe there is a firm and effective alternative to the death penalty: life imprisonment. Such a sentence provides just punishment, helps bring closure to victims' families, eases the burdens on our court system, and will even save our public justice system millions of dollars. Acknowledgment of human dignity and preserving public safety do not need to be contradictory goals.
The Church's commitment to the intrinsic value and dignity of human life is the basis for our opposition to the use of the death penalty. In the 1995 Encyclical Letter "The Gospel of Life", Pope John Paul II cites the scriptural example of God's punishment of Cain to remind us that "not even a murderer loses his personal dignity." While Cain himself is punished by God, he is not destroyed. The mark of Cain, a visible sign of his offense, was also intended to protect and defend Cain from the violence and hatred of those who might wish to avenge Abel's death. Quoting St Ambrose, the pope writes: "God, who preferred the correction, rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the execution of another act of homicide."3
This does not mean that the Church opposes the punishment of a wrongdoer. Punishment can be a vehicle for the correction and conversion of the sinner, as well as for the restoration of the public order made chaotic by the perpetrated crime. Restitution to the families of victims is a component of such restoration.
Just punishment also incorporates another purpose which is the defense of society and its members. However, if it is not absolutely necessary to use the death penalty to achieve this purpose, we are obligated to use "bloodless means" (Catechism of CC 2267).4 Pope John Paul II states "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 rare, if not practically nonexistent.5
Ministry to Victims
The Gospel calls us to be healing instruments of God's peace. In the teaching about the Good Samaritan, we learn that we must "see" the victims; compassionately respond to their immediate needs; provide follow up support; and remember to "return" to further share Christ's healing message of love and forgiveness. Too often our call for compassion and concern for the offender is misread as overshadowing our concern and empathy for victims and their loved ones. Such is not our intent.
We commit the Church's ministry to extend effective outreach and support services to victim families and friends. Abiding with the victim is essential for that person's physical, emotional and spiritual healing. Never is one's faith in a loving God more vulnerable than when suffering strikes in a swift and meaningless fashion. As bishops, we remind priests and other ministers of the Gospel of our mutual duty to attend quickly to victims in order to pray with them and witness the love of God to them by our compassionate presence.
At the same time, our faith also beckons us not to abandon the offender, to love this person in Christ, and work and pray for his or her moral conversion and rehabilitation. We emphasized in 1987 that no human life, no matter how sinful or lacking in love, is without value. We continue our call for the humane treatment of offenders including access to religious materials and services, family contacts, and physical exercise.
We strongly support increased efforts by pastors, educators and ministers to guide our parishioners in moral decision making. This religious teaching will provide a moral framework necessary for the proper formation of conscience. Such a framework is grounded in Scripture and a consistent set of principles which reflect the sacredness of all human life and a commitment to those things which make life truly human.
Call to Public Accountability
It is not absolutely necessary for the defense of society and the citizens of Ohio to execute anyone. We believe Ohio's death penalty system, as it stands today, is morally flawed due to racial bias, unequal application and mistaken judgments.7 We are deeply concerned that persons with diminished culpability due to mental retardation and/or established suicidal tendencies are being sentenced to death.8
We encourage public officials to replace the death penalty with life imprisonment. While public opinion currently favors executions, we believe public opinion on this issue has been shaped by misconceptions, overstated fears, and a desire for easy solutions.9
We encourage public officials to direct more time and resources toward promoting rehabilitation, education, and prevention. The answer to crime is not as simple as more persons and more executions. It also involves constructing a society where every person has the opportunity to participate in economic and social life with dignity and responsibility.
May the redemptive love of God which can change hearts, convert people, and renew all things guide us as we reflect, study, pray and act on this issue.
1 "Justice and Mercy: Reassessing the Death Penalty: Source book, Secondary Education Curriculum Guide, Adult Education Guide, Homily Themes and Illustrations, Pastoral Statement. Catholic Conference of Ohio, 1987.