BISHOP JAMES WALL: The three most recent popes have condemned the death penalty . . .
by Bishop James Wall
Pope St. John Paul II gave the Church a great gift on April 30, 2000, when he made the Sunday after Easter the Feast of Divine Mercy.
In his 1980 encyclical Dives in Misericordia, he wrote, “Mercy differs from justice, but is not in opposition to it … Love, by its very nature, excludes hatred and ill-will” (#III, 4).
The struggle to harmonize justice and mercy is central to understanding the use of the death penalty, recently rekindled by Pope Francis. In his March 20, 2015, letter to the president of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, he affirmed what his predecessors have taught.
Confusion enters in when the different principles are seen as irrelevant to each other, rather than what they really are — small pieces of a larger whole. We must hold fast to justice, but never twist justice into an excuse to cling to anger and hatred.
John Paul taught in Evangelium Vitae: “The Gospel of life is at the heart of Jesus’ message” (#1). Central to our Lord’s proclamation is the truth, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (Jn 10:10). The dignity of the human person is neither earned nor awarded, but was given as a gift from God when he created us in his own image and likeness.
Because it’s given by God, no human being — not even by their sinfulness — can destroy human dignity and the accompanying right to being acknowledged and treated as human persons. This is why John Paul, when preaching on the sanctity of life in St. Louis in 1999, took the opportunity to address the use of the death penalty: “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” This teaching was confirmed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2006: “Every human life … deserves and demands always to be defended and promoted.”
The death penalty is, in principle, legitimate. However, a legitimate principle and its legitimate application are two distinct things. This is what Evangelium Vitae teaches us: The purpose of punishment is to redress a disorder, to defend public order, and hopefully to heal the criminal (#56). It is not permission for hatred. The Gospel teaches that we are called to love our enemies, not simply those who used to be our enemies. Thus, we read that the death penalty is a last resort “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (Evangelium Vitae, #56).
Not only is the necessity, practically speaking, non-existent, but Pope Francis reminds us in his March 20 letter that with the death penalty comes the end of the chance to reform. “With the application of capital punishment, the person sentenced is denied the possibility to make amends or to repent of the harm done; the possibility of confession, with which man expresses his inner conversion; and of [the possibility] of contrition , the means of repentance and atonement, in order to reach the encounter with the merciful and healing love of God.” We need to love all of our brothers and sisters, and love them not simply for a brief moment of time, but aid them to eternal life.
This is why John Paul urged the complete cessation of the death penalty and lauded those working for the end of capital punishment. Pope Benedict taught the same, just as Francis continues to do.
In the Diocese of Gallup, Sr. Elizabeth Racko, DC, leads the ministry to those who are incarcerated. Her ministry is to prisoners in Arizona and New Mexico. In 2009, New Mexico abolished the use of the death penalty, while Arizona still has the use of it. “I am not only against the death penalty for the sake of the life of the inmate, but also for the sake of the moral life of our society in the United States,” she said.
When we consider the validity of the use of the death penalty, we must always call to mind those who have been affected by the crimes committed: the victims, their families and the perpetrators. As a people of faith, from a distinctively Catholic perspective, we must first turn to the Merciful Father, imploring him to shower us with his mercy. We pray for a transformation of our culture from one of death to one that seeks to promote the gifts and values of the Gospel of Life — the culture that our Lord came to offer to all people.
BISHOP JAMES WALL leads the Diocese of Gallup, N.M. He is the former chaplain of Legatus’ Phoenix Chapter.