The Practical Wisdom of Catholic Social Teaching: Applied to the Death Penalty in the Secular World

Recently, the United States was able to experience the presence of Pope Francis. During this visit, it seemed that the American public became interested in all things Catholic, even if there was some disagreement with Church teaching. The Pope showed that some teachings of the Church offer some practical wisdom on the life issues and the dignity of the human life, not only religiously, but in the secular world as well.1

In his recent address to Congress, Pope Francis expressed support for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. “The Golden Rule,” Pope Francis said, “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” Since the beginning of his ministry, this conviction has led him “to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.” Francis goes on to say  that he is “convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”

About twenty five years ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops “renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty”.  The bishops wrote, in A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, that  “Each of us is called to respect the life and dignity of every human being. Even when people deny the dignity of others, we must still recognize that their dignity is a gift from God and is not something that is earned or lost through their behavior. Respect for life applies to all, even the perpetrators of terrible acts. Punishment should be consistent with the demands of justice and with respect for human life and dignity.”

Pope Francis expressed his support for them, “Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.” So even the Pope and the Bishops of the United States, who know what the Church’s teachings on the death penalty are, advocate for the abolition of this unnecessary, aggressive violence.

First, I will discuss what the Church teaches on the death penalty in the Catechism, encyclicals and through theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas. The Catechism of the Catholic Church stated that the state has the right to exact the death penalty, but neither St. Thomas Aquinas nor any Magisterial text presumes this gives the state an unlimited right to make capital laws and carry them out. It is inherent in a just capital punishment law that there be proportion between the taking of the life of the criminal and the benefit expected to the common good.  

In article 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is taught that “assuming that 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 an unjust aggressor”. But even if a criminal is identified and it is known that the said criminal committed the crime he or she has been convicted of, where does the common good come into play? How does an execution benefit the common good? One will ask those questions since the common good includes the criminal as well.

The Bishops of the United States and people such as Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, assert that the death penalty is a violation of Catholic Social Teaching.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church also states, in article 2267, that “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority should 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.” In other words, there are non-lethal ways of rendering a criminal unable to do harm. This is stated in the Catechism as well as in Evangelium Vitae article 56. “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 the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

That being said, the next thing that needs to be discussed is the principles of Catholic Social Teaching that are being violated, and how these principles are being violated. There are ten total principles of Catholic Social teaching, and there are three that are being violated. So I will touch on those.

The first principle being violated is that of preservation of human dignity. This principle states that  all life is sacred and that the dignity of the person is a the core of a moral vision for society. According to Catholic Social teaching  “Our belief in the sanctity of the human life and the inherent dignity of the human person is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching.” Capital punishment takes away the dignity of a criminal. In a complete and total disregard for the sanctity of a criminal’s life, we kill him or her, because it seems like the right thing for them to do. The U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that there are two essential human rights that every human being has: the right not to be tortured and the right not to be killed.  The death penalty is just that: torture and killing. It violates one’s rights.  

The second violated principle is stewardship of creation.  Stewardship of creation insists that we show our respect for what/whomever we see as a creator by caring for creation. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith (or lives in general, whatever we might believe), in relationship with all of creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored. This is a tricky situation when it comes to the death penalty. Some could cite reasons for the death penalty being that it helps protect the rest of society.  Capital punishment isn’t actually necessary. There are other alternatives. Tougher sentencing would discourage offenders from committing crimes. Longer jail times for felons and first-time offenders would keep them from entering into society until they are able to rehabilitate.  Requiring inmates to pay for their time in prison would reduce the cost to taxpayers. Allocating a portion of a prisoner’s earnings toward facility expenses and programs would force them to “pay” for their crimes, literally and figuratively, making keeping a convict in prison for life without parole even cheaper. A portion of inmates’ wages should also be put into funds for crime victims and their families. Although money can never replace a loved one or completely heal the damage, it could help families establish a new normal and get on their feet again. The prison system in place today, at least in the United States, is more sophisticated than the one we had in place 100-200 years ago, so people aren’t as much of a danger to society anymore once they are locked behind bars. There is a possibility that the criminals could escape. There are more constructive alternatives to the death penalty.

And, the third and final violated principle is providing options for the poor and vulnerable. This principle roots itself in Catholic teaching’s proclaiming of a basic moral test, which is how we treat the most vulnerable members of society. We must put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. Christ said it himself in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25: “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.” The vulnerable person in this equation, so to speak, is the criminal. We as human beings are just so centered on being vengeful about the deaths of the victims, and cannot summon enough love to forgive someone for that, even if he is not showing remorse. We already have power over this criminal, so why not use this power for good?

It’s been seen in multiple cases where the death penalty has been dealt. The victim’s or victims’ family(ies) want the perpetrator dead. Others will find it in their hearts to forgive.

But let me ask this:  Is it really worth it, watching someone die in front of you, even if that person hurt you and your loved ones?

I would have to say no, it’s not worth it.  

Bibliography

Catechism of the Catholic Church. Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994.

John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae: Encyclical : The Gospel of Life. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995.

A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005.

The Story of A Student

I go to a small Catholic liberal arts college (in the tradition of the Sisters of Notre Dame) called Notre Dame College, also known as NDC, which is twenty minutes away from downtown Cleveland. It sounds like it’d be an easy choice, right? Not so much. I actually needed divine intervention to make the decision to even come to Notre Dame College. Nobody knows about that part of the story, and it’s definitely worth telling.

Before I applied to any colleges, I wanted to enter the convent. Yes, I wanted to become a religious sister straight out of high school at the age of eighteen. That’s the reason why I was so slow at making a college choice. It took me until December, when everyone else was hearing about acceptances, to even go to the guidance office and get my transcripts sent out. Yes, I was kind of a slow bloomer. Or so they say.

So, you’re waiting to hear my college story. My story’s not something super crazy, like going on campus for the first time and having a completely life-changing experience or falling in love with it or something like that. At first, I resisted the thought of going to NDC. I think part of me knew I was home, but I wrestled with that feeling, saying “I really don’t like it here.” But as time went on, it really started to grow on me, and I decided that I would go for two years to get my general education requirements done, and then transfer to Franciscan University of Steubenville, my first college choice and the other school I had been accepted to, and study Theology.

I would often tell myself “If you want to make God laugh, then tell him your plans!”. God must have been having a good laugh, just as He always does when I make plans.

It was late March into early April when it, the big breakthrough and decision happened, just a few weeks after my eighteenth birthday (March 13). I decided to start a novena to St. Therese, the Little Flower. The Rose Novena. I have a devotion to her, and I figured she’d be the best person to tell me if I was on the right path. I told her, “One rose, and I’ll stay for two years.” On the ninth day of the novena, I was on a retreat with my home parish’s youth group. This retreat focused on the Blessed Mother. Usually, when my youth group was on retreat, we would split into a men’s session and a women’s session, and would never really interact with each other. So that retreat, we decided to show the men how much we really appreciated them. Well, that night, we planned on doing something special for each other. The men went all out. They gave all the women roses. I immediately knew what was happening. St. Therese was about to say something, and it was something big. When I was being escorted into the room, there was some slight confusion, and I was given not one, buttwo roses. That night, the Little Flower told me that I was going to be at NDC for all four years of my college career. It was really no use arguing with it. And in the next week, I wrestled with what St. Therese told me through the roses, but to no avail. The Little Flower was more stubborn than I.

I made “my” decision during my tenth period study hall on April 8, 2014, that following week. There was enough silence in that room during study hall (a surprise considering that my high school was around 2,500 in student body size), and I just focused on things that were weighing me down. Then, I just came to terms with it. I was going to NDC. And I felt better. I told my aunt that I had chosen NDC, filled out my enrollment form, and sent it in the mail. The moment the form, in its envelope, was put into the mailbox was the moment I became a Falcon. I came to NDC just once before coming to school. That was for my freshman orientation. My aunt knew what I was thinking, and when I got into the car to leave campus, I confirmed it. I said “I’m home.” A month later, I came back to start my life as a college student; a Theology major.

That year wasn’t an easy one for me, because of all the transitional things that were going on. I was slowly learning to be an adult, and I was frustrated with school sometimes, because it, too, was an entirely new experience. When the idea of a transfer was presented to me, I honestly began thinking that I was wrong about staying at NDC for all four years of my college career. So I began considering the two year route again. And that’s when God decided to pull out all the stops.

I began praying the novena to St. Therese again, this time out of sheer frustration. Her sign to me wasn’t a flower this time, but my desire to read a book she wrote called ‘The Story of A Soul’. One day, when I was stressed about something, I had to write my full name on a form: “Ana Rose Plumlee”. That just blew my mind. Every time I wrote my name, I was receiving a rose. “What if I am one of St. Therese’s roses?” I thought. The thought calmed me enough to get through that day. Then, she and God brought an amazing professor into my life; a professor who taught me so much, and encouraged me to write, to play to my strengths. What really did it for me, though, is that no matter if a professor has me in class or not is that they care about me. The fact that everyone, including the college president, cares that I have dreams for my major and wants to know what’s happening in my life, and will take the time to sit down and ask about my life and goals (That happened to me close to the end of the school year last year, and truly made my entire day). At NDC, they care for and about me. I learned one day about what one of my professors truly sees in me, and I was stunned to learn that he sees a different me than what I see. Which has not only been huge in my deciding not to transfer, but has helped me become a lot more confident. It has helped me see myself in a better light.

Now, I’m beginning year two. And I’m not planning to transfer, or enter a Religious Order. Actually, I’ve almost completed my Philosophy minor, and I am declaring my second major soon. I’ve decided to pursue both English and Theology, because those are my strengths. I have a writing internship with Life Matters Journal. I write for Catholic365. I run three different blogs (one of which is my personal website)*. Not to mention that I’m involved in campus ministry, went on an immersion trip to Guatemala this past summer, I’m in Chamber Choir, and I’m in Philosophy Club (a new addition to the list as of this year). Without NDC, I wouldn’t be in this place. When I joke about how NDC ‘stole’ me from the convent, I mean it as a good thing. I was too young for that decision. And now, God is working in so many different and radical ways in my life.

My name is Ana, I am a Falcon for Life, and this is my story.

*the other blogs I run are as follows:

imago-amoris.tumblr.com: In the Image of Love- Reflections on life and random inspirational things.

the-fat-friar.tumblr.com: Harry Potter and Catholicism- How Harry Potter and Catholic stuff do, indeed, connect. For fans of the Potter series, and for the curious.

Rant

I don’t mean to start an argument about abortion, but here’s something that someone really must think about.

If someone kills a woman, and this woman is pregnant, it is considered a double homicide. However, if a pregnant woman gets an abortion, it isn’t considered killing a human being. I’m sorry, but what the hell? You can’t consider an unborn child as human when it seems convenient to do so. Why is the unborn child considered human when the mother is killed, but not when the mother decides to get an abortion? Don’t tell me that science determines it. Because that’s bull. If you were to use science to determine whether or not an unborn child is human, you would learn that yes, when a child is in the womb, it is still human. It’s alive, it still has human DNA, and (OH MY GOSH….SHOCKER) did you ever notice that it is growing inside of ANOTHER HUMAN BEING? Science says that human beings cannot produce offspring that isn’t human. So why are people saying that an unborn child isn’t human? FLAWED LOGIC.

Okay. Rant over.