Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Death Penalty Is Cruel and Unnecessary

by Cardinal Renato R. Martino


Address of Archbishop Martino, the Holy See's Permanent Observer at the UN, on February 5, 1999 at the preparatory meeting on a resolution calling for a moratorium on capital punishment in 1999.

Larger Work

L'Osservatore Romano



Publisher & Date

Vatican, February 24, 1999

It is my pleasure to be with you today at New York University, as we address the important — and controversial — subject of the death penalty. The issue is a hotly debated one on the international scene, particularly at United Nations headquarters, where one hears more and more from nations a call to abandon its practice, if not its total abolition. Very recently, during the Holy Father's visit to St Louis, Missouri, he renewed his appeal made a month earlier for a consensus to end the death penalty, calling it "both cruel and unnecessary" (from the 27 January 1999 homily of Pope John Paul II, St Louis, Missouri). At a more grass roots level, we are increasingly hearing of pleas by individuals and groups who are realizing that fighting violence with violence does not achieve a useful purpose in society, nor does it allow us to foster an ethic of respect of life that moves beyond vengeance in order to deal with violence in a more effective way (see the statement issued in early December 1998 by the permanent deacons of the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey, USA).

What I share with you today is nothing new — I have spoken on this topic before. My presentation today, however, is a more detailed explication of those views. I do realize that the death penalty is a sensitive and heated topic. And so we must not relegate it to theoretical ivory tower discussions, as it involves not only criminals, but victims who have truly been violated, their families and friends, and indeed, our very society as well.

Anger and frustration at rampant crime

Media accounts are daily filled with stories of senseless violence, oftentimes against innocent people: the rape and murder of a child snatched from a schoolyard, a young woman beaten and raped while strolling in a park, the killing of an elderly couple in the comfort of their home, a baby left for dead in a dumpster only minutes after his birth. Respectable people instinctively recoil at such horrors, wondering when — and if — the violence will ever cease. They look into the innocent faces and trusting eyes of their young children and grandchildren, concerned over how best to protect them. They fear for the elderly, knowing that there are some people who, in the blink of an eye, would take advantage of them for their own selfish gain. And the result — society becomes filled with fear and cries out for a deterrent. And should that deterrent fail to eliminate future crime, at least vengeance has been brought to the perpetrator.

Oftentimes, it is the lack of remorse by many criminals that encourages good people to support the death penalty. Even among Catholics, a 1997 Gallup Poll found that 51 per cent believed that the death penalty should be the punishment for murder, while 43 per cent felt that the punishment should be life imprisonment with no chance for parole. Is this majority — however narrow — a reflection of the anger and frustration with the crime and violence that are destroying our society?

Arguments in support of the death penalty

Actually, capital punishment falls within the boundaries of legitimate defence. Those who support it claim that it restores the dignity and value of the victim whose life was taken in a violent way. They say that if one person is willing to take another's life, he ought to be willing to pay for it as well. He has a debt to pay to society, and law and order must be maintained.

Specifically, those in favor of capital punishment put forward three arguments:

a) it is a deterrent to crime by instilling fear in anyone who might consider doing likewise;

b) it is a comfort to the families of murder victims, since it exacts upon the criminal the same wrongfulness he enacted upon his victim; and

c) it protects society by eliminating a "cancer" from it, once and for all.

Refuting the arguments

However, a closer look at these arguments reveal some terrible flaws. While capital punishment certainly prevents the individual criminal from committing further crimes, it has not proven to be an effective deterrent to crime in general. It is naive to believe that a murderer takes time to reflect upon the consequences of his or her crime, even should that consequence be his or her own execution. Also, we have seen that countries which advocate the death penalty have murder rates that are as high, if not higher, than those which do not support it.

We must ask ourselves, does killing the criminal honour the victim? Does it enhance the lives of a victim's family? Is it a constructive or appropriate method of dealing with the anger? No. I recall one woman who, regarding the criminal convicted of killing one of her family members, said: "I don't believe that killing him is going to make my loss any less." In that statement, this insightful woman acknowledges the reality that executing the criminal will not bring back a loved one, nor will it take away the pain. This leaves us, then, with the need to protect society. In this regard, however, we must ask: If criminals can remain in jail forever, do we really need to bloody our own hands by joining in the killing? I once read a statement that summarized the matter quite succinctly with a question: "Why do we kill people who killed people, to show that killing is wrong?". In reality, would not life imprisonment without the possibility of parole satisfy the need to protect society?

Another important issue to consider is the fact that innocent persons will continue to be falsely accused and executed for crimes they did not commit. But at least an innocent person serving a life sentence still has the possibility of one day being proven innocent. To my knowledge, in all of human history only one innocent man who unjustly executed was ever resurrected. That hasn't happened again in the past 2,000 years. Once the death penalty has been enacted it can never be retracted.

Church teaching on capital punishment

There are many misconceptions regarding the position of the Catholic Church on the issue of capital punishment. Many state — and accurately — that the Church has never absolutely banned the death penalty. Proponents often quote the Old Testament "... life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand" (Ex 21:23-24), What is not clearly understood is that this passage refers not so much to sanction stern penalties, but to protect individuals from excessive punishments, such as those that are cruel, unreasonable and ineffective. Those who advocate "eye for eye, tooth for tooth" oftentimes fail to heed three other important passages. In Genesis (4:15) God ensures that death will not be inflicted upon Cain who has killed his brother Abel. In this passage, God says: "If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold'.... So the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest anyone should kill him at sight". In Ezekiel (33:11) we read: "As I live, says the Lord God, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man's conversion, that he may live". In the Sermon on the Mount of the New Testament Scriptures, Christ exhorts: "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye', and 'a tooth for a tooth '. But I say to you not to resist the evil-doer: on the contrary, if someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him and offer the left as well" (Mt 5:38-39).

Turning back for a moment on the Genesis account of Cain, we must understand that in sparing Cain's life God does not leave his crime unpunished. While God rejects the enactment of capital punishment upon Cain, he does render justice. Cain, in essence, receives a life sentence without parole. He is cursed by God and also by the earth, which will deny him its fruit. He receives a sentence of loneliness and separation from God, a sentence that will be with him forever.

One cannot teach — as the Fifth Commandment states — that killing is wrong, while repeating unnecessarily the same dreadful act that the criminal has committed. Each and every human life is created in the image and likeness of God. Even the murderer, in spite of his or her cruel deed, does not lose personal dignity. Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 Encyclical Letter Evangelium vitae, says: "And it is precisely here that the paradoxical mystery of the merciful justice of God is shown forth ... God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide" (n. 9). Thus society, in punishing the criminal, must aim and hope for the rehabilitation of the criminal.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, released in 1992, takes justice into account when dealing with the issue of capital punishment and the right of public authorities to punish criminals with penalties commensurate with the crime. It reminds us of the importance of considering public safety and the loss suffered by a family. But it also teaches that the punishment must redress the offense as well as contribute to the rehabilitation of the offender. While "preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm" (Catechism, n. 2266), it follows that "if bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives ... 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 to the dignity of the human person" (ibid., n. 2267).

Developments in Church teaching

Evangelium vitae affirms the Catechism's teaching, but takes it even further by enumerating conditions under which it would be morally acceptable. Given the development of most penal systems in our day, the Holy Father states that the nature and extent of punishment "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" (n. 58). Then, he adds: "Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are rare, if not practically non-existent" (ibid).

While affirming the principle set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the use of bloodless means, Evangelium vitae, released only three years after the Catechism, would necessitate an adjustment of the Catechism's language on this subject. Thus, on 9 September 1997, among the adjustments announced, one of the most significant concerned new language regarding the death penalty, specifying that Catholic tradition has allowed for use of the death penalty only when the identity and responsibility of the condemned is certain and capital punishment is the only way to protect the lives of others.

In keeping with Evangelium vitae, the new edition, while not excluding capital punishment absolutely, limits its application to the following conditions: only in cases where the ultimate penalty of death is justified in order to secure the common good (but such cases today are very rare, if not practically non-existent); there must be a full determination of the guilty party's responsibility and identity; the death penalty must be the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor; if non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means. There is an important change in this latter condition: the original text which read "public authority should limit itself (to bloodless means)" was changed to "will limit itself to such means".

The challenge ahead

This leaves us, then, with the challenge to find a solution that punishes the convicted without violating his or her human dignity, while satisfying the need to protect public order and defend society. For Christians, our distaste for the death penalty is founded on our belief that every person has an inalienable right to life, because each human being is made in the image and likeness of God (Gn 1:27). Such a challenge ought not be motivated by anger or fear, and must be more in line with the teachings of Christ's call to non-violence.

We have seen that capital punishment is applied more for vengeance than for justice. We know that society's cry for it is more an impulsive "gut reaction", rather than one from the head. And we realize, that just as pro-choice proponents wrongly try to draw a line when new life begins — at for instance three months, seven months, or at birth — so too it is dangerous to draw a line when life can be extinguished.

In seeking a humane solution, we understand that forgiving the condemned is not the same as exonerating him or her from guilt and that capital punishment ultimately damages all of us by continuing the downward spiral of violence that is all too common in our society. Punishments, therefore, must be educative, not vindictive.

In closing, may I say that I believe that capital punishment, as the Holy Father said in St Louis, is both "cruel and unnecessary". In essence, it is really a mask that covers the deeper issue we as a society are afraid to face: the lack of respect for human life — particularly of the preborn, the disabled and the elderly. Only when we have the courage to remove that mask, will the sores hidden beneath it cease to fester. Only then will we — as individuals and as a society — begin the process of healing, moving away from a culture of death into a culture of life.

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