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Death penalty defeated

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Posted: 11/18/2005

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Following a year filled with discouraging news from the Statehouse on issues of importance to Catholics such as stem-cell research, cloning, mandated emergency contraception as well as bills currently under consideration that would expand gambling and force religious groups to be treated as any other charitable organization —it is encouraging that Gov. Mitt Romney’s so-called “foolproof”death penalty bill was defeated in the House Nov. 15.

The bill was presented by supporters as containing sufficient safeguards to prevent the innocent from being sentenced to death. Even if that were true, it is important to realize capital punishment is rarely if ever justified for any reason other than “extracting justice”or taking revenge.

According to polls, many Catholics fail to understand —or may simply disagree with —the Church’s current teaching on the issue as advanced by the late pope John Paul II in his landmark encyclical letter “Evangelium Vitae.”

In that encyclical he argues that, in the context of promoting a culture of life in our society, it is important to defend even the lives of criminals so long as society has the means necessary to render convicts incapable of harming others. In an advanced nation such as ours, we certainly have those means —whether or not they are always adequately employed.

Pope John Paul placed the morality of capital punishment in the framework of the right to self-defense. In “Evangelium Vitae”he eloquently said, “the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not 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.”

In their fall meeting, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has approved a statement that calls for the abolition of the death penalty in our country. That call is based on four main points:

—There are other ways to punish criminals and protect society.

—The application of capital punishment is “deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation and where the crime was committed.”

—State-sanctioned killing diminishes all people.

—The penalty of execution undermines respect for human life and dignity.

The document reaffirms the bishops’position that “it is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life.”

It continues, “We encourage reflection and call for common action in the Catholic community and among all men and women of good will to end the use of the death penalty in our land. Ending the death penalty would be one important step away from a culture of death toward building a culture of life.”

The document also confirms that the morality of capital punishment cannot be compared with other life-issues such as abortion or euthanasia.

“While we do not equate the situation of [those] convicted of terrible crimes with the moral claims of innocent unborn children or the vulnerable elderly and the disabled, we are convinced that working together to end the use of the death penalty is an integral and important part of resisting the culture of death and building a true culture of life,”it says.

We invite those who oppose the bishops’position on capital punishment while holding other pro-life views to carefully consider this logic.

There is certainly no comparison between the moral obligation to defend an innocent life and the defense of the life of an unjust aggressor. But by promoting respect for the life of even a murderer, we can better live the truth that every life has an intrinsic dignity that deserves to be defended.