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Death Penalty Is Not an Affirmation of Life but an Assault on It

Capital punishment mires us in the cycle of violence and commits us to the truly horrific principle that avoidable, direct killing is morally permissible.

October 15, 2000|JEREMIAH J. McCARTHY | Msgr. Jeremiah J. McCarthy is rector / president of St. John's Seminary in Camarillo

No one can quarrel with society's outrage at the heinous nature of those crimes defined as capital offenses or with the incalculable suffering endured by the survivors and victims of the perpetrators. Such crimes demand justice and punishment.

The passion for justice that Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury brings to his office testifies to his dedication and is a quality that speaks to the highest ideals of his profession. For this reason, the law has rightly punished those who would dare to trespass and violate the most fundamental of all rights, the right to life.

Because the act of killing so threatens the moral core of our being, it is restricted as much as possible. As scholarly research on the history of the death penalty points out, its classic defense in the Christian tradition represented by Augustine and Aquinas has been based on the principle of "public order" to ensure the safety of society. That is, in circumstances in which the offender cannot be restrained by any other means, the state retains a right to execute a capital offender.

However, given modern methods of incarceration to protect the common good of all citizens, Pope John Paul II has stated that the need to use capital punishment is "very rare, if not practically nonexistent."

Moreover, it is clear that today life imprisonment is a readily available means to protect public order.

Even the classic criteria that moralists invoke to justify the use of force in warfare, the "just war theory," are exercises in moral regret. Recourse to force must be a last resort and not the first response to external threats to life and property.

My opposition to the death penalty is rooted in the conviction that the rule of violence so evident in our world must be stopped in favor of a culture of life so resoundingly affirmed by John Paul in his encyclical letter, "The Gospel of Life." Far from deterring violence, the death penalty proclaims loudly to all that the only response to violence and death is more violence and death. In doing so, we permit the violent offender to triumph by dictating our response and forming our character.


I share Bradbury's righteous anger and revulsion for the crimes that have been inflicted on the innocent. He detailed his convictions in the Sept. 24 Times article, "The Death Penalty Is an Affirmation of the Sanctity of Life." But with equally hardheaded moral conviction, I am appalled by any insinuation that avoidable killing, in any form, is a defense of the principles and wisdom to guide us when taking life is a regrettable but sometimes necessary and justifiable action to defend oneself or nation from grave threats to life itself.

I stress the point that "avoidable" killing must be restricted as good public policy and good moral policy.

With a capital offender behind bars, taking his or her life commits us as a society to the principle that avoidable, direct killing is morally permissible. We have gone down this road for far too long.

Direct killing of unborn life to avoid an unwanted pregnancy or to kill an embryo for her much-valued fetal stem cells is a moral blight on a nation founded on the belief that everyone has an "inalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness."

To the objection that the unborn and embryos are innocent life and, therefore, to be distinguished from the guilty who deserve to die for crimes, I reassert my premise. Whether one is innocent or guilty is beside the point, because, in either case, direct killing, killing that is truly avoidable, is permitted to justify the action of the individual or the state.

I applaud Bradbury for his passionate defense of the sanctity of life. But let's make the sanctity of life real by eliminating the true threat to our public well-being, the principle of direct, avoidable killing in all of its manifestations including the death penalty.

I am well aware of the seductive, symbolic power of the death penalty in our public discourse, especially for politicians who invoke it to assure voters that they are not "soft" on crime. However, I challenge our political leaders to exercise real political leadership by abandoning this flimsy rationale.


By all means, let us punish those who violate the right to life of another. Put them behind bars, and keep them behind bars. But let us also not succumb to understandable anger and passion by subscribing to the death penalty.

At its core, the death penalty mires us in the cycle of violence and commits us to the truly horrific principle that avoidable, direct killing is morally permissible. Let's unmask the death penalty and see it for what it really is, not an "affirmation of the sanctity of life," but like its abortion cousin, a direct assault on society's most precious and unassailable moral foundation, human life itself.

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