The death penalty represents the failure of our modern society to fulfill the theological and moral demands of justice. Justice demands that society begin with the recognition that each human person is created in the image and likeness of God and must work in all its endeavors towards the benefit of the human person. (1) This respect for human dignity is the foundation for the Church’s vision of society and makes it necessary to “consider every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all their life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.” (2) This understanding of human dignity imposes both theological and ethical norms that define Jesus’ call to discipleship. As a model for living in the world, discipleship calls all to not only follow the teaching of Jesus, but to live in a way that makes the mercy of God known.
The state sanctioned execution of over 1400 people since 1977, as well as the nearly 3,000 people currently on death row, is an affront to our understanding of human dignity. In addition, by the 159 people and counting who have been exonerated due to their innocence since 1973 and the cruel and unusual effects arising from a botched execution demands that we end the death penalty and uphold the dignity of all life. The prolonged nature of the death penalty process can perpetuate the trauma for victims families and prevents the opportunity for healing and reconciliation called for in the message of Jesus Christ.
This challenge to extend radical mercy towards those on death row is evident in Jesus’s exhortation: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” (Jn 8:7). Within this encounter, the full demands of discipleship become clear. Righteousness is not achieved through upholding the law, but through our acts of mercy. True discipleship comes from our actions that lead the other to conversion and that allow our hearts to be open to God’s grace: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again,” (John 8:11). It is clear that mercy, particularly towards those in need of forgiveness, is not just an act of kindness but is at the heart of the gospel message.
The use of the death penalty denies our call to true discipleship. The teaching of the Church on this matter must be upheld: “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.” (3) The death penalty does not align with this understanding of human dignity and needs to be abolished in the United States.
(1) Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, Compendium of the Social Doctrine of The Church. 6th ed. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Publishing, sec 132.
(2) Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et spes. Vatican Website, December 7, 1965, sec 27.
(3) Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., sec 2267.