The death penalty is wrong in all cases. That’s what Pope Francis proclaimed in early August, and that’s what the Church’s Catechism will be revised to say.
It’s an important statement about faith and human rights. And its impact extends beyond those convicted of serious crimes and threatened with execution.
The Pope’s order, culminating of an evolution in church teaching that goes back to St. John Paul II, is a lesson to you and me about how to treat those we see as sinners.
Under the revision, the Catechism will say, “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
In 1992, John Paul II began to take strong stands against the death penalty. There was one exception as he saw it — “cases of absolute necessity” when the death penalty was needed to protect other lives. The announcement from Pope Francis closes that “last remaining loophole” in Church’s stand against executions, writes Sister Helen Prejean, a longtime opponent of the death penalty.
“The dignity of the person”
The Church is taking a strong moral stand in labeling the death penalty as wrong and in working worldwide for its abolition. In addition, it is instructing us in how to live our daily lives with another sentence in the Catechism revision: “The dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.”
Think about that. There is a tendency in our American society to look at those who have been suspected or convicted of serious crimes, especially violent ones like murder, and to write them off as “animals” and as being subhuman.
This carries over to how we think of other people whose sins are made public, such as drug dealers, gang members, child molesters, corrupt politicians, prostitutes and polluters.
And, given the nature of much public discourse in this nation, it can carry over into how we think of those whose ideas are different from ours. We can see their ideas not as wrong but as evil. We can dismiss them as base, vulgar and mean-spirited.
The Catechism revision is a warning against such thinking. It is a reminder to treat every person — no matter how “good” or “bad” the person may appear — with dignity and love. To treat each person as someone who is, like us, loved and cherished by God.
This is the radical notion that is at the heart of the message of Jesus. We’re called not to build up walls between us and “those” people who, to our minds, seem so obviously bad. Instead, we are called to be open to each man, woman and child, just as God is. To be willing to see each as fully human — and to love each one.
No matter how “good” or “bad”
Make no mistake. In his death penalty order, the Pope isn’t denying the great pain that people inflict on others when they victimize them through violence and other means. Sins are sins. Sins cause pain. My sin, your sin, everyone’s sin.
But, no matter what sin any of us commits, no matter how much any of us fails to follow the call of Jesus to love everyone, we are still loved by God.
That’s what we have to remember — no matter how “good” or “bad” someone else may appear. And that’s how we have to act.
Patrick T. Reardon