By Bishop Joseph Kopacz
As the Mississippi’s Legislature debates and votes on the expansion of methods of execution in anticipation of the resumption of capital punishment, I respectfully submit the perspective and teachings from our Catholic faith that promote the abolition of the death penalty. We encourage and pray for a more comprehensive debate that calls into question our assumptions for the moral legitimacy of the death penalty in the state and in our nation in the 21st century.
If non lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority ought to limit itself to such means as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with dignity of the human person. Today the State, by rendering one who has committed the offense incapable of doing harm, without definitively taking away from him or her the possibility of redemption, the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity, are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267)
The Church’s opposition to the death penalty should not be seen as indifference to attacks on human life and the evil of murder, but as an affirmation to the sacredness of all life, even for those who have committed the most heinous of crimes. The Catholic Church in this country has spoken out against the use of the death penalty for many years.
Our Catholic faith affirms our solidarity with and support for victims of crime and their families. We commit ourselves to walk with them and assure them of God’s compassion and care, ministering to their spiritual, physical and emotional needs in the midst of deep pain and loss.
Our faith tradition offers a unique perspective on crime and punishment, one grounded in hope and healing, and not for punishment for its own sake. No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so. Today we have that capability. (Statement of Cardinal Sean O’Malley & Archbishop Thomas Wenski 07-16-2015)
It has been nearly a year since our Catholic community and many others suffered the tragic murders of Sister Paula Merrill, SCN, and Sister Margaret Held, SSSF, the nursing nuns, who served as PAs in Holmes County. This loss of life remains a tragedy for all who knew them, and especially for the poor whom the sisters served faithfully and lovingly for decades. However, throughout the funeral services, in the midst of their profound loss, the sisters’ families and both Religious Communities – the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis – stated time and again that they are opposed to the death penalty because it is a further assault against human dignity. To respond in this matter seems other-worldly, doesn’t it? This compassion arises out of the hope we know in the undying mercy of Jesus Christ, in the cross and resurrection, for this life and the next.
When dwelling on legal and moral arguments concerning the death penalty, we should do so not with vengeance and anger in our hearts, but with the compassion and mercy of the Lord in mind. It is also important to remember that penalties imposed on criminals always need to allow for the possibility of the criminal to show regret for the evil committed and to change his or her life for the better. The use of the death penalty cuts short any possibility of transforming the condemned person’s soul in this life. We do not teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill others. Saint Pope John Paul II has said the penalty of death is both cruel and unnecessary.
Likewise, the antidote to violence is not more violence. (O’Malley & Wenski)
As a society we have to approach the moral legitimacy of the death penalty with humility and integrity. Innocent men and women have been executed. This injustice cries out to heaven. States have released more than 150 in recent times who were wrongly accused. Likewise, far too many death sentences are inseparably linked to poverty, racism, drugs, and gangs that greatly diminish freedom and responsibility, sweeping young people down paths of violence. However, like Cain in the book of Genesis whose life was spared after he slew his brother Abel, those who murder have to pay the price of lifetime removal from society.
Crime and punishment are visceral realities in our nation, and a consensus on just laws is difficult to incorporate in a society as tumultuous and diverse as is this great land of ours. Too often we see reality “dimly as in a mirror” and because of this we ought to err on the side of life and the dignity of all human beings. We are not powerless. Reach out to the families of those afflicted by violent crime by bringing Christ’s love and compassion. Pray for the victims of crime, those facing execution, and those working in the criminal justice system. Visit those in prison as Jesus commands as a standard for our own salvation. Advocate for better public policies to protect society and end the use of the death penalty. (O’Malley & Wenski)
By Bishop Joseph Kopacz