The first federal execution in forty years has been scheduled for this Tuesday, December 12. I ask you to join in prayer that President Clinton reprieve the man. The details of his crime can be found elsewhere. What I would like to do here is review Jesus' teaching regarding capital punishment. It is a bit more complicated than, for example abortion, which involves an innocent human being. The Catechism states:
"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. God alone is the lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance destroy an innocent human life." (#2258)
After summarizing the Bible's teaching on Respect for Human Life (#2259-2262) the Catechism goes on to speak about Legitimate Defense: "The legitimate defense of persons and societies is not an exception to the prohibition against the murder of the innocent that constitutes intentional killing." (#2263) In that regard the Catechism quotes St. Thomas Aquinas:
"the act of self-defense can have a double effect: the preservation of one's own life; and the killing of the aggressor…the one is intended, the other is not."
For those responsible for the lives of others, legitimate defense is not only a right, but can be a "grave duty." (#2265) Defending the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to do harm. In order to protect the common good, legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment, which has the primary goal of "redressing the disorder." If the offender willingly accepts his punishment, it has an expiatory value. Finally it has a "medicinal purpose" in as much as it contributes to the correction of the guilty party. (#2266)
With that introduction I would like to quote in full what the Catechism has to say about capital punishment:
"Assuming the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
If however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.
"Today in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm, without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself, the cases in which an execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'" (#2267)
The Catechism then goes on to speak about intentional homicide, infanticide, abortion, manipulation of human embryos, euthanasia and suicide. While they each fall under the Fifth Commandment, it is most fruitful to read Jesus' teaching on the particular issues. And of course to pray that as individuals and a society we might "choose life" as God commands. (Deuteronomy 30:19) This Tuesday, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is a good moment to pray for a deeper respect for the value of each human life.