The Holy Father has asked the Church to pray for a specific intention each month of this year. For September, the Pope asked that the faithful pray for the abolition of the death penalty in every country in the world.
Josh Raymond welcomed Father Matthew Spencer back to The Inner Life to answer the question of why the Church condemns the death penalty, and how we should think of capital punishment in regard to human life and dignity.
Josh and Father Matthew began by discussing Catholic social teaching (CST) and its foundation as a basis for how we should examine this issue. Josh suggested that one of the cornerstone passages for CST can be found in Matthew 22 when the Pharisees ask Jesus what the greatest commandment is. And, we know Jesus replies by saying that we should love the Lord our God with our whole being. And the second greatest commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. Those two things cover the basis of all human interaction.
But Father Matthew took CST’s foundations back even further, to Adam and Eve.
“I like to start at the creation of man and woman,” he said. “It is so clear in the book of Genesis and our whole tradition that we are made in the image and likeness of God, that we have qualities as creatures that no other creature has. We have intellect. We have a will. We have a capacity to be in a relationship with God that other creatures don’t have.”
As Christians, our dignity and our desire for love are rooted in our likeness to God. As reflections of God’s goodness, we should treat our neighbors as such. Of course, nobody is deserving of the love that we show for God, but we should recognize that every human being is a creature of His, and we are charged with treating them accordingly.
However, we do have to take into account the fact that human beings are imperfect. As imperfect beings, we will do sinful things. We will commit sins. Some of those sins fall in line with the law as illegal, especially grave sins. When someone does something wrong, in the eyes of God and/or the law, the question of justice comes into play. In the Old Testament, justice could be condensed into “An eye for an eye”. But after Christ, we see a universal emphasis on mercy. Even though some may try to forfeit their dignity and right to respect, Jesus asks us to forgive them anyway.
That’s not to say that justice takes a backseat. Committing acts of violence or killing in order to protect the innocent is not intrinsically wrong. And for many years even after Christ, capital punishment was not seen as an overt wrong. St. Augustine said that when it comes to the protection of others from a dangerous person or entity, in some cases, the death penalty is an option.
But with that perspective in mind, Church scholars for centuries have been trying to determine just what constitutes a grave enough case in which it is morally permissible. Where is the threshold between those who “deserve” the death penalty, and those who don’t? That’s the question. Who are we to determine where that line is? We don’t understand any person fully. Only God can.
As time has gone on, the Church has established much stronger positions against the death penalty, especially with our three most recent popes. Pope John Paul II was quoted as saying that capital punishment should be avoided except in “cases of absolute necessity”, which would be extremely rare and “practically non-existent”. Pope Benedict XVI said, “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.” (Africae Munus, 2011)
And Pope Francis has made it abundantly clear that he holds a similar opinion on capital punishment. In 2018, he changed the Catechism of the Catholic Church to eliminate any doubts about the Church’s position on the matter. The Church holds that the death penalty is wrong. And in Fratelli tutti, he emphasized this position. That is where we stand now. God is the first and last arbiter of life and death.
Some states and countries simply have not caught up to Catholicism on this issue. And that is why Pope Francis has asked us to pray that they do.
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