The death penalty and the marathon

A week ago Tuesday the bishops who lead the four Catholic dioceses of Massachusetts issued a statement asking that the life of the convicted Boston Marathon bomber be spared. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was not praised by them. His crimes were particularly cruel, but that does not change the Church’s approach to this issue.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, OFM Cap., of Boston, together with our bishop, the Most Rev. Edgar M. da Cunha, S.D.V., and Bishops Robert J. McManus and Mitchell T. Rozanski, of Worcester and Springfield respectively, wrote that “we feel it is fitting to clarify the Church’s teaching regarding the use of the death penalty. The Church has taught that the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are ‘rare, if not practically nonexistent’” (“Catechism of the Catholic Church” § 2267).

They acknowledge that the teaching of the Church “is further developing in recognition of the inherent dignity of all life as a gift from God. As Pope Francis has recently stated, ‘[The death penalty] is an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person. When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of oppression [editor’s note: in other words, the death penalty is not inflicted in a moment when we need to kill an attacker out of self-defense], but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralized — they are already deprived of their liberty.’” 

The bishops noted that Tsarnaev “has been neutralized and will never again have the ability to cause harm. Because of this, we, the Catholic Bishops of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, believe that society can do better than the death penalty. As the Bishops of the United States said in their 2005 statement ‘A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,’ ‘No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.’ We believe these words remain true today in the face of this most terrible crime.”

It is unfortunate that the current federal practice required that to get on the Tsarnaev jury, one had to truthfully say that he or she could be open to applying the death penalty. Thus, anyone who would not inflict the death penalty in any situations (for example, the Massachusetts bishops) would not be allowed to be a juror on a capital case.

St. John Paul II in October 1998 gave an address to the bishops of New England, who were at the Vatican for their ad limina visits, and put this topic in context: “Nowhere is the contrast between the Gospel vision and contemporary culture more obvious than in the dramatic conflict between the Culture of Life and the culture of death. The Church in your country reaches out in the defense and promotion of human life and human dignity in numerous ways. Through countless organizations and agencies she is an immensely generous provider of social services to the poor; active in support of laws more favorable to the immigrant, present in the public debate on capital punishment, aware that in the modern state the cases in which the execution of an offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 56; CCC, 2267). At the same time you rightly underscore the priority that must be given to the fundamental right to life of the unborn, and to opposition to euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide.”

In a Sept. 13, 2000 general audience, the Holy Father appealed for the life of a prisoner on Virginia’s death row: “In the spirit of clemency that is characteristic of the Jubilee Year, I once again add my voice to that of all those who are asking that young Derek Rocco Barnabei’s life be spared. I also hope, more generally, that we will reach the point of giving up recourse to capital punishment, since today the state has other means available to suppress crime effectively, without definitively depriving the offender of the possibility of redeeming himself.”

Pope Benedict XVI on Nov. 30, 2011, at the end of a general audience, greeted “the distinguished delegations from various countries taking part in the meeting  on the theme: ‘No Justice without Life.’ I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

In a Jan. 7, 2008 address to the diplomatic corps, Pope Benedict saw some good news. “I rejoice that on 18 December last [2007] the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution calling upon states to institute a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, and I earnestly hope that this initiative will lead to public debate on the Sacred character of human life.”

In his apostolic exhortation Africae Munus in 2011, the German pontiff noted, “Together with the synod members, I draw the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty and to reform the penal system in a way that ensures respect for the prisoners’ human dignity.”

Since our last three Vicars of Christ have spoken out for an end to the death penalty, as well as our local bishops, Catholics do have a serious responsibility (as they do on other issues, too) to truly study the Church’s teachings and work to embrace them (please see Genevieve Kineke’s column on page nine for a good analysis of how, in general, we are supposed to appropriately form our consciences).

© 2019 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing    †    Fall River, Massachusetts