The Best Kept Secret of Catholic Social Teaching: The Death Penalty is a Pro-Life Issue

Popes Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul II have urged U.S. and all other world leaders to end the use of the death penalty. The popes base their position on the dignity of every human being. As Pope John Paul said in his visit to the U.S. in 1999, “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” (St. Louis, MO, Jan. 27, 1999.)

Pope BenedictLikewise, Pope Benedict made this direct appeal to end the death penalty in 2011: “Together with the Synod members, I draw the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty and to reform the penal system in a way that ensures respect for the prisoners’ human dignity.” (After a Synod of Bishops in Benin, Africa, Nov. 19, 2011.)

These papal appeals have been made in recent years along with similar, strong statements issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) over the past 30 years. “Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life,” the bishops said, “including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others. The antidote to violence is love, not more violence.” (USCCB, Living the Gospel of Life, no. 22, 1998.)

Why has ending the death penalty, then, been the best kept secret among pro-life issues?

Some say: Since the moratorium on the use of the penalty in the U.S. ended in 1976 each state has been left to decide on its use. So the legal right to use the death penalty makes it morally right, in some minds. But the same thinking can be applied to the use of abortion and yet the millions of the Pro-Life movement, thankfully, have not been persuaded in this manner.

Looking at it another way: Is it somehow “politically correct” to value of the life of an innocent victim more than the life of a murderer? According to conventional wisdom, it is an easy “yes”. But too easily “politically correct” becomes an all-or-nothing point of view in which a murderer has forfeited any chance at life.

Related to this, is there something deep in the popular culture like revenge or the need for eye-for-eye retribution that drives us to execute, that makes us unforgiving and merciless when faced with a murderer? Yes: it is self-evident that people should be held accountable in proportion to their actions. But it’s not that simple. Or is it?

It seems that pop logic about the rightness of the death penalty makes it a “pro-death issue” for all too many people.

Death Penalty ProtestersTaken to another level of consciousness, is the death penalty at base racism? After all, the black population on the death rows of our country (42%) far out numbers their U.S. population (13%). And, 80% of executions take place in the former slave states of the Southern Region of the U.S., with only 1% of executions in the Northeast. Yet it must be said that racism alone doesn’t explain why over 90% of death row inmates are poor persons who could not afford their own attorney. There are no wealthy persons on death row, no matter what their race.

In truth, there is a constellation of prejudices embedded in the popular conscience that militates against viewing the death penalty as a pro-life issue of importance in the moral mainstream with abortion and other issues.

The Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty (CMN) has its work cut out for it! Launched in 2008 as a collaborative of the USCCB, CMN is missioned to proclaim Catholic social teaching on the death penalty and restorative justice as part of the spectrum of pro-life issues, along with abortion and euthanasia. Please go to the CMN website to sign up for our monthly e-newsletter and for downloadable resources and state-by-state news on repeal of the penalty:

Prejudices are harmful opinions. Once examined over against the facts, prejudices may be changed into life-giving beliefs. Not all persons are innocent but all persons are sacred: It is by this most basic belief in the sanctity of all life that the Catholic church — popes, bishops and laity, bases its social teachings and establishes “ending the death penalty” as a mainstream, pro-life issue.

Published in: on January 11, 2013 at 11:33 am  Comments (2)  

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  1. Yes, thanks to this writer for scratching the surface of an issue that has–to my mind and heart–the greatest potential to remediate our “popular conscience.” Irony rules here, as it so often does in human history. It is in the affirmation of dignity of the worst of us (not the most innocent) that we glimpse the human creature as our Creator must. Judgment is his.

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