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Capital Punishment and the Culture of Life19 Oct

Father Ronald Ketteler

Father Ronald Ketteler

By Fr. Ronald Ketteler

Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life, 1995), the “signature” encyclical of Pope John Paul II, emphatically places the preeminent evils of abortion and euthanasia at the center of the struggle between the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” These radical assaults on the fundamental right to life, however, are interlocked within a framework of all threats to human life, including poverty, malnutrition, hunger, and social injustice.

The late Holy Father’s condemnation of “the culture of death” echoes a seminal passage from the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes): “Whatever is op- posed to life itself … whatever violates the integrity of the human person … whatever insults human dignity …” (GS n. 27)

Yet, at the same time, Evangelium Vitae also takes note of new signs of hope in movements that are dedicated to heightening social awareness in defense of life. In particular, the “growing public opposition to the death penalty” pays witness to that “new sensitivity.” (EV n. 27)

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church (2004) confirms this “new sensitivity” concerning the ethics of the death penalty: “The growing aversion of public opinion towards the death penalty and the various provisions aimed at abolishing it or suspending its application constitute visible manifestations of a heightened moral awareness.” (CSDC n. 405)

The Compendium’s synthesis of Church social teaching on the morality of the death penalty is drawn from Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In Evangelium Vitae Pope John Paul II judged that it is no longer necessary for lawful public authority to have recourse to capital punishment since there now exist ef- fective means to suppress crime and to protect society without definitively eliminating the chance for criminals to reform. (EV n.27)

Therefore, the encyclical urges society not to resort to the “extreme of executing the offender except in the case of absolute necessity.” The text limits the meaning of “absolute necessity” to situations “when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” (EV n. 56)

Nevertheless, in the modern developed nations such cases would be “rare, if not practically nonexistent.” (EV n.56) The encyclical’s teaching was incorporated into the revised edition of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” (CCC n.2267)

In a homily preached in St. Louis on January 27, 1999, Pope John Paul II summoned American Catholics as believers and citizens “to be unconditionally pro-life.” The new evangelization should inspire disciples of Jesus to “proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of life in every situation.” He appealed to Catholics to form a societal consensus “to end the death penalty which is both cruel and unnecessary.”

Pope John Paul II renewed his appeal for a consensus to end the death penalty and repeated that theme of the pro-life implications of the new evangelization in his “Jubilee Homily to Prisoners,” preached in Rome on July 2002.

On April 2, 1999, a few months after Pope John Paul II’s homily at St. Louis, the Administrative Board of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops issued “A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty.”

The statement presented a précis of Pope John Paul II’s evangelical charge for a renewed urgency to end the death penalty: “Through his powerful encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae) Pope John Paul has asked that governments stop using the death penalty as the ultimate penalty. The Holy Father points out that instances where its application is necessary to protect society have become ‘very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’” (EV n. 56)


The U.S.C.C.B.’s 1999 Good Friday statement accentuated a key ethical principle for suppress- ing the use of the death penalty: “We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes but for what it does to all of us as a society.” Besides “perpetuating a cycle of violence,” the increasing rate of executions stands as “a sign of grow- ing disrespect for human life” and propagates a myth, namely, “the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.”

Earlier, in the words of the pastoral message, Confronting the Culture of Violence: A Catholic Framework for Action (1994), the bishops had set forth a moral critique rooted in a like assumption: “We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.”

For more than thirty years the Catholic Bishops of the United States have called for the suspension of the use of the death penalty. More recently, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, their 2005 statement on the issue, summons Catholics to face the issue of capital punishment as “an unavoidable moral challenge” and to advocate the end to the use of the death penalty.

The U.S.C.C.B’s Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty has been established as “part of the Church’s broad commitment to defend human life from conception to natural death whenever and wherever it is threatened.”

The U.S.C.C.B’s Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (2007) provided guidelines for political responsibility prior to the last national elections. The document clarifies the Church’s broad commitment to the defense of human life and dignity.

A consistent ethic of life does not reduce all such issues to ethical equivalency. Rather, moral doctrine differentiates “between different kinds of issues involving human life and dignity.”
The Catholic moral tradition, then, affirms that “[t]he direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life from the moment of conception until natural death is always wrong and is not just one issue among many. It must always be opposed.” (FCFC n. 28)

Living the Gospel of Life, the 1998 statement of the United States Conference of Catholic Bish- ops, inculcates the teaching of Evangelium Vitae with specific reference to the pro-life challenges
confronting American Catholics. That pastoral statement placed the distinctions between life issues in bold relief.

At that moment in time, the Catholic bishops in the United States called upon citizens and elected officials to be committed to a fundamental moral principle” “We must begin with a commitment never to intentionally kill, or collude in the killing of any innocent human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled or desperate that life may seem.” Hence, abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide as well as direct attacks on innocent civilians during war may never be morally tolerated. (LGL n. 21)

Living the Gospel of Life also addresses Church teaching on the death penalty in the en- cyclical Evangelium Vitae, namely, that “Pope John Paul II reminded us that we must respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors.” In this regard, the bishops stress that “witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others.”

In a word, “[t]he antidote to violence is love, not more violence.” (LGL n. 22)
After Evangelium Vitae the Catholic bishops of Kentucky reissued their 1984 pastoral letter, Choose Life: Reflections on the Death Penalty. In their introduction, they expressed the hope that “through our teachings and re-issuing of this pastoral letter that all Kentuckians will reflect on this issue and join us in our call to end violence and stop the killing.”

Looking towards the future, our bishops affirm that “the Church has a prophetic mission to constantly remind the world that God is the Lord of life and all human life is sacred and belongs to him alone.” From a moral perspective, the bishops view their rejection of the death penalty “as part of the Church’s opposition to every attack upon human life.” As pastoral teachers, their moral advocacy for the sacredness of life, “even the life of the guilty,” is consistent “with the struggle against abortion, against euthanasia, against the destruction of nuclear war.”

Their message calling for an end to the death penalty is still timely for promoting the Gospel of life — “Choose Life.”

Rev. Ronald M. Ketteler, a priest of the Diocese of Covington, is Associate Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Theology at St. Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Ky. He is also a member of the Ecumenical, Health Care, and Prolife Committees of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. These columns appeared originally in the Messenger.

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