By: Ethan Starr
Over 2,800 Americans find themselves on death’s doorstep. They have not been overcome by powerful maladies, diminished by degenerative disease, or transferred to a hospice home to experience their last days. In only the first two months of 2018, U.S.’s self-inflicted plague has already counted three casualties from the cells of death row.
Following the first instance of murder in the Bible, Cain is not punished with the death penalty for killing Abel. He is instead banished from the community, provided with a mark of protection from God. Display of the Ten Commandments in courthouses and public property remains a popularly debated issue in the U.S., but the continuation of the death penalty by may proponents of the Commandments’ presence suggests they might have glossed over “thou shall not murder.”
What makes the administering of a lethal injection to a mass-murderer unjust? What possible value could the life of said criminal add to society if left alive? Is the punishment of death not simply an eye for an eye? Has Catholic teaching always denounced the death penalty as immoral and unnecessary? It is true that Augustine favors the option of condemning criminals to death, which he justified with a bulk of scripture they claimed might outweigh the Commandment in some cases. The modern Church, however, can more easily separate itself from criminal punishment, now that it is long removed from managing a large state of its own.
The simple, but stubborn fact remains: the death penalty violates the sanctity of human life. While celebrating Mass in St. Louis, Missouri in 1999, Pope John Paul II called for “followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of life in every situation.” Respect of the right to life remains an essential pillar of the Christian faith, and Catholics are called on to support life through the entirety of its duration. Doctors administering the death penalty are faced with a similar conflict with their sworn oath to heal, not to hurt.
In modern American society, there is no question there are already too many criminal offenders occupying the nation’s jails. If only dangerous murderers exchanged prison cells with non-violent drug offenders, then the penitentiary system would most certainly have the excess capacity to abolish the death penalty. As stated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, “No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.” The modern world does not resemble the Late Medieval one of Thomas Aquinas; today’s nations have the ability to avoid purging their inmates through widespread executions.
Abolishment of the death penalty is not only good governmental policy. It is also the Christian imperative of individuals administering the nation to take responsibility for the cultivation of a culture of life. The next time another reprehensible, criminal individual faces an assignment of execution, ask not whether the perpetrator deserves to die, but whether other men truly have the right to kill them.