Putting the Death Penalty to Death and the Right to Life

Barb Wire

A March 5, 2015 joint editorial in America magazine displayed a growing solidarity among divergent groups of Catholic Christians on the dignity of every human life, including the lives of men and women who are incarcerated for capital offenses.

The editorial included the leadership of America Magazine, the National Catholic Register, the National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor. The united witness concerning this commendable position was encouraging. It is also reflective of a growing trend which crosses confessional and political lines.

Last summer, I was pleased to read of the efforts of Richard Viguerie to gather political conservatives together to oppose the death penalty. I have long admired Viguerie. I first met him many years ago at a retreat. I honor his sincere and tireless efforts on important policy issues over many years and both admire and share his genuine Catholic Faith.

A May 24, 2014 article by Leon Neyfakh in the Boston Globe entitled The conservative case against the death penalty is an excellent read. It made me aware of the efforts of Richard Viguerie to organize political conservatives to oppose the death penalty.

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Let me state very clearly, I oppose the death penalty – always have and always will. It is a part of my deep abiding commitment to holding a consistent ethic of life. However, in my ministry across Christian confessional lines, and in the outreach to the culture, I well understand that some Christians do not share my conviction. Among them, some fellow Catholic Christians.

During all the years that I have fought on the front lines of the pro-life cause, I have been uncomfortable with being labeled. I never even officially registered Republican-though the other major party’s love affair with the autonomous self and the so-called abortion right, forced me to leave the ranks of the Democrats long ago.

Abortions have no rights, people do – and the first right is the fundamental human right to life.

I am a Catholic Christian. I embrace what my Church teaches because I believe that it is true. I returned to the Catholic Church as a young man. I love my Church and I stand in fidelity to her teaching office. I often say I am a Christian by Baptism but a Catholic by choice.

However, let’s be clear; Catholic teaching opposing the death penalty is predicated upon a very different moral ground than the Church’s absolute opposition to procured abortion. I think that difference is an important one to understand. It also helps in our work with other Christians.

Procured abortion is intrinsically evil, always and everywhere wrong because it is the taking of innocent defenseless life in the first home of the whole human race, the womb. Catholic teaching opposes the death penalty for other reasons; it can no longer be justified.

In considering this human rights issue we are not dealing, at least presumably, with the death of the innocent.

The Catholic Church opposes capital punishment, the lethal punishment inflicted by the State, because bloodless means of punishment are readily available – and the proper concern for the real common good no longer requires its use for the protection of the public.

In a civilized Nation, mercy should trump justice when the common good is not threatened

In other times in history, and in other circumstances, the Catholic Church did not formally oppose the death penalty. In fact, it was supported as within the purview of the State. However, there has always been a tradition against its use within a certain stream of Catholic thought.

In my work I am often asked my personal opinion as to whether the possibility exists wherein its use may once again be considered justified. I used to say it was highly unlikely. However, given the utter evil which some of our brethren are suffering at the hands of the Islamic State and a growing alphabet soup of Islamist Jihadists in the Middle East and the North of Africa, the issue is now more than a hypothetical question.

However, I am addressing the issue of the death penalty from the vantage point of a Western Christian, still living with some vestige of civility and public order in the polity.

The contemporary opposition to capital punishment by the Catholic Church, what I call a merciful approach, is clearly affirmed in the Catholic Catechism:

“If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity with the dignity of the human person” (CCC, n. 2267).

In fact, the Catechism was amended to emphasize that the continued contemporary use of capital punishment adds to the growth of what St. John Paul II labeled the Culture of Death.

In his prophetic encyclical letter entitled “The Gospel of Life” (Evangelium Vitae) John Paul vividly exposed contemporary culture as a Culture of Death – having lost its understanding of the inviolable dignity of every human life. Calling abortion the cutting edge of the Culture of Death he drew a connection to the contemporary use of executions, warning the State that in implementing their role of applying justice:

“the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, 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” (The Gospel of Life n. 56).

The language is strong and clear.

I have always found it intriguing that we have examples of significant leaders in both the Old and the New Testament who could have been put to death for their offenses. Moses killed an Egyptian (Exodus 2). Saul of Tarsus stood by in what was arguably complicity at the death of Stephen the Deacon. (Acts 8)

But there is so much more at issue. I know them through experience.

As a former prosecutor, I believe there are many reasons to justify its elimination from both Federal and State criminal justice systems. In addition, our history as a Nation demonstrates a disparate application. The advance of the science of DNA continues to prove that we have made mistakes and convicted innocent people.

From a regular stream of news reports we are reminded that errors are made in prosecutions. The stories from the Innocence Project should be enough to give us all pause.

There is a growing discomfort with the death penalty in America – and it crosses all confessional and political lines. Capital Punishment is an issue where the labels have most assuredly lost what little value they might have ever had.

Sadly, in what seems to be a misguided effort to lower the crime rate which is unsupported by the statistics, both Democrats and Republicans seem to be “out-toughing” one another on this issue these days.

Ironically, some contemporary political liberals or progressives who oppose the death penalty fail to see the extraordinary duplicity in their approach on their approach to children in the womb. They should listen to their own arguments in their opposition to the death penalty – and reconsider their position on the issue of procured abortion.

Some leaders in the left wing of the civil rights community, like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, know the complete hypocrisy of their approach. He was formerly an ardent opponent of making procured abortion legal, until his political ambitions blinded him to the cry of the ones whom Mother Teresa called the “poorest of the poor”, children in the womb.

Then there are some political conservatives who suffer from what I call compassion confusion. They oppose the execution of innocent children in the womb but support the execution of convicted felons outside of it, without reservation.

On their right flank are their new-found friends, some of the self-identified political libertarians who support both kinds of execution. However, not all self-identified political libertarians support legal abortion or capital punishment. The label seems to be in the process of some form of political evolution.

Even some of my well-intended Christian friends, especially my Catholic brethren, who correctly and compassionately oppose both abortion and capital punishment, fail to make the vital distinction necessary as to the foundation for the opposition of Catholic Christian teaching to killing the pre-born – and the current approach to executing capital offenders.

It is time for a National discussion of the death penalty, for many reasons. However, it is long past time to end legalized procured abortion.

The child in the womb is our innocent neighbor in the first home of the whole human race. Medical science confirms what our consciences long ago attested to, there is no justification for taking the innocent life of our first neighbors in the first home of the whole human race.

Defending the fundamental human right to life of children in the womb is not simply a religious position. It is a fundamental human rights position. The Natural Moral Law, written on every human heart and knowable through the exercise of reason, affirms this undeniable truth. We all know it. Some may still hide behind the Orwellian new-speak of the rhetoric of choice – but even they know that taking innocent human life is never a right choice.

We surgically operate on our neighbors in the womb. We send their beautiful photos around on social media. We write scholarly articles about the value of playing music to them and speaking words of warmth over their first home while we await their arrival.

There is no comparison between how procured abortions and how capital executions are committed. The heinous and evil way in which our youngest neighbors are executed far exceeds the barbarism displayed by some forms of capital punishment.

I applaud the joint editorial of America magazine, the National Catholic Register, the National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor, in standing together in opposition to the death penalty.

How about another editorial from the four, opened up to many more signers, utterly rejecting procured abortion as always and everywhere wrong and calling for an immediate end to the legal execution of children in the womb?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.

Deacon Keith Fournier
Deacon Keith Fournier is Founder and Chairman of the Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance, which are dedicated to the conversion of culture through four pillars of participation; life, family, freedom and solidarity. He is the Editor-in-Chief at Catholic Online. He is a constitutional lawyer who appeared in four cases before the United States Supreme Court on Pro-Life, Religious Freedom and Pro-family issues. He is the author of eight books on Christian living, Christian family and public policy issues. Deacon Fournier is a member of the Clergy of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He holds his BA in theology and philosophy from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, his Masters Degree in Marriage and Family Theology from the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University (MTS), his Juris Doctor Law Degree Law (JD) from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and is a PhD candidate in Moral Theology at the Catholic University.

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