As part of our Faith Answering Questions message series, we received several questions from parishioners about the death penalty. Here is a response from our staff bulletin writer, Claire Kosewic.
The Roman Catholic Church has an “unconditionally pro-life” stance, which means that all human life must be protected, honored, and cherished as gifts from God. Although the issue of the death penalty has raised a great deal of debate among Catholics, the U.S Bishops, in a document entitled, A Culture of Life, argue that (i) God set a precedent in the Bible for the exercise of mercy towards those who commit heinous crimes, and (ii) the practice of the death penalty not only goes against Jesus’ most important commandment but negatively impacts all of human society.
In chapter four of the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve have two sons, Cain and Abel. Time passes, and both sons bring offerings to the Lord. For whatever reason, God looks with favor on Abel’s offering, but not Cain’s. Overwrought with anger and jealousy, Cain attacks Abel and kills him. Although he tries to deny it when God confronts him about the murder, Cain eventually admits his crime. Rather than condemning him to death, God shows mercy and allows Cain to live. He will have to live in exile, however, which will make him a target for others. In another act of mercy, God marks him with a special tattoo — a sign to all that Cain is protected by God, and that no one is ever to harm him.
The story of Cain and Abel sets a clear biblical precedent against the death penalty. Cain committed murder, one of the most abominable of all crimes, yet God acted with mercy towards him. We, too, must follow that example of unconditional love and forgiveness. No sin is too great to repent from, we are taught. And, rarely (if ever), does the act of taking another human life bring closure to those directly affected by the crime.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote, “No act, even an execution, can bring back a loved one or heal terrible wounds. The pain and loss of one death cannot be wiped away by another death. . . . We also share the . . . loss and heartache that are the result of unspeakable acts of violence. Our family of faith must care for sisters and brothers who have been wounded by violence and support them in their loss and search for justice. They deserve our compassion, solidarity, and support. However, standing with the families of victims does not compel us to support the use of the death penalty.”
Furthermore, they wrote, “When the State, in our names and with our taxes, ends a human life despite having non-lethal alternatives, it suggests that society can overcome violence with violence. The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those executed, but for what it does to all of society.” In supporting the death penalty, we support a culture of violence, hatred, and vengeance, not a culture of love, forgiveness, and compassion, as we are called to do in Jesus.
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