A Time to Speak — A Catholic stance on capital punishment

Melissa Kaye Zilinskas

After reconvening in February, Kentucky legislators will discuss bipartisan Senate Bill 45, which would abolish the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole. Aside from the fact that, as Catholics, we are called to defend all life from conception to natural death, there are several other reasons for opposing capital punishment.

One reason is the fact that our justice system is not infallible. Errors have been made and innocent people have been executed. Other convicts on death row have been exonerated in time (thanks in large part to scientific advances such as DNA testing). But one life wrongly taken is one too many, and barring an admission of guilt we cannot know with 100% certainty that the perpetrator is indeed guilty of the crime.

Globally, capital punishment has been on the decline. About three-quarters of the world’s countries have abolished it, largely in the last century. The United States is the only western, industrialized nation that still employs the practice. However, the pattern of abolition has been repeated here, with a growing number of states repealing their laws in the last half-century.

Probably the most compelling reason for opposing the death penalty from a faith-based perspective is that it interferes with God’s grace. God alone is the arbiter of life and death, and he works on his own timeline to bring all into his merciful embrace. No one is beyond redemption, and no person should ever be denied the opportunity to repent of his sins and reconcile with his Creator. When the state takes a life, it robs that individual of the gift of grace, whether he was already on the journey or was to be a future work in progress. Those who directly participate in this evil must answer to God for their part in deliberately and prematurely ending the life of one of his children, no matter what crime he may or may not have committed.

Early Christians were opposed to violence of any sort and were often themselves the recipients of violence for their stance. The Catholic Church has a long history of both opposition to and support for capital punishment. The three most recent popes, however, have called for the abolition of the death penalty around the world, with the current pope going so far as to revise the Catechism to state that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (CCC 2267).

Taking another life does nothing to advance healing or reconciliation for anyone. Capital punishment is not about justice; it is about vengeance. Yet Christ stated, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matthew 5:38-39). May we heed his words and rise above heinous acts of revenge. May we always emulate our Lord by extending the same mercy toward others which he has most graciously bestowed upon us. May we never be guilty of hindering the Lord’s hand when one of his children is offered an opportunity for repentance and salvation.

Melissa Kaye Zilinskas is a homemaker and a member of St. Martin of Tours Church.

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