Abolition of the Death Penalty

Archbishop Renato Martino
Permanent Observer of The Holy See to The United Nations
Publication Date: November 02, 1999

Mr. Chairman,

For over two decades the international community has pursued the issue of restricting and abolishing the death penalty. The need for a moratorium on the death penalty is gaining momentum, as is reflected in the recent resolution adopted by the Commission on Human Rights (1999/61) of 28 April 1999. The Holy See Delegation welcomes the initiative for a resolution, under item 116a, on the reduction and possible abolition of the death penalty, and expresses its appreciation to all who contributed to this initiative.

The right to life is an inalienable right of every human person. Hence the present draft-resolution under discussion should be understood as a strong affirmation of the dignity of the human person and the sacredness and inviolability of human life. The international instruments on which this draft-resolution is based are, in fact, binding expressions of -- and not substitutes for -- this fundamental principle of the inviolability and sacredness of human life.

The position of the Holy See, therefore, is that authorities, even for the most serious crimes, should limit themselves to non-lethal means of punishment, as these means "are more in keeping with the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person" (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2267). States have at their disposal today new possibilities for "effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm -- without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself." (Cf. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, n. 56).

It is well-known that Pope John Paul II has personally intervened on numerous occasions to appeal for clemency for individuals sentenced to death. He has appealed for a moratorium on recourse to the death penalty, at least on the occasion of the forthcoming Jubilee Year. On 27th January of this year in St Louis, he said: "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 recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is cruel and unnecessary".

All too often, in many societies, the carrying out of the death penalty is accompanied by unacceptable public signs of frightening vengeance and revenge. All too often it is persons who are poor or who belong to ethnic minorities who are more likely to incur this penalty. Even young people and people with limited mental capacity are executed. How many innocent people have been wrongly executed?

Let me say clearly: anyone whose life is terminated in a gas chamber, by hanging, by lethal injection or by a firing squad is one of us -- a human person, a brother or sister, however cruel and inhumane his or her actions may appear. Criminal activity demands effective punishment. But there is no definitive evidence to support the belief that the death penalty reduces the likelihood of capital crimes being committed. Populist exploitation of feelings of fear or insecurity is no substitute for hard evidence. Crime will be overcome significantly by comprehensive policies of moral education, of effective police work and by addressing the root causes of criminality.

Punishment should be secure and proportionate to the crime, but should also be directed at restoring the criminal, wherever possible, to being a constructive member of society. At the dawn of a new millennium, it is befitting that humanity becomes more humane and less cruel. At the end of a century which has seen unimaginable atrocities against the dignity of the human person and his or her inviolable rights, giving serious consideration to the abolition of the death penalty will be a remarkable undertaking for humanity. Abolition of the death penalty, laudable though it is, is only one step towards creating a deeper respect for human life. If millions of budding lives are eliminated at their very roots, and if the family of nations can take for granted such crimes without a disturbed conscience, the argument for the abolition of capital punishment will become less credible. Will the international community be prepared to condemn such a culture of death and advocate a culture of life? Human life demands protection and deserves respect. That protection and respect should be upheld at all stages of human life and everywhere in the world.

The discussion on restricting and abolishing the death penalty demands of States a new awareness of the sacredness of life and the respect it deserves. It demands courage to say "no" to killing of any kind, and it requires the generosity to provide perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes the chance to live a renewed life envisioned with healing and forgiveness. In doing so there is sure to be a better humanity.

Priests for Life
PO Box 236695 • Cocoa, FL 32923
Tel. 321-500-1000, Toll Free 888-735-3448 • Email: mail@priestsforlife.org