Earlier this month Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark had asked President Donald Trump to commute Honken’s death sentence. The cardinal had frequently visited Honken while he was Archbishop of Indianapolis, and he testified that Fr. O’Keefe “confirms that the spiritual growth in faith and compassion, which I had witnessed in our meetings some years ago, continues to this day.”
While acknowledging Honken’s crimes as “heinous”, Cardinal Tobin asserted that his execution “will do nothing to restore justice or heal those still burdened by these crimes.”
“His execution will reduce the government of the United States to the level of a murderer and serve to perpetuate a climate of violence which brutalizes our society in so many ways,” Tobin claimed, noting that the use of the death penalty makes the United States an “outlier” in the world.
While the Church teaches that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, both Pope Francis and his immediate predecessors have condemned the practice in the West.
Regarding the execution of criminals, the Catechism of the Council of Trent taught that by its “legal and judicious exercise”, civil authorities “punish the guilty and protect the innocent.”
St. John Paul II called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary.”
And Benedict XVI exhorted world leaders to make “every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and told Catholics that ending capital punishment was an essential part of “conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”
In August 2018, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a new draft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s paragraph regarding capital punishment.
Quoting Pope Francis’ words in a speech of Oct. 11, 2017, the new paragraph states, in part, that “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.”
Reasons for that teaching, the paragraph says, include: the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, growing understanding of the unchanging dignity of the person, and leaving open the possibility of conversion.
Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told CNA at the time that he thinks this change “further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion made by John Paul II.”
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“Nothing in the new wording of paragraph 2267 suggests the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Indeed, nothing could suggest that because it would contradict the firm teaching of the Church,” Fr. Petri continued.