Why the Death Penalty is Wrong

Note: The Connecticut General Assembly began debate on the future of capital punishment. This is an issue that creates conflict among all manner of communities – including our Catholic communities. Please read this essay, reflect on it with a heart free of preconceptions, prejudices, and empathy for victims of violent crime. Then call your representatives…and I pray you make a call for Life.

The Citizen never ceases to be amazed to hear someone who is against abortion but supports the death penalty.

“Abortion kills the innocent, the death penalty punishes the guilty.” This is the common response that I hear. While on a very basic level, this may make some sort of sense…if life was a commodity and not a gift from God.

Yes, a gift. All human life is a gift. We have all been created by God’s will and His plan; this is the essence of our Christian belief. There are situations when the taking of life is morally justified, but the death penalty is not an acceptable taking of life.

Just War theory is essentially a ‘checklist’ that must be satisfied in order for the taking of life in combat to be acceptable. Police officers are sometimes compelled to take life in order to preserve others. Both the soldier and police officer in a combat situation are forced to make decisions in an instant, following rules of engagement and proper procedures.

2265. Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility. – The Catholic Catechism, 1992 edition

The death penalty does not fall in this category. This next quote is lengthy, but I believe that it is important that the reader understand it in the context of the entire passage.

2267. Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 56)

– The Catholic Catechism, 1992 edition

“…if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor.” This is telling. In the United States, there are very few instances when the death penalty falls under this caveat. Frankly, I can only imagine a situation when there has been a total breakdown of civil order on a state or national level and there is no possible means of protecting society. The Catechism emphatically states that if non-lethal means are available and sufficient to protect society, then they should be employed to preserve the Christian ideal of the ‘dignity of the person.’ The Catechism does not consider issues of convenience or cost in the equation; the only acceptable employment of the death penalty is predicated on immediate and real danger to others.

The United States has the capability to employ life incarceration. 35  states have the death penalty, and fifteen  do not. Since 1976, 1,165 people have been executed. 120 people on death row were exonerated when new evidence proved they did not commit the crime they were convicted of committing. According to a 2006 FBI report, southern states had the highest murder rate – and account for 964 of the 1,165 total executions. This clearly discounts the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent.  Of even greater significance is the surprising number of people who were scheduled to be executed – and were innocent of the crime that they were to be executed for committing. Should we support a practice that has no deterrent effect? Is it acceptable to kill one innocent person unjustly?

The Citizen came to embrace the pro-life movement somewhat late in life, and the death penalty was a hard one to give up. There is that visceral ‘eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life’ approach to justice that is appealing. Would I want to look at a person who murdered someone dear to me and know that they would not pay for the life that they took with their own? I pray I never have to experience that. I would like to think that my convictions will hold true and I would realize that taking the killer’s life will not return anything of value to me or my family. To seek vengeance is wrong. Period.

Pro-life means All Life – not just the infant in the womb. Not just the newly developing embryo that should be defended from being ‘harvested’. Not just the elderly, the homeless, the ill, and the infirm. All life. How can we as a religion devoted to the sanctity of life differentiate? How can we say that we are ‘pro-some-life’. If aborting a child in the womb is wrong, ending a life by lethal injection is wrong. The state has an obligation to protect society from those who would practice evil upon it. Unless the situation is dire, we should do so by incarcerating them for the rest of their life.

It’s the right thing to do. The Christian thing to do. The pro-life thing to do.

Thank you and God Bless you all!

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