Time now to abolish the death penalty
In 1972, the California State Supreme Court, in California
v. Anderson, ruled the application of capital punishment to be unconstitutional,
on the basis that it violated Article 1, Section 6 of the California Constitution,
which forbade the imposition of “cruel or unusual punishments.”
Among the more frequent arguments proposed for this most severe punishment
is that it acts as a deterrent to violent crime. However, if we assess
what has transpired in our state over the last nearly 40 years, it should
be clear that violent crime is still alive and well. And yet, rhetoric
about “getting tough on crime” even still usually boils down
to meaning more severe sentencing, and even the most severe of all: execution.
I won’t go into the gruesome details of what actually happens in
an execution; suffice it to say that there is a basis in fact for this
assertion. However, a death penalty free California did not last very
long, as later that same year the people of California voted to reinstate
capital punishment by putting it into the state constitution. Surveys
indicate that public opinion is shifting once again on this subject, with
more and more people expressing unease with it. In fact, it is likely
that Californians will again have a chance to vote on this issue, as it
is projected that an initiative to repeal the death penalty will qualify
for the ballot in next November’s election.
Violent crime is a serious problem with complex origins, such as grinding
poverty, inadequate education, drug abuse and trafficking and broken families
— most especially, fatherlessness. Thus, we should avoid simplistic
For good reason, all of the popes in our lifetime who have pronounced
on this issue, and many national conferences of bishops, have favored
abolishing the application of the death penalty. In Evangelium Vitae (“The
Gospel of Life”), Pope John Paul II articulated the basic rationale
It is clear that . . . the
nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided
upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except
in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible
otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements
in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if
not practically non-existent.
John Paul’s teaching here simply applies to society as a whole the
principle of legitimate self-defense, which always requires using the
minimum force necessary to protect oneself against an unjust aggressor.
If society can effectively protect itself against violent criminals by
not putting them to death — that is, applying the sentence of life
imprisonment without the possibility of parole — then that is the
measure which must be taken.
U.S. bishops issue letter
In 2005, the U.S. bishops issued their own pastoral letter on this controversial
subject, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death. It laid out a number
of reasons for opposing its use, such as: it is deeply flawed in that
it is irreversible if the conviction is later found to be wrong; it is
prone to errors; it is biased by such factors as race, where the crime
was committed and the quality of legal representation (and thus the income
level of the accused, i.e., wealthy people do not get executed).
Moreover, even the families of victims of some death row inmates recognize
the futility of seeking to redress the wrong done by taking the life of
the offender. One such outspoken critic is Bud Welch, whose daughter Julie
was killed in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. As he puts it: “My
conviction is simple: more violence . . . will not
bring Julie back. More violence only makes our society more violent.”
One could argue that, unlike abortion, capital punishment is not an intrinsic
evil because it does not involve the killing of an innocent human being,
and therefore its use can be serenely allowed.
However, while the premise is true — capital punishment is not an
intrinsic evil — the conclusion does not follow so readily. Yes,
in principle it does not take an innocent human life, but this points
precisely to its most serious flaw: that nagging problem of irretrievability.
According to the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics,
since the 1970s more than 120 death row inmates have been exonerated of
their capital crimes. It is hard enough to restore justice to such people
while they are still alive; obviously, it is impossible after they have
been put to death.
It can also be argued that, historically, the Church has permitted the
execution of serious criminals. In keeping with the principles of legitimate
self-defense, though, this was at a time and in circumstances when execution
was deemed the only sufficient means possible to protect society in particular
But as Pope John Paul affirmed in the quote cited above, “Today . . . such
cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” This has
been the consistent judgment of popes and bishops for a very long time
now, and why the bishops of California favor the repeal of the death penalty.
So, while Catholics may in good conscience come to a different judgment
under the proper conditions, they cannot do so without first diligently
studying the teachings of the popes and the bishops on this question and
then seriously and objectively weighing them in light of all of the circumstances
facing us in our society here and now.
Studies on the changing attitudes of Catholics toward this issue indicate
that the more our people do so, the more they come to the same conclusion
we bishops and many others have: repeal of the death penalty better contributes
to a culture of life, to affirming human dignity, and to promoting fairness
and justice for all.