.- In his most recent column in the Denver Catholic Register, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput clarified the Catholic Church’s often misunderstood teaching on the death penalty, saying that in almost all cases today, it goes beyond necessity, and into undignified excess.
He compared the Church’s teaching on the death penalty to that on acts like abortion, genocide and euthanasia, saying that in the comparison, there is an inequality.
"The death penalty", he wrote, "is not intrinsically evil. Both Scripture and long Christian tradition acknowledge the legitimacy of capital punishment under certain circumstances. The Church cannot repudiate that without repudiating her own identity."
"Catholic teaching on euthanasia, the death penalty, war, genocide and abortion," the archbishop said, "are rooted in the same concern for the sanctity of the human person. But these different issues do not all have the same gravity or moral content. They are not equivalent."
He used war as an applicable example, noting that there are cases in which acts of war are morally legitimate--similar to the death penalty.
However, he pointed out, what the Church’s teaching on the death penalty involves is, "a call to set aside unnecessary violence, including violence by the state, in the name of human dignity and building a culture of life."
"In the wake of the bloodiest century in history," Archbishop Chaput said, "the Church invites us to recover our own humanity by choosing God’s higher road of restraint and mercy instead of state-sanctioned killing that implicates all of us as citizens."
He cited the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states that if "non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor [i.e., the convicted murderer], 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" (2267).
Likewise, he quoted John Paul II, who points out in his Gospel of Life, that "the nature and extent of the punishment [for capital crimes] must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity; in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society."
The late Pope noted that "today however, as a result of steady improvements to the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
The archbishop stressed that "(i)n modern industrialized states, killing convicted murderers adds nothing to anyone’s safety. It is an excess."
He said that "for John Paul II, the punishment of any crime should not only seek to redress wrong and protect society. It should also encourage the possibility of repentance, restitution and rehabilitation on the part of the criminal. Execution removes that hope."
As the Church recognizes Respect Life Month, being celebrated throughout October, Archbishop Chaput ended his piece with strong words: "Choosing against the death penalty is choosing in favor of life."
"We need to end the death penalty," he said, "and we need to do it soon."