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Shaping a culture of life: what about the death penalty?

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley         Aug. 21, 2016

High profile mishaps involving the execution protocols in our state as well as exonerations of death row inmates resulting from DNA evidence and/or new evidence have many people reconsidering their support of the death penalty.

Recently, The Oklahoman reported that the majority of Oklahomans now support replacing the death penalty with a sentence of life without the possibility of parole (The Oklahoman, Aug. 6, 2016). Our state, which has been reliably pro-life in supporting legislation to protect the unborn, has until quite recently been solidly supportive of the use of the death penalty. That may be changing.

What ought we as Catholics to make of this discussion? What guidance does the Magisterium of the Church offer to help the faithful to properly form our consciences on the often neuralgic subject of the death penalty?

The Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue affirms the sacredness of human life when it proclaims, “Thou shall not kill” (Ex.20:13). “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” asserts, “God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being” (CCC 2258).

What about those who are not innocent? From earliest times, Christian reflection has sought a fuller understanding of what this divine precept prohibits and allows. This need arises especially in light of the often tragic events that occur in the lives of individuals and societies as, for example, when we confront violent crime and acts of war and terror.

There are times when the values imposed by God’s Law seem to involve a paradox. This is evident when it comes to legitimate defense, including self-defense. The Church acknowledges the true right to defend oneself and indeed the duty to defend those for whom one is responsible from the actions of an unjust aggressor.

The state, too, which is responsible for protecting the good order of civil society and safeguarding the common good, has the duty to defend its people against unjust aggression and to punish aggressors in a way that is proportionate to the offense.

This is the context in which we ought to consider the question of the death penalty. The second edition of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” following the 1995 encyclical letter of Saint John Paul II, “The Gospel of Life,” does not exclude the possibility of the legitimate authority having recourse to the death penalty, assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined. But, it adds that this should be the final option, “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor” (CCC 2267).

In other words, the Church’s teaching puts very strict limits on the use of the death penalty. “If, however non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person” (CCC 2267).

The use of the death penalty, or capital punishment, could be legitimate under very narrowly circumscribed situations, specifically, if there is no other way to protect society. Given the means that the state has today to incarcerate offenders and protect society, the cases in which the execution of the offender is truly necessary are, in the words of Saint John Paul II, “very rare, if not practically non-existent” (Gospel of Life, 56).

Unfortunately, in many parts of the United States, the use of the death penalty has become quite commonplace. As we consider the rising tide of violence across our nation, the alarming number of innocent people found to have been mistakenly sentenced to death (one is too many), and the disproportionately high number of poor and minority prisoners who are on death row, we may well question whether there is any legitimate justification for the use of the death penalty today.

Our Church’s moral and social teachings offer sound guidance to help us navigate a way through these questions. For Catholics and others, this teaching shines the light of truth on many difficult matters. It gives sure guidance in fulfilling our responsibility to properly form our individual consciences.

It has value for society as a valuable contribution to the public conversation about whether we as Oklahomans want to retain a form of punishment that ratchets up the level of violence, is susceptible to misapplication and is corrosive of the values of our culture. Recent trends and statistics about the application of the death penalty as well as the alarming incarceration rates in our state point out the urgent need for criminal justice reform in our nation and in our state. What kind of culture are we shaping?