God said, “Thou shalt not kill.”
And his people responded, “Wait, what? You mean thou shalt not kill the innocent, right?”
God replied, “Thou shalt not kill.”
And his people added, “unless the person really deserves it.”
“Thou shalt not kill.”
“Unless thou is a state and the person is a criminal?”
God, realizing his people were still struggling to understand, sent his only Son to teach them “to love each other as I have loved you.”
And the people chorused, “Crucify him.”
Humans tend to want revenge, as is illustrated time and again in the Gospel. Vengeance, however, is not for us to inflict upon our fellow human beings. Based firmly in Scripture, Catholic teaching prohibits resorting to violence except in circumstances where force is necessary to protect life from armed aggressors. This limited exception to “thou shalt not kill” does not permit use of the death penalty as a purely retributive punishment, which is what it has become in the modern era.
Thus, the recent reformulation of the Catechism on capital punishment reflects our core principle of the sanctity of life. Our church has long held that capital punishment is justified only where there is no other way to protect the community. As Saint Pope John Paul II explained in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, civil authority “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.”
Pope Francis has recognized that penal systems have advanced to the point that such cases are now non-existent. There is no justification for a state to take the life of one of its citizens. There is, however, the possibility to restore a victim’s families through means other than cold, and ultimately ineffective, revenge that keeps them focused on the person they hate for years on end.
More than 2,800 people sit on death row in the United States. Fourteen executions are scheduled for the remainder of 2018. Each of these lives, no matter how unrepentant the inmate, has equal value to every other life. As St. Pope John Paul II said, “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done a great evil.”
One common rebuttal to the idea that we can protect ourselves is the case of prisoners who kill other prisoners. The theory runs that we need to maintain the death penalty as the only way to ensure an inmate faces a sufficiently severe penalty to serve as a deterrent. The Death Penalty Information Center has extensively studied this rationale, and found it to be empirically false. First, studies prove that the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent crime. Second, the data also proves that most murders attempted or completed in prisons are due to management failures, such as lack of sufficient staff, which can be better addressed through policies, procedures, and funding priorities than by adding a 30-year death penalty process to an inmate’s already lengthy sentence.
Or in the words of Calvin Lightfoot, a former corrections officer, warden and Secretary of Public Safety and Correctional Services for Maryland, “I’ve been in this system for over 40 years. I’ve been held hostage and been through multiple prison riots. If someone told me that the death penalty would protect me as a corrections officer, I would be offended. Safety inside prisons depends on proper staffing, programming, and effective reintegration of inmates back into society. The death penalty does not safeguard anybody.”
The reformulation of the Catechism affirms that every person, no matter the harm they have suffered or caused, has God-given dignity. It is our call as Catholics to end the death penalty and promote more restorative approaches to corrections.
Jean Hill is director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City Peace & Justice Commission.