Justice Perspective: Death penalty is an attack on the dignity of the person

Tue, Oct 16th 2018 10:55 am
Catholic Relief Services

On Aug. 9, the state of Tennessee executed 59-year-old Billy Ray Irick, who had been sentenced to death 32 years ago. Irick was responsible for the death of 7-year-old Paula Dyer, who had been left in his care, and the details of his crime are not appropriate for this publication. It was a heinous and vicious act.

Irick was the 15 person executed in the U.S. since the beginning of the year, ranging in ages from 31 to 67, mostly from the South (although Texas has more than half), and about half white and half people of color, having spent anywhere from nine to 32 years on death row. Many of them were injected with lethal doses of the same drug used to euthanize dogs.

Just a week before Irick was executed, Pope Francis directed a change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that developed the teaching of the Church on the death penalty. In the prior language of paragraph 2267, the death penalty was permissible "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."

But the Catechism also noted that the "cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'" That last part of that paragraph was added at the direction of Pope St. John Paul II in 1997, who wanted the Catechism to agree with his teaching in his encyclical, "The Gospel of Life".

The language of the Catechism was unfortunately used by proponents of the death penalty to imagine more circumstances that would allow capital punishment than the Church intended. Pope Francis ordered a change in the language in order to make it definitively clear that the Church needed to be clear about our teaching.

Paragraph 2267 has now been completely rewritten so that Catholics can understand the following points about the death penalty:

First, the death penalty was long considered an appropriate, although extreme means of safeguarding the common good.

Second, there has been an "increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes" (emphasis added). The phrase "increasing awareness" indicates that there has been a development of doctrine in the Church on this issue. Our understanding, in light of the Gospel, has now developed to exclude the death penalty as a means of keeping the common good in all circumstances.

Third, the paragraph now reminds us that use of the death penalty would "definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption." Regardless of the severity of the crime, even a heinous and vicious crime like that of Irick, the guilty party is still entitled to the opportunity for redemption until the person's natural death. Execution is no longer seen as a possibly legitimate punishment for the most serious crimes, but instead focuses our attention on our respect for every human life - until natural death.

The very last section of the new paragraph 2267 tells the whole story: "Consequently, 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,' and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide."

What this means for us is that not only are we required to oppose the death penalty, but we must work for its elimination in our own country and around the world. This is a life issue, consistent with our opposition to abortion. We are compelled to speak with one voice in defending all life and dignity.  

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