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Church Teaches that All Life is Valuable

Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis
January 4, 1996

In this culture in which death is so prevalent and so often a deliberate choice and a desperate attempt to solve a human problem, it is easy to promote the death penalty as the best way to counteract violence and get tough on crime.

However, I am compelled to raise a voice of reasoned dissent. I am convinced that there is a more responsible way to address the growing incidence of murders and other acts of violence in our midst.

So is our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, who in his latest encyclical on life stated the following:

"The nature and extent of the punishment...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 nonexistent."

Our Catholic moral teaching has always recognized the responsibility of government to protect citizens from persons who might be dangerous and harmful to others. This teaching has allowed the death penalty for particularly heinous crimes when the criminal is a continued threat to others.

However, in our culture at this present time, we have the possibility of incarcerating someone who is harmful for the rest of his/her life. We do not need to use the death penalty.

Our problem is this: Capital punishment plunges us further into the culture of death. I am convinced that we must choose consistently for life. This means foregoing a right to impose the death penalty in order to reverse that terrible culture of violence and death. I would stand for a deliberate and courageous decision to break down the terrible cycle of violence. We must choose life.

I oppose the death penalty in our present society because I believe in the sacredness and the dignity of every human life, even the lives of those who have committed terrible crimes.

I want to restrict any and all ways in which our contemporary culture proposes death as a solution to a problem.

I want to release energy and creativity in the pursuit of ways to reduce crime, protect the innocent, punish the criminal, work for change in offenders and yet consistently stand for the respect for life even of those who threaten the lives of others with disdain.

I do not believe that one can be pro-life and at the same time support the death penalty. All life needs to be upheld as sacred and gifted by God, from life in the womb to the life of a convicted criminal. We must affirm all life. The more I am convinced that the convicted killer is made in the image and likeness of God, the more I will be concerned for the unborn.

We are concerned because we sense in our society a growing acceptance of revenge as a principle of justice. We who claim to be followers of Jesus need to search out the roots and reasons for our current attitudes about punishment for offenders. We must ask ourselves whether or not the negative power of vengeance has found a home in our hearts rather than the life-giving Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The very violence that frightens us so much can make us proponents of violence. If we have been shaped and formed by our fears and we expect serenity from the existence of the death penalty, we are sadly mistaken. The death penalty does not reduce crime. As a deterrent to crime, the death penalty is an abysmal failure.

We, in the United States today, have an alternative to the death penalty. It is long-term of life imprisonment without parole. This approach has been successfully incorporated in some Western industrialized countries.

During World Youth Day, our Holy Father challenged the young people with these words: "Do not be ashamed of the Gospel. Be proud of the Gospel." The Gospel kingdom of peace and justice will be build on a foundation of love that is capable of compassion and mercy.

We must believe in the all-powerful redemptive love of God which can change hearts, convert people, and renew all things. We must be a people committed to hope for those who seem to be hopeless. We must be a people who see the value of a human life that others might think to be worthless.

 

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