Now Proscribed

08-19-2018Fr. John LettersFr. John Bonavitacola

Dear Friends,

This is an enlightening juxtaposition of events: an inmate on Arizona’s Death Row for 23yrs had his conviction thrown out by a Federal Judge who ordered that he be immediately granted a new trial or release from custody; at about the same time Pope Francis issued an amended version of the Church’s teaching on the use of Capital Punishment for the Catechism.

The Judge in the above case ruled that the 1995 Trial of Barry Lee Jones was a rush to judgement by prosecutors, it lacked due diligence and a thorough professional investigation and there were major failures with his legal representation. These issues, along with others such as prosecutorial misconduct, withholding of exculpatory evidence or shielding the jury from critical information, are often seen in trials. These issues are particularly egregious when the defendant is subject to capital punishment. Imposing a sentence of death is absolute and irreversible when carried out so the trial requires the highest level of jurisprudence and for that reason, the procedure for capital trials is designed with many safeguards. Unfortunately, those safeguards are not always adhered to. As a result, organizations such as the Innocence Project have demonstrated not just that a trial was corrupted but that dozens of inmates on Death Row were actually innocent of the crimes they were so charged. The possibility and the reality of innocent people sentenced to death should give us all pause to reconsider if recourse to capital punishment is something we should still employ.

In the 1990’s I was part of the International Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association and we petitioned Pope John Paul II to reconsider, in light of current conditions, the Catechism’s teaching on Capital Punishment (#2267). As history records, Pope John Paul did update the teaching when he published his encyclical letter The Gospel of Life. The amended teachings said that while the principle still stands, namely, that the state or community has a right to protect itself against an unjust aggressor even to the point of using lethal means when absolutely necessary, because of developments in modern day corrections, the state can protect itself adequately with non-lethal means and therefore capital punishment should not be used.

Pope Francis amended the teaching in #2267 of the Catechism, stating:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

The amended version of #2267 is saying that the conditions by which the use of capital punishment can be morally acceptable no longer exist and therefore its use at this time is both proscribed and morally illicit. The teaching does not state that the death penalty is intrinsically evil (always and everywhere wrong) but rather that its use is inadmissible. It also newly adds to the teaching that the death penalty is an affront to the dignity of the human person, something John Paul II hinted at but did not explicitly state in The Gospel of Life. But not everyone is happy with the change, not because they are necessarily supporters of the use of capital punishment but because they see the amended teaching as a bridge too far, an innovation in that it is too much of a break with the moral principles of previous teaching and thus an inauthentic development of Church doctrine. We can leave that debate up to the theologians and one day I will revisit the theology of the Development of Doctrine that St. Vincent of Lerins so aptly explained.

But in light of the above-mentioned Capital case and many others, it is easy enough to agree that the use of the death penalty is fraught with errors, potential false guilty verdicts and in the case of horrific crimes the rush to judgement. Because of that, the potential that the state, who acts in our name, may be guilty of the worst kind of injustice by putting a not-guilty person to death is reason enough to end the use of the death penalty. Since the amended teaching in #2267 is to be inserted in the Catechism, like the other moral teachings in it, this amended teaching is binding on the conscience and requires our assent. Therefore, we all should prayerfully consider the teaching and pray that the Holy Spirit will enlighten our minds to understand it fully.

I fully welcome the amended teaching, especially based on my own experience with Death Row cases, but I realize that may not be the case with all Catholics. Private dissent is part of the Catholic moral tradition but it requires an honest willingness to consider all the implications of the teaching and to do so privately with one’s confessor or spiritual director. When one privately dissents from a moral teaching of the Church it puts the person’s communion with the Church at risk and therefore it is necessary to keep an open mind, willingness to struggle with the teaching by not closing the door on further enlightenment and holding to the possibility that you may be wrong.

>Love, Fr. John B.

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