The Death Penalty and the Throwaway Culture

This week – and throughout the month of October – we celebrate Respect Life Month. We showcase how, as a diocesan family, we joyfully embrace and deeply respect each life from conception until natural death.

By: Jeff Caruso, Virginia Catholic Conference, Guest Contributor

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress as Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Speaker of the House John Boehner look on in the House of Representatives Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS photo/Jim Bourg, Reuters) See POPE-CONGRESS Sept. 24, 2015.

Pope Francis addresses a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress as Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Speaker of the House John Boehner look on in the House of Representatives Chamber at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24. (CNS photo/Jim Bourg, Reuters) See POPE-CONGRESS Sept. 24, 2015.

In his recent address to Congress, Pope Francis took no one by surprise when he said,

The Golden Rule … reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” 

What he said next, though, may have surprised quite a few:

“This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am 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.”

Then, after affirming the U.S. bishops’ renewed effort to end the use of the death penalty, the Holy Father added,

“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.”

Pope Francis blesses a prisoner as he visits the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-PRISON Sept. 27, 2015.

Pope Francis blesses a prisoner as he visits the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia Sept. 27. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-PRISON Sept. 27, 2015.

Following his strong words, some have been quick to emphasize the difference between Church teaching on abortion (an intrinsically evil action that can never be justified) and on the death penalty (which can be justified only if nonlethal means are inadequate to protect society from the offender). This distinction between intrinsic evils and matters of prudential judgment remains a fundamental point in Church teaching. But Pope Francis is calling for a change in hearts, not a change in Church teaching. He’s urging us to embrace the hope that allows us to work toward ending executions, just as we work to end abortions. All life is sacred, he reminds us. A culture of life includes all.  It excludes no one and discards no one, absolutely no one.

In calling for “the global abolition of the death penalty,” Pope Francis offers a prudential judgment meant to touch the hearts of Catholics and all people of goodwill. We, in turn, are called to consider the pathway he proposes thoughtfully, prayerfully, and deeply. It’s certainly a tough issue. As Bishops Loverde and DiLorenzo noted in a statement earlier this year,

“To be sure, this teaching challenges many people, including ourselves when we reflect on violent crimes and lives lost in senseless and unimaginable ways. The deep pain, grief, and suffering of those who have lost loved ones to violence cry out for our care and attention.

But our bishops then conclude,

More killing, though, is not the answer: The death penalty does not provide true healing for those who mourn, nor does it embody the Gospel of Life, which each of us is called to affirm even in the most difficult circumstances.”

Sadly, just one week after Pope Francis’ visit, several states, including Virginia, proceeded with executions, despite interventions by Church leaders. In Virginia, Governor McAuliffe received two letters – one from the U.S. Apostolic Nuncio on behalf of the Holy Father, and another from the Virginia bishops – urging him to spare the life of Alfredo Prieto. But instead, the Commonwealth went beyond its ordinary procedure to carry out the death sentence, using a drug shipped from Texas so that it could proceed with the October 1 execution as scheduled.

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This may lead us to conclude that, alas, the Pope’s stirring speeches will have little longterm impact. But actually, that’s for us to decide. Will we do our part in Virginia?  The next time an execution is scheduled here, will we take a stand for life alongside the Holy Father and our bishops?

To learn about ways you can help defend life at every stage, please join the Virginia Catholic Conference advocacy network. Pope Francis inspired; now we must act.

Jeff Caruso is executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference. The Conference is the public-policy agency of the Commonwealth’s Catholic bishops and their two dioceses.

Find the Virginia Catholic Conference on Twitter @VACatholicConf

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