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THE GOSPEL OF LIFE AND CAPITAL PUNISHMENT: A REFLECTION PIECE AND STUDY GUIDE
Statement of the California Catholic Conference of Bishops
Having adopted the U. S. Bishops' statement, The Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty, we wish to put forth this document for pastors, preachers, and teachers to be used in preparation to disseminate the Church's teaching on the death penalty.
A critical hallmark of the Roman Catholic moral tradition is found in its insistence that the first right of the human person is the right to life. It does not belong to society, nor does it belong to public authority in any form, to recognize this right for some and not for others.
In September of 1985, in response to the reinstitution of the death penalty in the state of California after a moratorium of 21 years, we vigorously defended this fundamental right to life in A Call to Discipleship: The California Bishops' Statement on Capital Punishment. Our intention was to "affirm our opposition to the use of the death penalty and challenge the people of California, particularly our own Catholic faithful, to examine the issue of capital punishment in the light of the fundamental moral and religious questions that it involves."
We issue this new statement, The Gospel of Life and Capital Punishment, with the realization that there are presently over 500 men and women on death row in our state. With hundreds of people close to the end of their appeals, the prospect of frequent and routine executions looms in California. We see a constant need in our state and in our Church to call faithful Catholics and all people of good will to reflect on respect for all human life, even life perceived as guilty, expendable, and perhaps even morally repulsive.Our Hope: To Be a Companion
We realize that many people, including Catholic people, support the death penalty for a variety of reasons. We do not write this statement as a condemnation of this viewpoint, but rather as the fruit of our own careful deliberation on the questions of life and death, considerations which lead us to reject not only the use of the death penalty, but also the death penalty itself.
Living the Gospel of Life, the 1998 letter from the United States Catholic Conference, reminds us that we as bishops "have the responsibility to call Americans to conversion, including political leaders, and especially those publicly identified as Catholic." Conscious of this challenge, we invite you to walk with us as disciples on a journey of conversion, which revisits our Catholic tradition on the question of capital punishment. In this quest we reach a different conclusion than formerly held in this debate.
We recognize that in the past, the Catholic moral tradition has ceded to the state the right to impose the death penalty. However, it has done so only on the assumption and with the condition that it effectively deters others from crime, advances the safety and peace of all citizens, and is equitably applied to all cases. Today there is little evidence to support these assumptions or meet these conditions, and much evidence to refute them.
We believe that advances in the penal system, which can now guarantee the safety of society with life imprisonment of dangerous capital offenders, create a new ethical sphere, in which, the traditional moral principles on capital punishment are no longer applicable.
We realize that authentic conversion from support of the death penalty to a position of non-support is not an easy one. At the same time, we are convinced that such a conversion is possible and is not rare, as exampled in the lives of Aba Gayle, Bill Pelke, Antoinette Bosco and Maggie and Reg Green. These individuals provide evidence of a remarkable growth in the human spirit by demonstrating their willingness to place forgiveness over revenge and life over death. We remember Aba Gayle who forgave the murderer of her 19-year-old daughter in Auburn, California. We remember Bill Pelke and his family who came to forgive the man who brutally killed their grandmother. We are heartened by Antoinette Bosco's forgiveness of an 18-year-old intruder who murdered her son and daughter-in-law as they lay sleeping in their home. Bosco later commented that it is "wrong to put the emphasis on 'penalty' when it should be on unnatural 'death' and all the horror this word conveys... If we don't forgive, we stay emotionally handcuffed to the person who hurt us..." We also recall the parents of Nicholas Green of Bodega Bay, California, who turned their anguish over the shooting death of their seven-year-old son, Nicholas, into the gift of his organs to seven needy recipients.
It is our firm conviction that we must never as individuals or as a society suspend the principle of the right to life. By abolishing the death penalty, we would make a powerful statement in favor of life and reaffirm our belief that God grants all people the opportunity for conversion, reconciliation and reparation for evil done.Killing Is Not the Answer
We want to spell out in some detail the fundamental moral and religious questions that surround the issue of the death penalty; and demonstrate that the Catholic teaching on capital punishment has become more restrictive in the light of Pope John Paul II's 1995 letter Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), thus engendering an entirely new attitude in the moral and religious debate concerning the death penalty. Consequently, it is our intention to share again our vision about the dignity of all human persons, a belief that brings us to oppose the death penalty itself.
We address this statement in a special way to you as pastors, educators, and teachers in order to assist you in your critical role of reflecting on the Church's tradition which upholds the sacredness of all human life and on the teaching of Jesus about hope, reconciliation and forgiveness.
This reflection must also recognize, with compassion and prayer, the intense struggle and often unrelenting pain of crime victims and their family members, particularly families of murder victims. Justice requires that the victims of violent crimes receive the greatest care and compassion possible. We mourn with those who suffer pain or loss from violent crimes and we offer our full support to victims and their families during their process of grief and healing. We really cannot do enough for these victims in their efforts to bring peace and reconciliation into their lives.
Within this profound support and understanding, however, we must resist at all cost the humanly understandable motive of revenge against the perpetrator of evil. Revenge only feeds a climate of violence in our society and encourages an ominous readiness to accept killing as a solution to many social problems.
We recall the scene vividly described in Sister Helen Prejeans's book, Dead Man Walking: Robert Willie, the condemned rapist and murderer, has just been executed, and the family of Faith, the 14-year-old victim, is elated:
We realize all too well that many people who support the death penalty do not do so out of this type of revenge, but as a hopeful solution to the violence which permeates American culture, its neighborhoods, and communities. However, situations like the scene just described document the reality and fear of violent crime and cause anger and frustration, fuel revenge toward the perpetrator, and promote simplistic social and political "solutions" to the problem of crime.
Honoring the sanctity of human life, Catholics do not accept abortion as a solution to unwanted or unintended pregnancy, nor euthanasia or assisted suicide as a solution to unrelenting physical pain. In like manner, Catholics should not accept capital punishment as a solution to the problem of violence and murder. It is our Catholic belief that every human person is a precious and unrepeatable gift of God and this fact cannot be reconciled with capital punishment.
We present this statement as a moral guide on how we, as Catholic Bishops and teachers of the faith, have come to this conclusion.A New Moment: A Consistent Ethic of Life
In Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II declares the Church's near total opposition to the death penalty. Soon after the Pope issued this letter, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, commented that this teaching represents "important doctrinal progress" in the Church's teaching on this question. The revised edition (1997) of the Catechism of the Catholic Church sets forth this new instruction: "Today... the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'"
While the Pope cites as a providential "sign of hope" (no. 27) that there is a growing opposition to the death penalty in society as a whole, many Americans, religious affiliation notwithstanding, find this teaching very troubling in the light of what appears to be a strong support for capital punishment. It seems clear, however, that people support the death penalty not because they are against life, but because they fear crimes against life. People see violence and murder all around them and conclude that the death penalty stands as a deterrent, and especially as the most appropriate response for violent crimes.
The spectrum of life cuts across issues of genetics, abortion, capital punishment, modern warfare, the care of the terminally ill, and society's treatment of the disabled, the poor and the vulnerable. We recognize that each of these concerns present distinct problems which are enormously complicated and deserving of individual treatment. No single answer and no simple responses will solve them.
At the same time we believe that we need to foster an attitude and atmosphere in society which is the pre-condition for sustaining a consistent ethic of life. We have opposed the death penalty in the past, and do so again, because we think that its use does not cultivate an attitude of respect for life in society, and in fact contributes to what Evangelium Vitae calls the "culture of death." (no. 28)
The purpose of proposing a consistent ethic of life is to argue that success on any one of the issues threatening life requires a concern for the broader attitude in society about respect for all human life. This level of respect rests on the pre-condition to first develop in ourselves and in others a "contemplative outlook," a perspective which views every human being as a "wonder," seeing in each individual the reflection of the Creator. Evangelium Vitae states that such an "outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death's door." (no. 83)
The consistent ethic's opposition to capital punishment is rooted in the belief that an atmosphere of respect for all life must permeate society. The resort to capital punishment does not enhance this conviction.
We are aware that the number of men and women condemned to die grows each year, and that the general public does not share the conviction of the consistent ethic on capital punishment. We are likewise troubled by the fact that some people who run for public office do so on the basis of whom they are prepared to kill.
To adopt a consistent respect for all life will cost us something. To move beyond the taking of life by capital punishment requires us to see all human life as sacred, and the concomitant need to defend life at every moment of its existence.
We believe, therefore, that our Catholic moral tradition has something valuable to say in the face of the multiple threats today to the sacredness of human life, and we are convinced that the Church is in a position to make a significant defense of life in a comprehensive and consistent manner. We believe that all human life has transcendent value, and the taking of even one human life is a momentous event.
In the past 30 years, there has been a perceptible shift in the Church's traditional teaching that there should always be a presumption against taking human life. We are now at a new strategic moment where this presumption has been strengthened and the exceptions made ever more restrictive. In the case of capital punishment, for example, while not denying the classical position found in the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and other authors which hold that the state has the right to employ capital punishment, the statements of recent Popes, as well as many Bishops, have been directed against the exercise of this right by the state.
The argument has been made that more humane methods of defending society exist today and should be used. This position lies behind the 1980 policy statement on this question by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. This stance has generated the extraordinary interventions by the Pope and many Bishops who have sought the prevention of executions, while pointing out that the life imprisonment alternative is a better response of a humane society. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of his Pontificate, the Pope called for a "moratorium on executions at least during the Jubilee Year..." In February of 1999, we were all inspired by St. Louis Governor Mel Carnahan's commutation of the sentence of a convicted triple murderer from death to life imprisonment without parole in response to the Pope's "direct and personal appeal." The Holy Father's argument was clear: "...the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil." These personal interventions on the part of the Pope and Bishops send an important message about the death penalty and its use. We endorse this message, as it represents the better way of fostering a consistent view that all human life is sacred.
An Historical Overview: An Evolutionary Perspective
For an historical perspective, it is helpful to recall some of the more important and complex aspects of the moral and religious background of this question. In this survey, it is also important to note that history itself has resisted the death penalty.
The authority of the state to administer a death penalty for serious crimes has classically enjoyed support from biblical and theological sources in the Christian tradition. To this day, the ancient Hebrew law codes raise difficult questions for Jewish and Christian believers. In the Old Testament, the death penalty was stipulated for dozens of crimes: for example; adultery, blasphemy, idolatry, murder, and violations of filial duty.
These ancient laws clearly called people's attention to the extreme seriousness of these misdeeds and expressed a solemn warning not to do them. At the same time, however, it is clear that at least by the end of the fifth century A.D., significant Rabbinic literature expressed a strong sentiment against the death penalty.
In the New Testament, human vengeance is strongly discouraged and reliance on God's action is emphasized. The themes of forgiveness and renunciation, found already in Old Testament writings, become a major theme in the words of both Jesus and St. Paul.
St. Paul recognizes the legitimacy of civil authority to represent divine authority in Romans 13:1-7. The passage acknowledges the validity and propriety, even the necessity, of the punitive function of the state (the state bears "the power of the sword"), but the text does not suggest that, in practice, the state should engage in bloodshed.
In light of the rest of Paul's teaching about God's love manifest in Christ, it can certainly be argued that Christian compassion points in the direction of juridical restraint toward the use of the sword, cautioning that it should be a weapon of last resort.
Subsequent Christian reflection tends to reveal a further qualification, rooted in the general attitude of Jesus who instructs his disciples to seek no revenge for wrongdoing (Mt. 5:2-48) and to love even one's enemies (Mt. 5:43-47). Jesus taught that the love of one's neighbor is to be likened to the love of God (Mt. 22:36-40), and his own death by crucifixion demonstrated God's love for humankind "in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)
An important reflection of the attitude of Jesus is found in John 8:1-11 where Jesus refuses to condemn the woman caught in the act of adultery, but places an additional requirement on those who would execute her: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." (v.7) The teachings and actions of Jesus accentuate, therefore, a heightened awareness of the dignity of human life, and stress that "...you are of more value than many sparrows." (Mt. 10:31)
In the fourth century, St. Augustine argued that the death penalty provides security and support for the common good of society. Augustine postulated that just as the state may defend itself against an unjust aggressor in war (from the outside), in like manner, the state can defend itself from an unjust aggressor from within.
It must not be forgotten, however, that Augustine instructed a gathering of judges at the shrine of St. Cyprian not to inflict the death penalty on anyone, not even on those who have committed the most heinous crimes. Augustine insists that the dignity of the sinner remains the same as the dignity of the saint, and that the "image of God" in every person can only be tarnished, but never wiped away. Augustine recognized the state's authority to impose punishment by death, but consistently counseled against its use because of the dignity inherent in every human person as well as the mercy and love of God shown in the example of Jesus.
In the thirteenth century, St. Thomas Aquinas dealt with capital punishment in several of his writings, and rests his argument on the recognition that an individual is to society as a part is to the whole. He reasoned that if a part threatens the good of the whole it must be excised in order to preserve the whole.
Thomas justified the use of the death penalty when employed for the sake of preserving the common good of society. At the same time, however, his endorsement of capital punishment was a qualified support for he also argued that if a convicted criminal could be incarcerated, and thus not be a danger to society, it would not be justified to kill the criminal. While Thomas justified capital punishment as a way of protecting the common good of society, he likewise counseled against its use when incarceration of criminals would remove the threat to the common good.
Since the time of St. Thomas, Catholic moral thinking has come to an even stronger sense that an individual is more than simply a member to the body, or a part to the whole. Every person sustains an inviolable right to life because of human dignity.
In Vatican Council II's 1965 document, Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), this new consciousness is clearly stated: "There is an ever growing awareness of the sublime dignity of the human person, who stands above all things and whose rights and duties are universal... The social order and its developments must constantly yield to the good of the person, since the order of things must be subordinate to the order of persons and not the other way around." (no.26)
In expressing the mind of the Church, Gaudium et Spes enunciates a clear universal norm about the lofty dignity of every person:
The Council affirms the basic principle that life is a fundamental natural right and must be protected from all violence. It is this principle that has led many Bishops and theologians in our time to repudiate the death penalty as it represents an assault to the dignity of human life, and is not in conformity with the non-violent witness of Jesus.
Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism of the Catholic Church
This brief survey of the moral and religious history about the death penalty sets the stage for the Church's present teaching on capital punishment.
Chapter three of Evangelium Vitae takes its title from the fifth commandment: "You shall not kill." (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17) The Pope argues that this commandment "encourages a positive attitude of absolute respect toward life; it leads to the promotion of life and to progress along the way of a love which gives, receives, and serves."(no. 54) Consequently, "To kill a human being in whom the image of God is present, is a particularly serious sin." (no.55)
Living the Gospel of Life affirms this same point: "We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing, of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desparate the life may seem. In other words, the choice of certain ways of acting is always and radically incompatible with the love of God and the dignity of the human person created in his image.
In light of this moral reasoning, every discussion of the death penalty must carefully weigh seemingly conflicting values: the right of society to protect itself; the grave harm to victims, families and society caused by the actions of the offender whose misdeeds have rendered the criminal guilty in relationship to the victim and to society; and the human dignity of the offender who remains created in God's image.
Awareness of the depths of this moral complexity calls for a proper proportion between the gravity of the crime committed and the severity of the punishment. Evangelium Vitae proposes various purposes for punishment: redressing the violation of rights by restricting the freedom of the offender; defending public order; ensuring people's safety; and providing incentives for the offender to be rehabilitated. (no. 56) In this context, the use of capital punishment is "the extreme of executing the offender," (no. 56) an extreme which "today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent." (no. 56)
In recent years Catholic moral teaching has greatly restricted the reasons and conditions which warrant a "just" war. In like manner, the Catholic tradition is arguing that modern circumstances make the reasons and conditions for capital punishment so restrictive as to render the death penalty practically unjustifiable from a moral point of view.
This is an extremely critical conclusion as it raises the point that the death penalty is "practically" unnecessary today due to advances in penal systems, which guarantee the security of those imprisoned. Consequently, capital punishment should be understood as an unacceptable moral option. The "important doctrinal progress" which this teaching affirms represents a viewpoint which holds that society should be striving to put behind it what was once seen as necessary.
This teaching is incorporated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 2266-2267) which affirms that the state fulfills its duty to protect the common good when behaviors that threaten this common good are contained. In California, e.g., the alternative of life imprisonment without parole is a viable alternative to the death penalty. Incarceration of the offender protects the common good, serves the human dignity of the offender, and thus underlines the inviolability of the human dignity of all persons within society. Fidelity to this teaching will allow for a growing sense of the culture of life, and will contribute to a consistency and a deepening awareness about the inviolability of all human life.
The Catechism also places the remedial value of punishment on a more equal plane with the preservation of the public order and the safety of persons, and thus raises an implicit challenge to society to build penal systems that are not merely punitive but also medicinal and redemptive.
On the Threshold of the Third Millennium
The purpose of this statement is to reaffirm our 1985 opposition to the use of the death penalty in light of the "new moment" offered us by the publication of Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In light of the moral and religious history surveyed, and our stress on the importance of a consistent ethic of life, we now also call for the prohibition of the death penalty itself in our state and in our country. We thus echo the belief stated in Living the Gospel of Life: "Our attitude toward the sanctity of life in these closing years of the 'American century' will say volumes about our true character as a nation."
Prohibition of the death penalty recognizes that the traditional justification of society's right of self-defense no longer has a tenable foundation; and prohibition of the death penalty also represents a resistance to dehumanization and the degradation of humanity. Capital punishment is a capitulation to human despair. We reject this option and affirm with the Holy Father our belief that Christian hope for the world "extends to every human person," including the offender. We thus affirm:
There is perhaps no more fitting conclusion and challenge to this statement than to recall with openness of heart and mind the recent words of John Paul II.
In his homily on January 23, 1999 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City, the Pope opened his reflections with the prayer that "the Continent of Hope also be the Continent of Life: Life with dignity for all!" The Pope's words represent our proclamation:
Four days later on January 27 at the Trans World Dome in St. Louis, the Pope reaffirmed this same challenge: "I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary."
As the Bishops of California, we join the Holy Father in this challenge and call for the end of the death penalty in our state and in our country. As followers of Christ, we must all be unconditionally pro-life as we proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of Life in every situation.
1 See, e.g., Declaration on Abortion, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1974, no. 11; and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2273.