A matter of human dignity

It fascinates me. Of all the industrialized, democratic nations in the Western world, all of which have Christian roots and with laws generally drawing from Christian values, the United States alone accepts capital punishment. 

This rigidity in U.S. law is not surprising. This is a democracy. Every poll of public opinion shows that, while many Americans oppose the death penalty, more support the practice, and moreover they support with some feeling. 

It is amazing that so many Catholics accept capital punishment, including those who are outspokenly pro-life and who hold Blessed Pope John Paul II in great esteem. 

The matter of high regard for Pope John Paul, and now for Pope Benedict XVI, is intriguing. Both pontiffs have looked upon the death penalty with some considerable reservation. 

What exactly is the Catholic teaching about the death penalty? States and governments have the right to execute anyone who presents a grave threat to people. This right is not absolute and unqualified, however. 

It presupposes fair and just laws, and fair and just courts. It also presupposes that “if, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the conditions of the common good and more inconformity with the dignity of the human person” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2267). 

So, it is not a question about basic rights, but rather when circumstances are such that these rights may be exercised. 

People will argue about whether or not “non-lethal means” actually protect the innocent. It is not an unreasonable question, but it is interesting that so many people almost will split hairs to say that all other means of responding to serious crimes are inadequate. 

Here the wider view of the Church, and of the Gospel, comes into the discussion. The Catechism touches on the fundamental point. It is the dignity of human life. This point in the end prompts the Church’s denunciation of abortion, although abortion differs from capital punishment, in that in abortion an innocent life violently is ended, while with the death penalty, presumably, the life of a person who has committed a serious crime is taken. 

With this difference between abortion and capital punishment admitted, the point still remains about the dignity of human life. The retort, of course, is that the human dignity of a victim of serious crime has been abused. It has. 

Executing the perpetrator, however, does nothing to restore whatever the victim lost. Furthermore, it is a stretch to say that capital punishment deters crime, at least on any wide scale. Revenge is completely out of the question for Christians. 

Trying to return to victims what may have been lost by crimes committed against them, if this is possible, should involve what actually returns what was lost. Perhaps other measures would help in this regard. Our policies should address the causes of crime. 

If human dignity, and human life, are as important as the Church teaches, and they are, then our laws, and our attitudes, at least should require that the death penalty be used as the very last resort, and that the last resort be defined honestly and dispassionately. 

All too many Americans have almost a knee-jerk reaction about the death penalty, that it is to be preferred somehow regardless, and that only its implementation will safeguard the lives and rights of the population. Nothing proves this. 

Give life the benefit of the doubt. Proclaim the dignity of life, as have our popes, in their teachings and in their constant appeals for the condemned. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.