Father Michael F.X. Hinkley
Not long ago, a poll revealed that 66 percent of Connecticut residents believe the death penalty is a proper punishment for the crime of murder.
Among the respondents to the Connecticut poll, 55 percent see the death penalty as an effective deterrent to murder. If killing a murderer isn’t a real deterrent to murder, why do it? Some commentators observe that the state and federal governments will save money with capital punishment. Others see the death penalty as a way for the community and families of victims to find revenge for crime. More than one psychologist has described capital punishment as a way for society to find a greater sense of control while feeling serious crimes and some members of our society are out of control.
Many in public service take these popular opinions as clear indications that our state should employ capital punishment. It’s the “eye for an eye” theory that seeks justice by rendering a punishment commensurate with the crime. If an individual commits murder he or she is a danger to society and for the sake of justice ought to be put to death.
Martin Luther King Jr., a minister and a social activist, once proclaimed: “The old law of an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” Capital punishment strikes not only at the individual mores and accountability of an individual but also at the moral rectitude of society.
A few years ago, a national publication included a circular that featured brief interviews with 25 men and one woman on death row. Some were sentenced to death by electrocution and some by lethal injection; one was sentenced back in 1982, others more recently. This powerful testimony revealed that these individuals convicted for having committed grave crimes retain their ability to seek reconciliation and atonement for their sins. Several of the inmates spoke of their reawakening of faith and sense of God’s mercy. Others practice daily prayer and regular reading of Scripture.
One man sentenced to either lethal injection or electrocution responded to a question concerning the problems of today’s world: “Well, the world is growing every day in technology, but it’s basically regressing. … If we don’t change, man’s going to destroy himself. I mean, we see, you got chaos all around the world now; nobody has love for everyone anymore. You got life doesn’t mean anything anymore. And so forth. So we got to change our perspective on life.”
With lives rooted in the Gospel, we do have to change our perspective on life! In this way, there have been moral voices calling us to rethink the use of capital punishment.
During Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit to the United States in 1999, his voice was strong in defense of inalienable dignity of those on death row: “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal … for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”
The position taken by the Pope is echoed by the Cathechism of the Catholic Church: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person” (CCC, 2267).
The example of the woman guilty of adultery in the Gospel of John is all the instruction we need on the value of life. In this vivid scene, the scribes and the Pharisees correctly point out that the law of Moses calls for an adulteress to be stoned. With the woman standing before a crowd, the authorities questioned Jesus on whether she should be stoned or not. While the law morally permitted a severe and possibly fatal punishment for her sin, Jesus responded: “Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). Thus, Jesus sought mercy and compassion for the one guilty of serious sin.
By employing bloodless means of securing justice and public safety, the State of Connecticut has the opportunity to concretely demonstrate care for members of our society and affirm their human dignity. As disciples we must trust that the Lord’s example of mercy can lead to the conversion of even the hardest of hearts: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
Father Hinkley is Pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish and the Shrine of St. Anne for Mothers, both in Waterbury.