Depending on who your friends are, you couldn't log onto Facebook this week or check a major news source without becoming acutely aware of the impending execution of Troy Davis, who was executed in Georgia September 21. Online petitions, shows of support and other social media memes worked together to underscore the death penalty's status as a perennial, if sporadic hot button in our culture. The issue crops up predictably whenever a death row inmate is about to be executed -- with righteous cries for clemency on one side of the issue and indignant assertions of justice being served on the other -- before fading from the popular consciousness yet again.
This is a shame. In the Church today, the death penalty is addressed with abortion, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research, etc. as a "life issue," a practice that runs counter to building a culture of life. Granted, the death penalty doesn't have the same history of condemnation as an issue like abortion, which the Church has considered an intrinsic moral evil throughout its tradition. In fact, a quick look at the Old Testament provides quite a precedent for the use of the death penalty.
But then the question becomes why the ancients put people to death in the first place. Execution was a fitting punishment for someone who'd committed a violent crime because it protected the rest of society from said violent, dangerous person. These were, after all, the days before maximum security prisons. The Catechism of the Catholic Church draws from this point a contemporary conclusion when addressing the issue:
"If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, 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." (#2267)
This line would appear verbatim in Blessed John Paul II's 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae, and both pope and catechism essentially say, while a state has the right to exercise the death penalty, why would we ever really need to use it in contemporary societies with life without parole at maximum security prisons?
This emerging anti-death penalty stance by the Church has been reason enough for the U.S. bishops (and Georgia bishops), as well as other Catholics to speak out against the death penalty. But there are other reasons that the Church holds up to illustrate why death-as-punishment isn't something that should be sought out at every opportunity.
For instance, the catechism notes that punishment for any crime should serve the purpose of redressing the disorder caused by the offense, reparation by the offender, public safety (which we've already covered), and the rehabilitation of the offender.
On redressing/repairing the disorder caused by the crime, one can raise real questions about whether the death penalty itself really promotes true healing or closure.
The other item that jumps off that list in terms of the death penalty is the last one. Killing someone completely eliminates the possibility of ever affecting a positive change in a person. This goes from unfortunate to tragic when one considers the number (not necessarily a large number, just any number) of death row inmates exonerated each year. With room for error, it's inconsistent with logic to err on the side of death.
And consistency seems to be key.
In building a consistent ethic for life, society should not respond to killing with killing. It should model respect for human life by refusing to take human life. It should consistently embrace the vision of Christ, who rejected "an eye for an eye" in favor of mercy and forgiveness. As Pope Benedict XVI said of this issue in 2009, "It cannot be overemphasized that the right to life must be recognized in all its fullness."