Monday, October 26, 2015

Let's Talk About the Death Penalty

Well, I got way far behind in blogging, and I meant to write this at the beginning of the month, but you know how life is! Adventures are out there, crazy things happen, and blog posts can slip by the wayside. But here I am, to talk with you today about the death penalty. This is a hot topic right now in Oklahoma, especially with controversies about botched executions and the case of Richard Glossip's innocence or guilt. I had never thought much about the death penalty when I was younger, because it seemed like something that never really happened, and didn't have much of an impact on my own life. Well, since moving to Oklahoma, I've come to realize that the death penalty does happen, and it impacts everyone, no matter where you may live. As Catholics, as Christians, as people, we have a responsibility to discuss this issue. I mean, the lives of other human beings are at stake!

What does the Catholic Church teach on the death penalty? Well, the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it very succinctly:
Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. 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 to the dignity of the human person.  Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." (CCC 2267)
I want to direct your attention to a few key elements in this passage: 

The Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty IF this is the only way of effectively defending human lives. (For those interested, Avery Cardinal Dulles does an intense job going through the history of the death penalty)

If non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to those means. 

Today, the cases in which the execution of an offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.  

Okay, but isn't this just something a dusty old book says? Can we really apply these principles to say that the death penalty should not be used in our modern society? 

The great and awesome Pope St. John Paul II once wrote: "Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform." (Evangelium Vitae 27)

And now let's look at what Pope Francis has said, because he's pretty awesome, and he's our current pope. What did Pope Francis say in March of 2015?  
“Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed. It is an offence against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God's plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance." 
 And he also talked about this in his recent address to Congress: 
"This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes. Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation."
Pope Francis also opposed the recent execution of Kelly Gissendanner, and appealed for clemency before her death. 

Cell LL, the isolation cell in Oklahoma where an inmate stays for the 35 days
prior to his or her execution. 
It's easy to read through statements that a different popes have said or that the Catechism includes, but it's hard to put it into practice. Not only do we need to discuss the principles of the Church and the death penalty more often, but we need to pray for the grace to open our hearts and minds to receive this message. 

Recently, I watched Dead Man Walking for the first time at a recent young adult gathering in my parish. (I highly recommend this powerful movie!) In it, Sr. Helen Prejean (played by Susan Sarandon) visits the family of one of the young people who had been murdered. Their view of the killer? "He's a monster!" I personally know a person who echoed this exact sentiment regarding a person condemned to death row, and I'm sure that there are many other people who share this view.

When tragedy strikes, and another person does something morally reprehensible and awful, it is temping to dehumanize that person, isn't it? When a man or woman is in charge of a murder-for-hire situation, or when he or she rapes, kills, and tortures a child, we are rightly horrified--and we can cease to see the person. My friends, no matter hard it is, we can never, ever, cease to recognize the human person and his or her dignity. No matter what evil a person has committed, we can never say that he or she is now a "monster" with no shot of redemption or dignity. So please pray for yourself and others, that we all receive the grace and strength to let love and mercy infuse all of our actions. 

Wouldn't this be a better path than that of death? Furthermore, from a practical economic standpoint, the death penalty is much more costly than sentencing a prisoner to life in prison without parole. There are a variety of reasons behind this high cost, such as the attorneys and experts needed in death row cases. In fact, in the book Now I Walk on Death Row: A Wall Street Finance Lawyer Stumbles Into the Arms of a Loving God (also highly recommend), author Dale Recinella talks about the whole business behind the industry of the death penalty. So much money is involved, it blows my mind! Couldn't we use that money for other needs, like improving prison systems or the ReMerge program

Let us pray for the faith, trust, and grace necessary to open our minds and hearts to God's mercy. In the movie Dead Man Walking, Sr. Helen Prejean claims that "It's work." For some people, the path of forgiveness and humanity might be less work, for others, it could be more work. Even though this journey is not easy, God is with us, helping and strengthening us as we grow in mercy and love. 

"In turning away form the use of the death penalty, we do not withdraw any measure of our support and concern for the victims of heinous crimes, nor the families of murder victims. They deserve our support and await justice. But, taking the life of a guilty person does not restore the loss of a loved one, nor does it honor their memory. The death penalty only further erodes our respect for the sanctity of life. It coarsens our culture and diminishes our humanity." (Archbishop Paul Coakley)

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