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Death penalty: Neither necessary nor defensible

Archbishop Wenski's column for August edition of Florida Catholic

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Governor Ron DeSantis — still in his first year of office — has signed his second death warrant. Barring any last-minute stays, convicted murderer Gary Ray Bowles will be executed by the state of Florida on August 22nd. Also, in late July, U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced that the death penalty, after a hiatus of almost two decades, would be reinstated by the federal government — and then he scheduled five people to be executed in coming months.

In recent decades, capital punishment has been abandoned or outlawed in most modern states: the exceptions being countries like Cuba, China, North Korean, Iran — and the United States of America.

Gary Ray Bowles and those awaiting execution by the federal government have been imprisoned for some years: Their crimes were committed decades ago. If the state has been able to protect society from these admittedly bad actors by keeping them locked up till now, why is it now necessary to execute them? Does society really make a coherent statement against killing by killing?

The argument has been made that the application of the death penalty represents the legitimate self-defense of society from an unjust aggressor, i.e. the murderer. And, historically, the Church has conceded the point that the state can rightly apply capital punishment when absolutely necessary; i.e. when otherwise impossible to defend society. There is, in Church teaching, no moral equivalence between the execution of the guilty after due process of law and the willful destruction of innocent life that happens with abortion or euthanasia. However, St. John Paul II pointed out in Evangelium Vitae (no. 56): Given the organization of today’s penal system and the option of imposing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, such an “absolute necessity” is “practically non-existent.”

Also, it is difficult to defend the “necessity” of executing someone when often his accomplice, in exchange for information or testimony, is given through plea bargaining a lesser sentence. And while some loved ones seek “closure,” it is hard to see how capital punishment as “social retribution” or “institutional vengeance” really serves the purpose of punishment which should be designed to redress the disorder caused by the offense. The death penalty cannot bring the victims back to life.

Even from a purely pragmatic or utilitarian point of view, the death penalty cannot be defended even as an effective deterrent to crime. Texas has executed more criminals than any other state; yet it still has one of the highest murder rates in the nation. And the death penalty is not cost effective. It costs the state less to imprison someone for the remainder of his natural life than to execute him. Given that it is irreversible, society has rightly provided that it be applied only after lengthy (and expensive) legal appeals. And, despite this, there are more than 400 documented cases of wrongly convicted persons executed in the U.S. during the last century.

Willful murder is a heinous crime; it cries to God for justice. Yet God did not require Cain’s life for having spilt Abel’s blood. While God certainly punished history’s first murderer, he nevertheless put a mark on him to protect Cain from those wishing to kill him to avenge Abel’s murder (cf. Gn 4:15). Like Cain, the condemned prisoner on death row — for all the evil of his crimes — remains a person. Human dignity — that of the convicted as well as our own — is best served by not resorting to this extreme and unnecessary punishment. Modern society has the means to protect itself without the death penalty.

The commutation to life imprisonment would serve the common good of all by helping break our society’s spiral of violence, for the “eye for an eye” mentality will just end up making us all blind. Earlier this year, Pope Francis reiterated the teachings of St. John Paul II that the “dignity of the human person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” Pope Francis placed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a reaffirmation that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’.”

Comments from readers

Josue Luis Hernandez - 08/15/2019 01:22 AM
Your Excellency, ...The right of the state to use the death penalty is unequivocally affirmed by the natural law, sacred scripture, tradition and the ordinary universal magisterium of the Church, which, according to The First Vatican Council, is infallible. In other words, it is an irreformable teaching of the Church. It's tragic to see the Holy Father and the USCCB now trying to change this and, by so doing, forcing the faithful into the awkward position of juxtaposing what is now being said by some of those in the hierarchy to what has always been taught by Holy Mother Church. But if what is being asked of us is to choose between one Pope and the USCCB, on the one hand, and every Doctor, Saint and prior Pope and Catechism on the other, then the choice quickly becomes quite clear and effortless. However, despite having clarity as to where our fidelity stands, it is, nevertheless, heartbreaking to have to endure watching as so many of our fellow Catholics, who lack such knowledge, wander directionless and confused like sheep without a shepherd. Further, do to lack of clarity on doctrinal questions such as these, it is often the case that strife and division arises between your faithful sons and daughters. It is for this reason that, in a spirit of filial love and respect, I ask Your Excellency to clarify and reaffirm the Church's teaching on this matter. We are in desperate need of courageous bishops who are willing to throw caution to the wind and proclaim the truth. May God grant you the courage to do so. ...Asking your Excellency's blessing, I am, Yours respectfully in Christ, Josue Luis Hernandez