Matters of Life and Death

By August 1, 2019 One Comment

Just over a year ago Pope Francis directed that the Catechism of the Catholic Church (as every schoolchild knows, a summary of official Church teachings on a number of topics) be changed to reflect a “new understanding” regarding the death penalty:

    1. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

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.

Noted. We might note as well that, as Leonardo da Vinci put it, “everything connects to everything else.” (I’m told that da Vinci was doing a connect-the-dots picture when he said that. He loved connecting the dots. And big pictures.)

Last week Attorney General William Barr announced that the Federal Government would begin executing federal death row inmates and ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of five condemned men. The last time the federal government carried out an execution was in 2003.

Pause for civics refresher: There are two broad categories of justice in the United States: federal and state. Every state has its own laws and its own courts. The United States as a whole has its own (“federal”) laws and courts. For the most part, state law and federal law are independent of one another. Some crimes are federal crimes only. Some crimes are state crimes only. Murder is almost always a state crime, except in certain situations specified by federal law. OK? OK. (BTW, Sister asked me to mention that there may be a pop quiz, after recess.)

So let’s assume that our federal death row inmates are actually guilty of their terrible crimes. Let’s assume as well that they have neither regret nor sorrow. What’s the problem? The problem is that they remain human beings and as such they possess human dignity. That dignity was instilled in them by God, and it cannot be lost or given away. These are Gospel truths.

But it’s more complicated than that, and here comes the part where everything is connected to everything else. Broadly, in the United States there is one system of justice for wealthy white people and another for impoverished citizens of color. If you are poor or Black (especially), you’re more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be tried, more likely to be found guilty, more likely to spend time in prison, more likely to receive the death penalty, and more likely to be executed.* How about that? One issue of justice is connected to another, and to another, and to another….

A nation’s laws and policies reveal its character. As a nation we have either adopted or allowed others to implement increasingly hard and even brutal policies, targeting the most vulnerable among us. We’ve made life harder for those for whom life was already hard. These are not things to be proud of. Happily, they can be changed. Justice is possible.

As is redemption. The Church teaches that we ought not “deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.” That possibility is always there, right up until the end of someone’s life, and perhaps beyond. Because there is God, because this is God’s world, and because we are loved, we are given the chance to repent and make amends. No matter who, no matter what. That’s a good thing. It’s how God operates.

Now who’s beloved? You. U. Ewe. You.

*Embarrassing as they are, these are not opinions but readily-verifiable facts. They can be Googled. And for more on the topic, consider Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption(New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2014).


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