The three Catholic bishops of Tennessee, Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, and Bishop Martin Holley of Memphis, have written a letter to Governor Bill Haslam asking that he stop the fast-track executions of three men in Tennessee planned for later this year. In Tennessee, the authority to commute a death sentence belongs solely to the governor. In their letter, the three bishops communicated their opposition to capital punishment, even in the cases of those who commit heinous crimes.
You can read the letter here.
Since the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, the Church’s position on capital punishment has been that, given advances in technologies that now make it possible to securely incarcerate a person over his or her entire life, the justification for capital punishment no longer applies. Capital punishment was justified in the past on the grounds that it served to protect society from the terror of violent, murderous criminals. But, capital punishment is no longer needed to do that. At the time of his 1999 visit to St. Louis, MO, where then Father Richard Stika organized the Holy Father’s itinerary, St. John Paul said, “It is simply not necessary as the only means to protect society while still providing a just punishment for those who break civil laws.”
There is also the risk of executing someone who is innocent. In recent years, three men have been freed from death row after DNA or other evidence proved their innocence.
There is also the serious moral question of executing someone who is mentally ill. Billy Ray Irick, convicted of the rape and murder of seven-year-old Paula Dyer in 1986, has a history of serious mental illness. He has been securely incarcerated for over three decades. He represents no threat to society while incarcerated.
There is also the spiritual question of unnecessarily setting a clock on how long a person has to get him or herself right with God. Basically, we are saying, “You have until this time on this day to get yourself right with God. If you don’t, too bad, we’re going to kill you.” Again, capital punishment is justified if it is the only way to protect society from the legitimate threat of a murderous criminal. But no criminal, no matter how heinous his or her crimes, poses a threat to society while they are securely incarcerated. Who are we, then, to unnecessarily determine how long a person has to get right with God?
I have sometimes spoken of what I call “the abortion mentality.” The abortion mentality is the notion that the best way to deal with difficult people, that is, with those who represent a threat to us, is to kill them. Abortion is only the most obvious manifestation of this mentality. Here is a person I don’t know how to deal with. The easiest way of dealing with them is to kill them. Of course, in order to justify killing them, I have to somehow deny their humanity. So, when it comes to abortion, those in power simply define those in the womb as not being human, or not being persons (pretending that there is some sort of difference between a human being and a person), and of being a threat to my mental or physical health, or my plans for the future, or whatever. In the case of genocide, those in power simply define those they seek to kill as being less than human, somehow inferior, and a threat to their people’s well-being. In the case of capital punishment, we insist that these people continue to represent a threat to us, even as they sit securely behind bars for decades on end. We call them monsters, in order to de-humanize them. Being de-humanized, we can easily justify killing them. It’s the same pattern, just applied to different situations.
We are too fond of killing people. In order to promote a genuine respect for life, that respect needs to be accorded all life, not only to the innocent.
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.