From the Vatican Information Service:
Pope Francis: the death penalty is inadmissible
Vatican City, 20 March 2015 (VIS)- This morning the Holy Father received in audience a delegation from the International Commission against the Death Penalty. Below we offer extensive extracts from the letter the Pope gave to Federico Mayor, president of the Commission, to greet and offer his personal thanks to all the members of the aforementioned International Commission, the group of countries that lend their support, and all those who collaborate in its work.
“I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some reflections on what the Church contributes to the humanistic efforts of the Commission. The Church’s Magisterium, based on the Sacred Scripture and the thousand-year experience of the People of God, defends life from conception to natural end, and supports full human dignity inasmuch as it represents the image of God. Human life is sacred as, from its beginning, from the first instant of conception, it is the fruit of God’s creating action”.
“States kill when they apply the death penalty, when they send their people to war or when they carry out extrajudicial or summary executions. They can also kill by omission, when they fail to guarantee to their people access to the bare essentials for life. … On some occasions it is necessary to repel an ongoing assault proportionately to avoid damage caused by the aggressor, and the need to neutralise him could lead to his elimination; this is a case of legitimate defence. However, the presuppositions of personal legitimate defence do not apply at the social level, without risk of misinterpretation. When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of aggression, but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralised – they are already deprived of their liberty”.
“Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed. It is an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God’s plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance”.
“For the rule of law, the death penalty represents a failure, as it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice. … Justice can never be wrought by killing a human being. … With the application of the death penalty, the convict is denied the possibility of to [sic] repent or make amends for the harm caused; the possibility of confession, by which a man expresses his inner conversion, and contrition, the gateway to atonement and expiation, to reach an encounter with God’s merciful and healing justice. It is furthermore frequently used by totalitarian regimes and groups of fanatics for the extermination of political dissidents, minorities, and any subject labelled as ‘dangerous’ or who may be perceived as a threat to its power or to the achievement of its ends”.
“The death penalty is contrary to the sentiment of humanitas and to divine mercy, which must be the model for human justice. … There is discussion in some quarters about the method of killing, as if it were possible to find ways of ‘getting it right’. … But there is no humane way of killing another person”.
“On the other hand, life imprisonment entails for the prisoner the impossibility of planning a future of freedom, and may therefore be considered as a sort of covert death penalty, as they deprive detainees not only of their freedom, but also of hope. However, although the penal system can stake a claim to the time of convicted persons, it can never claim their hope”.
“Dear friends, I encourage you to continue with your work, as the world needs witnesses of God’s mercy and tenderness, and may the Lord Jesus grant the gift of wisdom, so that the action taken against this cruel punishment may be successful and fruitful”.
Some thoughts on the Holy Father’s remarks:
• Stating that the Magisterium, “based on the Sacred Scripture and the thousand-year experience of the People of God,” defends life is not an argument or even a solid basis for an argument that the death penalty is wrong, or immoral, or a “failure.” The Church has always taught that life is sacred—and has also taught that the death penalty is a legitimate act when carried out properly, especially in the context of retributive justice. And, actually, it can be argued (as St. Thomas Aquinas and plenty of others have stated) that such act of retributive justice actually reinforces the truth about the sacredness of human life.
• Saying, as the Pope does, that “the presuppositions of personal legitimate defence do not apply at the social level, without risk of misinterpretation,” is curious on two counts. First, the strongest and most relevant argument for the death penalty today is not due to legitimate defense (although it still has some application, if you consider the dangers certain inmates pose to prison guards or other inmates), but to retributive justice. In that regard, read “Catholicism and Capital Punishment,” by Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ. Secondly, appealing to the “risk of misinterpretation” is not helpful for the simple reason that nearly everything the Church teaches about, well, anything runs the risk of being misinterpreted. Shall we stop teaching about the Eucharist so that people won’t mistakenly think we are cannibals? Shall we stop teaching against the objective nature of homosexual acts so people won’t think we are mean-spirited homophobes?
Also, on the matter of misinterpretation, it is also possible that the Holy Father’s own strong stance against the death penalty might be misunderstood, harkening back to a very important point made by Cardinal Dulles:
Many governments in Europe and elsewhere have eliminated the death penalty in the twentieth century, often against the protests of religious believers. While this change may be viewed as moral progress, it is probably due, in part, to the evaporation of the sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice, all of which are essential to biblical religion and Catholic faith. The abolition of the death penalty in formerly Christian countries may owe more to secular humanism than to deeper penetration into the gospel.
• “Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed. It is an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God’s plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance”.
Does the Holy Father overstate the case here? Are a sense of true justice and authentic proportion not “just objectives”? I do wonder. My concern is that Francis goes beyond even what John Paul II and Benedict XVI have said about capital punishment, keeping in mind that those two popes were hardly pro-death penalty—quite the contrary.
• Francis states, “Justice can never be wrought by killing a human being…” Never? Is that a correct presentation of what the Tradition teaches? I honestly wonder.
• “With the application of the death penalty,” says Francis, “the convict is denied the possibility of to [sic] repent or make amends for the harm caused…” This is truly puzzling, because if a man is convicted and sentenced to execution, he most certainly is able to repent (a point emphasized by Aquinas). Shouldn’t we also note that when a man murders his wife, or a mother drowns her daughter, they have most certainly denied the victims of their ability to repent of sins and to be made right with God? Meanwhile, the Tradition recognizes that his death can indeed fulfill the requirements of justice. That is distinct from the question of whether or not the death penalty should be used, especially in a society in which most people, apparently, have no clear sense of what justice really is.
• “It is furthermore frequently used by totalitarian regimes and groups of fanatics for the extermination of political dissidents, minorities….” Sure, but we are talking here about the prudential and just use of the death penalty, not the murderous acts of dictators that rely on misapplication or misinformation. This is rather circular: since totalitarian regimes are bad, they use the death penalty, and so the death penalty is bad because totalitarian regimes are bad. Yet totalitarian regimes misuse language and communications, so using language and books to communicate must be bad, right? No, of course not, for we recognize that the abuse of language (lying, for example) is wrong precisely because it is an abuse of a morally neutral thing or tool.
• “On the other hand, life imprisonment entails for the prisoner the impossibility of planning a future of freedom, and may therefore be considered as a sort of covert death penalty, as they deprive detainees not only of their freedom, but also of hope. However, although the penal system can stake a claim to the time of convicted persons, it can never claim their hope.”
Logically, then, if the death penalty “is inadmissible,” and if life imprisonment is, essentially, a form of the death penalty, then life imprisonment is also inadmissible, and those who wish to abolish the death penalty must also seek to abolish life imprisonment. I’m not sure how else to interpret the statement. And, further, says Francis, while the “covert death penalty” of life imprisonment deprives detainees (i.e., murderers, rapists, etc.) of hope, it can “never claim their hope”. Honestly, I’m not sure what that means since if you have the ability to deprive a man of X, you have indeed claimed X, at least in the sense of keeping it from the man.
• Finally: “….so that the action taken against this cruel punishment may be successful and fruitful”. Frankly, the use of “cruel” here is bothersome simply because it strikes me as another circular (and even sentimental) argument: the death penalty is cruel because it is wrong, and it is wrong because it is cruel. Meanwhile, the real issue at hand is the nature of justice and the purpose of punishment, and the relationship of the two to mercy, especially within the social order. Those are difficult questions, without doubt, and ones that require measured examination and considered argument.
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