Capital Punishment and the Culture of Death

The battle against the Culture of Death has many front lines. The most important, of course, is the struggle to extend full legal protection to human beings who happen to be still within their mother’s womb. Every year, more unborn children are killed in the womb than all U.S. combat deaths in all our wars – combined. This horrendous injustice is a blight against our nation and we can never tire until it has been rectified.

As Catholics, we follow the leadership of our Church and promote what St. John Paul II called “the greatness and the inestimable value of human life” (The Gospel of Life 2) against all manners of threats. While we are particularly alarmed by the recent legislation in our own state and elsewhere that eliminated virtually all limits on abortion, we also see the growing threats in many other areas. St. John Paul, quoting the Second Vatican Council, condemned a legion of attacks on the dignity and value of human life:

any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed… (The Gospel of Life 3)

Each of these attacks on life cannot be isolated as merely individual acts, but they must be seen as part of a broad assault on human dignity. They not only affect their direct victims, but they have a corrosive effect on all of us. As John Paul said, “They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” ( The Gospel of Life 3).

It is in this context that we must express our disappointment and opposition to the recent announcement that the U.S. government will soon resume executing prisoners. Obviously, there is a grave moral difference between intrinsically evil acts like abortion or euthanasia that can never be acceptable, and capital punishment, which may be permitted under certain circumstances. It is also clear that one of the primary duties of governments is to protect its citizens from violence and crime, and that those who transgress the law should be appropriately punished and isolated until they can safely be returned to society.

But the execution of prisoners is plainly unnecessary to achieve those goals, and it has the direct effect of reducing respect for human life as a whole. America has the most sophisticated criminal justice and penal system in the world, and can easily remove dangerous people from society and keep them separate until they are no longer a threat. Studies by scholars continue to show that capital punishment has no deterrent effect against future homicides. It just isn’t necessary to kill prisoners to protect society.

Fortunately, our society has been gradually phasing out judicial killing. Public opinion polls have shown growing opposition to executions. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have outlawed capital punishment, thirty-seven states have had no executions in the last five years, and thirty-one have had none in the last ten years. The federal government has executed only 3 people in the last twenty-five years and none in the last ten years. Most of the executions are taking place in only a handful of southern states: Texas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Missouri. Executions around the world are also falling, and over 70% of countries have eliminated capital punishment.

There has been a lot more attention in recent years to the possibility that innocent persons are being convicted, particularly due to the use of DNA evidence. The risk of executing innocent people is thus becoming more difficult to ignore. Earlier this year, for example, two men in Texas were exonerated for a murder they didn’t commit, after serving over fourteen years in prison. Just a few years ago another man was exonerated in Illinois after serving twenty-eight years for a murder he didn’t commit. And last year a man was exonerated for a rape he didn’t commit after serving thirty-eight years!

In a way, though, what concerns me most about capital punishment is the effect it has on the hearts of people. If there is anything clear from the New Testament, it is that an attitude of retribution, retaliation or revenge is absolutely forbidden. The law of charity commands us to see that even a person who has committed the most heinous act may be punished but still retains his human dignity and must be loved unconditionally. Any argument that appeals to the effectiveness or usefulness of executions, or any sense of proportionality of punishment, is thus irrelevant to Christians. The early Church understood this very well, and forbade Christians from having anything to do with executions (and military service as well). Church teaching has been evolving in a way that is actually a return to the early Christian understanding that Our Lord explicitly replaced the Old Law of retribution with the New Law of mercy.

Yet when the issue of capital punishment is raised in public, far too many Christians seem to be unaware of or even in opposition to the clear Gospel teaching. Just look at the comment section of any article or Facebook post that states the Church’s opposition to executing prisoners. You will see a shocking callousness and hardness of heart – repeated assertions that we are speaking of “animals” and not humans, an almost voyeuristic description of crimes that can only be intended to enflame hatred, desires that opponents of execution become victims of grievous injuries, greater concern about the cost of incarceration than the value of life, and an uncritical citation of Old Testament penal provisions such as “an eye for an eye”. Some comments by people who consider themselves to be pro-life and Christian display an undisguised bloodthirstiness that is truly appalling.

This is ultimately why the Church opposes executing prisoners, just as she opposes dismembering unborn children. Acts of violence do harm not only to the victim, but to the perpetrator and anyone who supports or justifies them. The Culture of Death is not something that is “out there”, or an abstract concept existing among the  Platonic ideals, or in some law book or court decision. The root of the Culture of Death in our own hearts, in our disordered desires and thoughts that see violence as the answer to problems (see Mt 15:10-20).

That is where the ultimate battle is taking place. It is only in the human heart, with the conversion that comes from faith in Christ, that we can lay the foundation of a true Culture of Life. That is why we defend the dignity of every human person, no matter what they have done, how old they are, or what their condition may be.

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