Fr. John's Letter Archives

Enjoy re-reading Fr. John's weekly bulletin letters for the past year.

No Need to Execute

08-03-2014Fr. John LettersFr. John

Dear Friends,

How long should it take to die, or more precisely how long is too long? That is the question that is being asked in several states including Arizona as recent executions using lethal injection have taken much longer and possibly have been much more painful as the executioner has access to only two of the three drugs normally used for executing a condemned prisoner.

The drug, sodium thiopental is no longer produced in the United States and most European countries have banned pharmaceutical companies in their countries from selling the drug in the US. This follows a long campaign by death penalty opponents to pressure drug companies to stop making the drug available for use in executions. Thus we see the law of unintended consequences at work. I am sure it was not the intention of death penalty opponents to make executions more difficult or more painful but that wound up being one of the unintended consequences.

The use of lethal injection as a method for execution is probably not the best method to employ for a variety of reasons. From the start no one knew what combination of drugs and at what dosages they should be used at would make killing a basically healthy person quick and painless. Even though now it has been tried and tested we really don’t know if it is painful and it still takes lots longer than other execution methods. It also puts medical personal in the unacceptable spot of participating in the killing of a human being. And as we watched recently in Arizona without medical expertise the execution could easily be botched or violate the 8th Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

Lethal injection also gets us all off the hook. Public hangings or firing squads are generally distasteful to most people and so to quell our nausea we have invented a process using a combination of lethal doses of drugs that sanitizes the killing process, making it seem somewhat respectable, less barbaric that gives the sense of putting the person to sleep peacefully. The fact is that when the state executes one of its citizens we should all be aware of the tremendous power given to the state otherwise that power can be easily misused. Also by making an execution appear neat and clean the deterrence factor of the death penalty is greatly weakened.

Smartly the Governor has called for a moratorium on executions in Arizona. My suggestion to her is to make the moratorium permanent. Once a death sentence is carried out there is no “do-over” and over recent years, thanks to groups like the Innocence Project, we have seen dozens of death row prisoners exonerated from crimes that they were thought to have committed. Executing an innocent person is the ultimate injustice.

The reason for the death penalty is not to carry out revenge but to protect society from an unjust aggressor. Pope St. John Paul II clearly taught that in modern times the state has many non-lethal ways to protect itself from unjust aggressors and therefore the death penalty should not be used any longer. That is the official position of the Church today.

While that teaching does not rise to the level of an article of faith that compels our belief, still it is a teaching that Catholics should take seriously. Again the Church teaches that revenge is never a moral justification for the use of the death penalty. Therefore if we can protect ourselves without resort to lethal force and fulfill the demands of human justice then the taking of a human life should be off the table.

Here’s how the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:
2267 Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, 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."

For St. John Paul II, who wrote that section of the Catechism, this was another way for Christians to combat the culture of death that permeates our society. While use of the death penalty is NOT in anyway the moral equivalent of abortion or euthanasia or participation in assisted suicide, support for its use dampens the light that we shine to transform a culture of death into a culture of life.

Love, Fr. John B.