Respect Life: the indignity of war and capital punishment
By Bishop Robert W. Finn
Kansas City-St. Joseph
AS WE CONTINUE to look at the command of God to respect all human life, it is necessary to say something of the grave danger of war and the obligation we have as citizens and governments to work for the avoidance of war (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2308). In an analogous way, we will see that some of the same moral principles form the context in which we must understand the perils of capital punishment in our day.
Because the catechism is such a helpful resource to us in understanding what the church teaches about these and other moral challenges, I want to point out that in 1997 a revised second edition of the catechism was published in light of later papal documents. Specifically the admonitions against the use of the death penalty were strengthened consistent with Pope John Paul's 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, On the Gospel of Life.
The fifth commandment forbids the intentional destruction of human life, (CCC 2307), and people of conscience must weigh against this the legitimacy of defending against an unjust aggressor. The Second Vatican Council, in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, "Gaudium et Spes," affirmed that "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power, governments cannot be denied the right of lawful self-defense, once all peace efforts have failed" (GS 79; CCC 2308).
The catechism indicates the traditional elements of what is called the "just war" doctrine (CCC 2309), and acknowledges the locus of such prudential judgments in those who are entrusted with the common good. Heads of nations, in accord with the laws of their country and international accords, not only have the right to provide for the defense of their citizenry but, in some instances, they have the duty to do so (CCC 2310).
This having been said, the catechism also reminds us that the tenets of the moral law are permanent and apply during armed conflict (CCC 2312). Weapons that are indiscriminate and vast in their deadly effect, or wartime conduct that shows an intentional disregard for human life always remain wrong.
In the case of armed conflict, the burden of justification is a heavy one. While the phenomenon of terrorism has increased the need for vigilance, countries must not aggravate the likelihood of war by an escalation of arms that may multiply reasons for conflict (CCC 2315). Instead we must be active in cultivating peace by seeking to eliminate injustice, excessive economic or social inequalities, envy and distrust among nations (CCC 2317).
The real Gospel challenge is not only to avoid war, but to actively engage in the strategies that build peace. Believers must not only enlist human creativity and good will to leverage a constructive dialogue between nations, but we must never fail to ground our best human strategies in the truth about the transcendent dignity and eternal destiny of each human person. Prayer and supernatural hope must animate our encounters, and we must work to establish justice that finds its fulfillment in mercy.
What are society's rights and duties concerning crime and punishment? The principles of legitimate defense must also be regarded in the case of governments' need to protect the common good against an unjust aggressor. The acts of defense must not willfully exceed the aggression and must remain respectful of the transcendent value and worth of the human person, even when he or she is doing evil. Punishment which redresses the disorder caused by the offense and at the same time respects the dignity of the human person may also be applied by legitimate authority (CCC 2266).
Over the last 10 years, the clear directives of Pope John Paul II concerning capital punishment seemed to intensify in the progress of his reflections and writings. The revision of the catechism bears testimony to this greater understanding. While still holding to the theoretical moral possibility of the death penalty in cases of extreme gravity (CCC 2266), the pope reasoned that, in light of our ability as a society to protect ourselves by lesser means, the necessity of the death penalty is "very rare, if not practically non-existent" (CCC 2267).
As Catholics we must reject the death penalty as unnecessary if we can protect society in less extreme ways.
Mindful of the human imperfections of our legal system and the possibility that it may be irrevocably misapplied in a sentence of death, it is even more imperative that we avoid such ultimate punishments in favor of systems that assure society's safety, and seek to restore at least some sense of the correction of the guilty party (CCC 2266).