By Cathy Harasta
The Texas Catholic
Catholic teaching on capital punishment begins with one of the most familiar fundamentals of the faith, Dallas Auxiliary Bishop J. Douglas Deshotel said:
“Thou Shalt Not Kill.”
“Everything flows from the Fifth Commandment on respecting innocent human life,” Bishop Deshotel said, “It is immoral to kill innocent human life.”
Bishop Deshotel cited the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” which says, in part, that the death penalty is permissible if it is the only way to defend people against the guilty party. If other means exist to protect people from the “unjust aggressor,” however, these means are preferred because they are considered to be more respectful of the dignity of the human person.
“There’s a fine line,” Bishop Deshotel said. “You can’t sit by and let innocent life be harmed. A good analogy is a father protecting his family from an unjust aggressor who breaks into the family’s house and threatens the life of his wife and children. It’s not that the father wants to harm or kill the aggressor, but the father has an obligation to stop the aggressor from doing that.
“It’s a pro-life statement that the father wants to protect innocent human life.”
Bishop Deshotel said that nations also protect themselves from unjust aggressors in the interest of safeguarding innocent human lives.
“It’s the job of the state to protect innocent people who live in that country,” he said. “The church’s teaching since St. John Paul II is that now, with today’s penal system, if a state can protect innocent human life by putting an offender in prison for life, then the state ought to opt for doing that instead of capital punishment.”
He cited the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” which says that cases that absolutely require an offender’s execution are “…very rare, if practically nonexistent” and St. John Paul II’s “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”), published in 1995.
But poorer nations that lack the money and facilities to imprison people for life might have to employ capital punishment as the only means of protecting innocent people’s lives, Bishop Deshotel said.
In March, Pope Francis called for an end to the death penalty in stronger terms than he previously had used to make the plea.
The Holy Father called capital punishment “unacceptable” in a letter to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty after the pope met with a delegation from that organization on March 20, the Catholic News Service reported.
Pope Francis called the death penalty “cruel, inhumane and degrading” in the letter.
In calling human justice “imperfect,” the pope said that the death penalty lacks legitimacy in penal systems in which judicial error could occur. He said that in a contemporary “state of law, the death penalty represents a failure.”
Last October, Pope Francis called for the abolition of capital punishment in a speech during which he said: “It is impossible to imagine that today (there are) states which cannot make use of means other than capital punishment to defend the life of other persons from unjust aggressors.”
Indeed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death,” said, “No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.”
The USCCB emphasized that, “At the heart of Catholic teaching on the death penalty is the belief that ‘Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end…’ (Catechism,No. 2258).”
In 2005, the USCCB stepped up its opposition to the death penalty when it launched a “Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty” to unite people and renew the call upon leaders to abolish capital punishment.
The Austin-based Texas Catholic Conference — which represents the Texas bishops on policy matters—advocates for the death penalty’s abolishment, said Patrick Ryan, the conference’s communications director.
“But the bishops are very, very sympathetic to the victims of these crimes and their families,” said Ryan, who testified as the conference’s representative on April 29 during a public hearing held by the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on House Bill 1527, which calls for the repeal of the death penalty in Texas. “In talking with Catholics, the death penalty is the one pro-life issue that is contentious.”
Ryan said that he perceives a gradual shift toward more support for abolishing the death penalty.
But Kristin Houlé, executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, called the change in sentiment more profound.
“The death penalty landscape in Texas has shifted dramatically—as evidenced by the 80 percent decline in new death sentences over the last 15 years,” she said. “Yet this punishment is still applied in a geographically isolated and arbitrary manner.”
Since Texas began using lethal injections on Dec. 7, 1982, the state has executed 528 people, Ryan said.
Recent botched executions in several states have contributed to questions about lethal injection, which led condemned prisoners in Oklahoma to bring a suit arguing that a drug used by the state for executions can result in inmates’ being conscious during an execution.
The U.S. Supreme Court on April 29 addressed the subject of lethal injection and whether some states’ combinations of drugs used for executions are unconstitutionally cruel.