No to the Death Penalty

Monday, May 12, 2003



The Washington Post reported on October 21, 2001 that the United States Supreme Court was bitterly divided over the question of whether a criminal found guilty of crimes committed as a juveniles can be executed by the state. Four justices opposed continuation of the death penalty in such cases.

From the article in the Post:

"The practice of executing such offenders is a relic of the past and is inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. "We should put an end to this shameful practice."

From Amnesty International:

"Since January 1993, Amnesty International has documented 24 executions of child offenders worldwide -- one in Democratic Republic of Congo, one in Nigeria, one in Yemen, two in Pakistan, three in Iran, and 16 in the United States. Pakistan and Yemen have since legislated to abolish such use of the death penalty, as did the world's main executing country, China, in 1997."

This makes the United States the leader in killing minor offenders!

Article 37 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, an international treaty ratified by the United States, prohibits the use of the death penalty against people who were under 18 years old at the time of the crime. One hundred and ninety-one countries have ratified the CRC since 1989. The United States is acting in violation of international law!

Many conservative Christians believe that the death penalty is clearly supported in Scripture:

Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death; whoever takes the life of an animal shall make restitution of another animal. A life for a life! Anyone who inflicts an injury on his neighbor shall receive the same in return. Limb for limb, eye for eye, tooth for tooth! The same injury that a man gives another shall be inflicted on him in return. (Leviticus 24:17-20)

However, Christ clearly asks the Christian to take a second look at this command:

You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. (Matthew 5:38-39)

Beloved, do not look for revenge but leave room for the wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' (Romans 12:19. Paul may be paraphrasing Lv 19:18 or Dt 32:35)

The idea expressed in the gospel is a new concept perfectly embodied in the life of Christ, who was executed by the state as he prayed for his enemies.

Matthew's Jesus does not say, "When someone strikes you on your right cheek, walk away." However moral this may be, the gospel goes a bit a deeper. We are invited into the redemptive mystery of Christ so that we fill up in our own flesh what is still lacking in the sufferings of Christ (see Colossians 1:24).

Christ's message is much harder than simply maintaining peace. The left cheek is offered as retribution - justice - for the injury to the right cheek. As Christ has won salvation for us through his vicarious suffering, we are to offer the pain of injustice as prayer for our enemies and persecutors.

In Christianity, the justification for the death penalty is stripped away. All justice is left in the hands of our perfectly just, and infinitely merciful Father. The Christian is one who, knowing his or her own sinfulness and need for mercy, forgives others as we hope to be forgiven!

Thus Pope John Paul II could write the following in Evangelium Vitae (end of no.55 and all of 56):

Moreover, 'legitimate defence can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life, the common good of the family or of the State'. Unfortunately it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason.

This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is 'to redress the disorder caused by the offence'. Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.

It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, 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 very rare, if not practically non-existent.

In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: 'If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person'.

As a progressive, I believe that the Church's stance on the death penalty has evolved. While the full implications of the gospel message were not clear to the magisterium at all times, Pope John Paul II's recent statement represent a valid development of the Catholic Tradition.

Furthermore, we have seen through advances in DNA testing and other forensic evidences that the state has often been wrong about the guilt of one to be executed. It is impossible to be absolutely certain of guilt in any court case. Even a confession can be coerced or be the result of a neurobiological disorder.

Likewise, there is no statistical evidence that the death penalty functions as a deterrent to crime. Indeed, one could argue that the death penalty sends a message to our children that human life is not valuable, and one should question the character of a person who chooses to be an executioner for the state.

Furthermore, all the statistics indicate that the death penalty in the United States is inequitably applied to racial minorities. We need to strongly consider whether any clinging to the death penalty is rooted less in a concern for justice, and more in a fear of people who may look and think different than the majority of us.

The ultimate aim of the death penalty is to remove a threat from society. In today's day and age, this can be accomplished in other ways: through rehabilitation, or in rare cases, life imprisonment without parole.

The symbol of the cross demands that we take sides. Either we stand with those who executed the Lord of glory, or those who wept at the foot of the cross. It is my contention that the death penalty, in and of itself is immoral in today's day and age.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 2:16 PM

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?

Weblog Commenting by