Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Yes, even the criminal

FRIARS CORNER, October 19, 2008:

A few weekends ago, on Respect Life Sunday, I gave a pro-life homily at Mass. After the homily, I received a tremendous amount of feedback. Now, you have to realize that we usually receive no feedback at all on our homilies, so really any feedback gets noticed. But, after the pro-life homily, I received letters, emails and phone calls. The overwhelming majority of the responses were positive and just two were negative either disagreeing or asking further questions. But, one of the questions that did come up was about my statement that as Catholics we are pro-life even when it comes to criminals on death row. Surely, not the criminal too? And so, since we still find ourselves in the midst of Respect Life Month, I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about what it means to say that we truly have a consistent ethic that supports the dignity of all life from natural conception to natural death and all of the moments in between. The issue of the death penalty highlights much of this.

So, what does the Church officially say on the death penalty? In the Catechism of the Catholic Church we find, “If non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person. Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’” (CCC, #2267). The last portion quotes in the CCC is quoted from Pope John Paul II.

In certainly understand the challenge that some people face when it comes to the death penalty. We rightly feel outrage at horrific crimes when they occur in our society. We often even feel that the punishment warranted by such actions is death. The problem lies in the fact that God has clearly let us know that the power over life and death is not one that He grants to us. It belongs to Him alone.

I could quote you all of the statistics on the death penalty as to why it is a bad idea – it is applied unfairly and disproportionately against the poor and minorities; it has no effect as a deterrent (e.g. Texas with the highest number of executions also has the highest amount of capital crime); you can effectively buy your way out of it if you can afford a good enough attorney. These are all well known and firmly established facts.

The point is that if people can be against abortion and for the death penalty, then they have no understanding of what the Church teaches and believes. They are approaching the cause of life situationally and not theologically and consistently. The logic goes like this – who could harm an innocent baby? So, no abortion. And, who couldn’t harm a guilty criminal? So, yes to the death penalty. The flaw is that this mindset assumes (perhaps unconsciously) that we somehow earn our human dignity. In other words, the baby hasn’t done anything to lose the dignity and the criminal has. But, God says something different – the dignity of the human person is not a reflection of our action (when you’re good it is strong, when you’re bad it is weak). The dignity of the human person is inherent in us and given to us, not earned by us, from God. It is His divine print on us. We can accept and embrace it or we can deny it, but it cannot be taken away from us – ever. When we disrespect even the dignity of the criminal, we disrespect God’s presence in them.

This doesn’t mean we praise them or let them go. It means we do whatever we need to for our society to be safe. Perhaps too often in our culture, the problem is that life in prison doesn’t mean life in prison. These are the areas our attention should be focused upon. But the key is in understanding and embracing that human dignity wherever we find it.

If we don’t, how can we ever expect others to respect the dignity God has placed in us?

Love, Fr. Tom

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