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What does the church say about the death penalty?

About a year ago in central Maine we had three mild earthquakes within a couple of months. They reminded us that our underpinnings are not static, that our planet is still evolving. At present, in the church we also sense a shifting and realigning of the tectonic plates that underlie our moral judgments about the death penalty.

Over the centuries, the church has repeatedly affirmed the state's right and duty to protect the common good by punishing and executing felons. As recently as in the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994), this traditional viewpoint is repeated, affirming "the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty" (no. 2266).

But our faith tradition always included the basis for a different view. In one moving gospel scene, Jesus is challenged to affirm that a woman caught in adultery should be executed. Instead, Jesus frees her from execution, not by disputing her guilt or challenging the enforcement process, but by shaming her judges (John 8:1-11). By implication, nobody is innocent enough to be an executioner.

The Incarnation by itself might imply a Christian perspective on capital punishment. Regard for human life is immeasurably heightened for those who believe that God became permanently and irreversibly human. Our treatment of others becomes our treatment of Jesus, and "As often as you executed ..." becomes unthinkable. Besides, the Jesus we follow experienced public execution himself. As people who reverence the instrument of execution as the sign of our salvation, we seem unlikely candidates for imposing the death penalty on anyone else.

Pope John Paul II has been a clear voice of mercy and forgiveness--toward his own would-be assassin, as well as on behalf of persons condemned to death. In 1995, just a few months after the catechism's publication, he acknowledged in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life) a "growing tendency" in the church and civil society to demand that the death penalty be restricted or abolished. The pope endorsed this attitude as "more in conformity to the dignity of the human person," and he spoke against execution "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 nonexistent."

In linking resistance to capital punishment with the dignity of the human person, the pope looks through the lens of justice more than compassion. The sacredness of human life is affirmed even in the person of a murderer. The life of the guilty must be honored along with the life of the innocent. All life issues are seen as interwoven in what Cardinal Joseph Bernardin liked to call a "seamless garment."

The catechism section cited above was officially modified to reflect the pope's comment. We are urged by the pope and the modified catechism to question whether the death penalty can any longer be justified.

And the seismic tremors continue.

JIM DINN, a freelance writer who assists parishes in the Diocese of Portland, Maine with catechetics and imitation programs.
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Author:DINN, JIM
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2000
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