Rodríguez: Death penalty diminishes our humanity, undermines mercy
By Bishop Plàcido Rodríguez
Recently, Pope Francis captured international headlines by appealing to Christians — and particularly Catholic governmental officials — to take the “courageous and exemplary act” of ending the death penalty during the Holy Year of Mercy.
The pontiff’s plea reaffirmed Catholic doctrine that views capital punishment as a cruel and inhumane offense to the dignity of human life. What was noteworthy was Francis’ call for Christian political leaders — especially those who profess a commitment to protecting and preserving human life — to acknowledge that commitment is not limited solely to birth, but throughout our entire lives until natural death.
Francis’ statement merely echoed the teachings of his predecessors. In particular, St. John Paul II’s encyclical letter the Gospel of Life (1995) strongly emphasized that modern societies have the capacity to punish and isolate violent offenders by non-lethal means without resorting to killing them and denying them any hope of repentance. He argued that the instances where the use of the death penalty are justified “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
In opposing capital punishment, neither the pope, nor the church, are oblivious to the suffering of the victims of heinous crimes. Nor do we dismiss the grief and anguish of their families. The deep pain, grief and suffering of those who have lost loved ones to violence cry out for our care and attention. They deserve our support, our deepest compassion and our voices in the call for justice. However, more killing is not the answer.
The death penalty does not provide true healing for those who mourn, nor does it restore the loss of a loved one. It does not honor the victim’s memory, nor does it provide justice or redeem our suffering. It is not justice nor is it redemptive. Instead, the death penalty only further erodes our society’s respect for the sanctity of life. It coarsens our culture. It diminishes our humanity. It undermines our mercy.
Our moral condemnation of capital punishment — along with abortion, war, euthanasia and human trafficking — are drawn from the single core tenet of our faith: that God’s gift of life is sacred. That faith is not conditional, it is not what is merely politically expedient. Jesus — who was himself executed as a criminal by the state — taught us that life is sacred, and that all of us can pray for mercy and redemption for our sin through the promise of the Holy Spirit.
We live in an age in which we are constantly confronted with the atrocity of suffering and violence — often against those of faith. Our moral opposition to evil in the world, and our credibility as witnesses to the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person, is demonstrated when we unite our voices in rejecting the use of the execution.
This is especially critical in Texas, which is recognized around the world for the frequency at which we resort to capital punishment. So far this year the state has put four inmates to death. While we may be psychologically able to distance ourselves personally from the act of execution, we cannot escape that truth that in a democracy those executions are performed in our name.
By ending the use of the death penalty we would urge Christian leaders — especially those who are guided by their faith — to heed Francis’ call to abandon the culture of death in this state and embrace the culture of life.
THE MOST REV. PLÁCIDO RODRÍGUEZ, CMF, is the bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Lubbock and leader of 135,894 Roman Catholics in the area.