Human rights and human dignity are at the heart of our Christian faith. Sometimes these concepts, echoed throughout the Gospels and church teachings, become muddied by other beliefs, such as vengeance or retribution.
Even when these alternative beliefs are packaged as signs of fairness or the common good, we, as people of faith, must object to them. No better example exists today than the federal government’s decision to resume executions for the first time in 17 years.
Since July 14, 2020, when the Trump administration restarted federal executions, eight people on death row have been executed. As of Nov. 23, five more inmates (including Lisa Montgomery, the only woman on federal death row) are scheduled for execution before president-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2021.
Before this year, the federal government executed only three people in the last 50 years, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons.
When William Barr, U.S. attorney general and director of the U.S. Department of Justice, announced in July 2019 that federal executions would resume, Bishop Frank J. Dewane, then-chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, issued a statement calling on Barr to abandon the proposal. Four additional requests by the U.S. bishops have followed, including one released Nov. 18.
“The death penalty is not necessary to protect society,” wrote Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, Okla., chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kan., chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
“The decision not to execute someone, even someone who has done something terrible, is not ‘soft on crime’; rather, it is strong on the dignity of life,” the bishops said. “We ask President Trump and Attorney General Barr, as an act of witness to the dignity of all human life: stop these executions.”
Many people of good will find it difficult to argue against the legality of executions, particularly for criminals who have committed murder. They may point to the Old Testament’s prescription for punishment: “But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex 21:23-25).
Yet, Jesus’ teaching on retaliation contradicts acts of vengeance: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well” (Mt 5:38-39).
All acts of crime and injustice must have consequences, but as Pope Francis (as well as Pope Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II) reminds us, the death penalty is not only an affront to the dignity of human life, it denies the opportunity for redemption.
One example is Brandon Bernard, a federal inmate due to be executed on Dec. 10. He was an accomplice to a murder in 1999, at age 18. Since his arrest and conviction, he has demonstrated remorse for his crime and has counseled at-risk youth. Five of the nine surviving jurors, as well as one of the prosecutors in Bernard’s trial, have asked that he be removed from death row. Pastors from his Seventh Day Adventist church have also written letters on his behalf.
Death penalty cases are also prone to human error. Since 1973, 166 people sent to death row have been exonerated, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. And there is no proven deterrent effect.
Years ago, a favorite axiom Christians used as a moral compass was WWJD: what would Jesus do? When it comes to capital punishment, we have an answer.
In John’s Gospel, we are told that the scribes and Pharisees presented a woman to Jesus who was caught in the act of adultery. “Moses commanded us to stone such women,” they told Jesus. “So what do you say?”
“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” replied Jesus.
If we, as Catholics, believe that all life is sacred, we must be willing to call for the protection of all life, including men and women on death row.