The death penalty is a topic of intense and emotional debate in America. In our efforts to seek justice for victims and their families, it is common to view the death penalty as an appropriate punishment for violent crime. Many who oppose the death penalty are viewed as being “soft on crime,” but violence does not end by inflicting more violence. Opposition to the death penalty is consistent with our call to embrace a pro-life ethic that recognizes the God-given dignity of all human life.
Violence has unfortunately been a part of the world since Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel in Genesis. In addition to the profound sense of loss experienced by the families of victims, families also must face the emotional difficulty of attending the trial. This means reliving the loss at the trial and through multiple appeals, especially if the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty. However, many families have stated that rather than giving them a sense of peace and justice, the death penalty as punishment leaves them with more trauma.
Our mission to provide comfort to and seek justice for victims’ families must not ignore the inherent dignity of every human life, even for those convicted of the most violent crimes. While the Catechism is clear on the acceptable use of capital punishment, Blessed John Paul II called America to move beyond the death penalty in his 1999 homily in St. Louis, saying, “Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal…for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” As God showed mercy to Cain, we must think beyond the death penalty and use alternatives—such as life without the possibility of parole—that reflect a consistent pro-life ethic.
The death penalty lengthens a painful process without providing a source of healing to the victim’s family. Alternatives like restorative justice focus on the victim’s family and allow them to discuss with the offender how they have been affected by his crime and how their injury can begin to be healed, and allows the offender to take responsibility for his actions. Restorative justice can provide closure and healing, as well as punishment for wrongdoing, without the state taking a life.
In 1980, the U.S. Bishops called for an end to the death penalty in America. In addition to the death penalty’s incompatibility with human dignity when nonlethal means can protect society, other factors such as excessive cost and inability to be applied in a non-discriminatory manner have led states to eliminate their use of the death penalty. Recently, Maryland became the 18th state to abolish the death penalty.
The death penalty, in light of our modern incarceration system, is inconsistent with human dignity. Let us join victims’ families, Pope Francis and the Bishops in reforming the justice system to focus on healing.