Catholic Social Teaching and the Death Penalty
United States 20.12.2020 Susan Sharpe, Ph.D., adattato per CST Translated by: Jpic-jp.org
Rooted in both scripture and the rich tradition of our faith, Catholic Social Teaching (CST) is a guide for how to live as a people of justice and mercy. CST brings the teachings of Jesus and his call to discipleship to the larger societal conversation of social justice. CST has seven major themes: Dignity of the Human Person; Call to Family, Community, and Participation; Rights and Responsibilities; Preferential Option for and with People who are Poor; Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers; Solidarity; Care for God's Creation.
Regarding the death penalty, the first and foremost aspect of the Church’s teaching is the belief in the inherent dignity of the human person as created in the image and likeness of God. Our Catechism states (n° 2267), in a modern society where the death penalty is not needed to maintain public safety, punishment must “correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and [be] more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”
The death penalty stands in violation of the dignity of the human person.
The human person, made in the image and likeness of God, is the foundation of a moral vision for society and stands at the heart of the Church’s understanding of justice. “In our times a special obligation binds us to make ourselves the neighbor of every person without exception […] recalling the voice of the Lord, "As long as you did it for one of these the least of my brethren, you did it for me" (Matt. 25:40 / GS 27). The death penalty disregards this inherent dignity of the human person.
- We are called to be a people of life. As Catholics, we believe in a consistent ethic of life, from conception to natural death; the sanctity of the human person cannot be diminished. "Where life is involved, the service of charity must be profoundly consistent. It cannot tolerate bias and discrimination, for human life is sacred and inviolable at every stage and in every situation; it is an indivisible good. We need then to show care for all life and for the life of everyone” (Evangelium vitae, 87). The death penalty violates this consistent ethic and does not conform to our pro-life teaching.
- The death penalty threatens innocent life. Despite our best efforts, our criminal justice system is not perfect. According to a 2014 study, at least 4% of those sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. 161 people have been exonerated since 1973 and for every nine people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 1 person has been exonerated after being proven innocent. “The deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule [The principle of treating others as you want to be treated], and to the holiness of the Creator.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2261).
Who are we executing?
- The death penalty disproportionately affects people of color. More than half of the people on death row in US are people of color. Black or Latino defendants are significantly more likely to get the death penalty than their white counterparts are. The race of the victim of a crime often plays a role in the use of the death penalty. Nationally, almost half (47%) of all murder victims since the 1970s have been black. Yet, for cases ending in a death sentence, only 17% of murder victims have been black, and at least 60% of the 161 exonerees are either black or Latino.
- The death penalty affects those living in poverty. Almost all death row inmates were unable to afford their own attorney at trial. Court-appointed attorneys often lack the experience necessary for capital trials, are overworked, and underpaid. This often results in poorly handled cases where mitigating factors and tools such as DNA evidence, severe mental illness, or Intellectual Disability may not be brought up.
- Those with Intellectual Disability and Severe Mental Illness are some of the most vulnerable in society, and those most affected by the death penalty. These individuals must overcome societal barriers to daily living and are much more likely to become victims of crime and at special risk for wrongful conviction. In 2002, the death penalty for persons with Intellectual Disability was determined unconstitutional, yet those with serious intellectual disabilities are still sentenced to death and executed. In 2017 alone at least 20 of the 23 people executed (87%) had evidence of mental illness, intellectual disability, brain damage or severe trauma.
Call to Family, Community, and Participation
We encounter God in our encounters with one another. How we organize our society - in economics and politics, in law and policy - directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. All people have a right and a duty to participate in society, and we are all responsible for working together as one for the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable. The death penalty sacrifices the good of the community to serve the needs of vengeance and retribution.
- The death penalty does not make society safer. Over 85% of the nation’s top criminologists believe the death penalty is not a deterrent and only re-directs vital resources away from addressing the real cause of crime. In fact, in many states where the death penalty has been abolished the murder rate has fallen significantly.
- The death penalty costs more than non-capital cases. More than a dozen states have found that death penalty cases are up to 10 times more expensive than comparable non-death penalty cases. These taxpayer dollars could be spent attending to the needs of victims of crime and addressing issues as to why people commit crimes in the first place.
- The death penalty is arbitrarily isolated to only a small geographic area. Roughly two percent of the US's counties have produced both a majority of all executions imposed since 1976 (52 percent) and of prisoners awaiting execution on death row (56 percent). In 2017, four states (Texas (7), Arkansas (4), Florida (3), and Alabama (3) carried out 74% of the 23 executions held that year. The determination of a death sentence can be as arbitrary as the county in which you commit a crime.
- As community members, we must work to end the death penalty. The principle of subsidiarity reminds us that functions of government should be performed at the lowest level possible, as long as they can be performed adequately. CST calls us all to take active and responsible participation in the way our communities function. The laws, systems, and processes of government should reflect our call to live justly and uphold the dignity of all people. It is our responsibility to speak out for the inherent value of all life and demand an end to the death penalty, “The State and other agencies of public law must not extend their ownership beyond what is clearly required by considerations of the common good properly understood, and even then there must be safeguards,” (Mater et magistra, 117).
We are one human family whatever our national, racial, ethnic, economic, and ideological differences, and are called to be our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers. This means that no matter what wrongs a person may commit or what experiences their lives bring, we are called to live in a pursuit of justice and peace. The death penalty denies our call to solidarity by ignoring the pain and harm caused by violence.
- The death penalty does not bring healing to victim's families. The necessarily long, complex death penalty trial process can force these families to re-live their trauma and pain. This costly process diverts money and resources from needed services for victims’ families. For many victims’ families the loss of another life is not the answer: “Pursuing the death penalty would not be the way we would want to honor our daughter’s life, nor would that decision have helped us deal with the painful reminders of her unfulfilled hopes and dreams,” (Vicki Schieber, CMN Speaker). As Catholics, we are called to care for these victims’ families, to bear witness to their experiences, and allow them to heal from the harm they have experienced, not create more victim’s family members with the death penalty.
See the original article Catholic Social Teaching & Restorative Justice and Catholic Social Teaching and the Death Penalty