This essay originally appeared on March 11, 2009, as Abp. Chaput’s syndicated column. It is reprinted with permission, as part of Crisis’s symposium on capital punishment. For the view of Christopher Ferrara of The Latin Mass Magazine, see this piece. Recent Vatican statements on the issue are reported here.
Capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion and war: All these issues raise profound questions for Catholics as we reflect on the sanctity of human life. But while they all touch on human dignity, they don’t all have the same moral content.
Euthanasia and abortion are always, intrinsically wrong because they always involve an intentional killing of innocent human life. War and capital punishment, in contrast, can sometimes be morally acceptable as an expression of society’s right to self-defense.
Both Scripture and a long tradition of Catholic thought support the legitimacy of the death penalty under certain limited circumstances. But as Pope John Paul II argued so eloquently, the conditions that require the death penalty for society’s self-defense and the discharge of justice in modern, developed nations almost never exist. As a result, the right road for a civilized society is to abolish the death penalty altogether.
Readers of this column know that I’ve written and spoken many times, for many years, against the death penalty. But I’m hardly alone in that view; bishops and many lay Catholics around the world and across the United States have urged public officials to end capital punishment for more than four decades. Earlier this year the four bishops of Colorado jointly revisited the issue yet again, saying:
As the Catholic bishops of Colorado, and consistent with Christian respect for the sanctity of human life, we oppose the use of capital punishment in our state.
We believe that all people have a natural right to life, because every human being is made in the image and likeness of God, who alone is Lord of life from its beginning until its end (cf. Gn 1: 26-28).
Obviously, behavior that threatens or takes lives cannot be tolerated. Those whose actions harm others must be held accountable. Society has a right to establish laws that protect all people and promote the common good. But the need to punish violent criminals does not logically lead, in our day, to the conclusion that capital punishment should be employed.
We grieve for the victims of murder and the terrible suffering of their families. In capital murder cases, we recognize that grave punishment is needed both to serve justice and to ensure the safety of the community. But we also believe, as Pope John Paul II once observed, that improvements in the penal system of developed countries like our own make the death penalty unnecessary to protect the community.
The state of Colorado has other means available to it besides the death penalty to exact justice and render the criminal unable to do harm. We need to continue the reform of our criminal justice system, and we need to impose punishment in a way that protects society from violence while avoiding further killing under official guise.
All human life, from conception to natural death, including the life of a convicted murderer, has intrinsic value. For the sake of our own humanity, we need to turn away from a mistaken idea of justice based—in practice—on further and unneeded violence.
The Colorado General Assembly currently has before it an important and hopeful piece of legislation—House Bill (HB) 1274—that would end the death penalty in our state. Support for capital punishment has steadily eroded around the country in recent years as more people come to see the inadequacy of the death penalty as a deterrent, the racially and ethnically biased manner in which it’s often applied, and the number of innocent persons wrongly condemned to death who have been exonerated by new DNA techniques.
I ask Catholics around the archdiocese to please contact their elected state lawmakers. Please ask our legislators to support HB 1274. We need to end the death penalty now; it’s the right course for a humane society.