Q: What do you think about Pope Francis' recent edict on the death penalty? Sincere thanks and God's abundant blessings!
— S from Buffalo
A: Following the lead of his two predecessors but going further, Pope Francis has altered the Catechism of the Catholic Church to eliminate all doubts about the church's position on the death penalty. The Catholic Church is absolutely opposed to the execution of convicted murderers in all circumstances. The church previously allowed capital punishment if it was the only way to protect innocent people, but that argument has now been revoked. The opposition to capital punishment is part of what the church calls "a consistent ethic of life," from conception to death.
I have never written about the ethics of the death penalty before because I have never been asked, but it is one of the most deeply felt and complex moral issues of our time. You must make up your own mind, but in my opinion, these are the best arguments both for and against the death penalty:
Against the death penalty
•If you believe all life is sacred, that sanctity applies even to those who violate the sanctity of life by murdering others. We violate their sanctity of life by executing them.
•Incorrect convictions can be overturned and the unjustly incarcerated can be set free, but if the prisoner is executed and later is determined to be innocent, no correction is possible.
•Executions are acts of vengeance, not justice, because keeping a murderer off the streets and locked up for life is all that is needed to protect society. Killing the prisoner is excessive and vengeful.
•If God decided not to kill Cain, who had murdered his brother Abel, who are we to demand the execution of murderers?
•Many executions are botched, thus producing excessive and unjustified pain and torture.
•Lethal injections transform the healing profession of medicine into a death-producing agent of the state in executing prisoners.
•Most nations have banned capital punishment, and those nations that still employ it are often authoritarian and brutal nations.
For the death penalty
•If the sanctity of life is our highest value, those who take innocent life deserve to suffer the greatest punishment — death — not three meals a day and cable TV.
•DNA testing has made convictions more reliable, but the test a legal system must pass to be just does not produce 100 percent correct convictions. Furthermore, the death penalty makes the courts try harder to achieve a correct conviction.
•Murderers are society's predators, and society has no moral reason to pay for the upkeep of its predators.
•Capital punishment is an act of justice, not an act of vengeance. Vengeance is an emotional response that goes beyond the demands of justice. Capital punishment is the just consequence for the most heinous murderers.
•The Bible does support capital punishment in a variety of cases. Sparing Cain caused a 10-generation moral decline that produced the flood, so perhaps God repented for saving Cain. Perhaps God finally determined that humanity needed capital punishment to deter potential murderers. The permission for capital punishment in the Bible is quite clear. We read in Genesis 9:6, "Who so sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man."
•The majority of people still support capital punishment, and it is hard to believe that fair-minded people with good moral intuitions would favor something that is supposedly so immoral.
•Even such states as Israel that have banned capital punishment still employ it to punish mass murderers like Adolf Eichmann, who was convicted of Holocaust crimes. Our moral intuitions tell us that some murderers are so brutal they must be executed. Only if you would not have executed Hitler can you say that you are against capital punishment.
•The only way for a murderer to adequately atone for his or her sin of taking an innocent life is to forfeit his or her own life. Even if they are not repentant, they still must sacrifice the most because they have taken the most.
I could tell you which side I come down on, but then you would be deciding about me. In great moral issues, it is important that you decide about the moral questions — not the people who present them. I urge you to think about and pray about what laws we need to run our country in a way that protects us from predators, keeps our deepest values intact and does not transform us into a nation that cannot pursue justice because we are just too angry.