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"The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. 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 I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary" (Pope John Paul II, Mass in St. Louis, MO, January 27, 1999).
Preaching the Gospel of Life in our day necessarily involves preaching about the death penalty. The cry to abolish capital punishment has become louder both within and outside the Church in recent years, and throughout the world. We are at a moment of collective insight, whereby we see the need to challenge and change a deeply-rooted practice in our society, that it might be more fully conformed to the Lord of Life.
An effective homily on this topic is, of course, distinct from a technical lecture on the fine points of the Church's teaching on capital punishment. Nevertheless, such a homily is an opportunity to clarify some basic misconceptions and challenge some widespread myths. Then, we can show how the very action of the liturgy calls us -- and all society -- to a higher response to the reality of evil and crime.
Clarification of the teaching
The Church's "no" to capital punishment is not the same as her "no" to abortion. The latter is an absolute "no" to an action that no circumstances can justify. The former is a judgment about circumstances that dictate that an action should not be performed, even if there can be instances in which the State has the right to do so.
To point out that the State has the right and duty to protect her citizens from harm, and that the Church indeed teaches that there are carefully defined circumstances in which the death penalty can, theoretically, be justified, is important to answer, in advance, the objections of those who might otherwise reject the entire message.
Motives for re-thinking the practice
Human problems call for humane solutions. Our problems are not solved by eliminating people at any stage or circumstance of life. We live in a culture of death. To change it, we are called to absorb violence, not inflict it.
This lesson is imparted in every liturgy. Christ freely gave His life on the cross in an act that absorbed the violence of every sin ever committed. He was able to forgive those who crucified Him, precisely because He wanted to save them from the evil they had done, rather than to let that evil consume both them and Him.
Christians, likewise, are called to absorb violence. This is not the same as calling good evil and evil good. It is, rather, to live out a new pattern of dealing with evil, a pattern that Jesus introduced by His life and death, and that He both instructs and empowers us to live.
According to this new pattern, we understand that those who do evil, even directed against us, are not our enemies, but rather captives of the enemy. What we ultimately want is not simply to free ourselves from the consequences of their actions, but to free them from the consequences of their actions. That's redemption.
These brothers and sisters of ours do not lose their human dignity because of their crimes, any more than a sick person loses his dignity because of his sickness, or an unborn child because of his age. Those who have done evil can be recipients of our love, and of God's salvation, without anyone having to obscure or deny the fact that what they did was evil.
The time has come for our nation, and for each of us individually, to realize that nothing is solved by putting criminals to death. The victims do not come back to life, the wounds we have are not healed, and we are all diminished in the process.
Death, whether of an unborn child or of a convicted criminal, does not bring us closer to a civilization of love, but rather feeds the mistaken and dangerous notion that killing is a solution to our problems.
Along with the doctrinally based spiritual motives for rejecting capital punishment, the homilist can mention the other common concerns about its use, including a) the significant number of wrongly accused criminals on Death Row who have been proven innocent; b) its failure to deter serious crime or to alleviate the fear of crime; c) its disproportionate use on racial and ethnic minorities and the poor.
We are all called to build the Culture of Life. As opponents of the death penalty, we should be reminded of the many opportunities we have to communicate our convictions to elected officials, and to the public through editorials and participation in prayerful rallies and public petitions. We can support and work for the implementation of alternative measures for criminals, such as life imprisonment without parole.
Standing with the families of the victims is a key companion to opposition to the death penalty. Practical outreach and support for them is both a demand of Christian life and a witness to the proper understanding of our position.
Finally, our Lord has commanded that we pray for those who have hurt us . When people are tempted to regard the death penalty as a solution, or to fan the flames of vengeance in their hearts, they should be urged to pray specifically and explicitly for those who have committed violent crime. A perfect time to do precisely that is within the very liturgy at which this message is preached.
We at Priests for Life pray that all those who preach the Word of God may have the grace to lead their people to understand and live our Holy Father's declaration that "not even a murderer loses his personal dignity" (Evangelium Vitae, 9).
(For more information, visit www.priestsforlife.org/deathpenalty)