Virginia to Abolish the Death Penalty

This undated file photo provided by the Virginia Department of Corrections shows the execution chamber at the Greensville Correctional Center in Jarratt, Va. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam scheduled a tour Wednesday, March 24, 2021, of the death chamber at the Greensville Correction Center, then planned to sign the landmark legislation. (Virginia Department of Corrections via AP, File)

Wonderful news out of Virginia. Gov. Ralph Northam is scheduled to sign legislation passed last month by the state legislature that will abolish the death penalty in Virginia. The Commonwealth will become the 23rd state to abolish capital punishment.

There are all kinds of reasons to abolish the death penalty, from the overwhelming evidence of it being administered in a racist pattern (far more Blacks are sentenced to death than Whites for similar offenses), to the fact that the justification for administering the death penalty no longer applies. According to Catholic tradition the justification for sentencing a heinous criminal to death is in response to especially grave crimes, such as murder (likely because it was seen as a deterrent) and to protect the larger society from harm, a genuine obligation of state authority. But, the Church now teaches that even those who have committed the most horrible of crimes do not surrender their inherent dignity before God, and with technology available to securely imprison offenders for life without parole, justification for the death penalty is gone. As well, we know too well now that innocent persons have been executed for crimes they did not commit. For years now, one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty in my mind is the idea that the state gives a person only so much time to get him or herself right with God. If he or she doesn’t, the state presumes to do what I believe only God may do – decide the day and time one stands before Him to be judged for eternity.

Here is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the death penalty:

2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”,[1] and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

Virginia has executed more people than any other state over its long history since colonial days. In the modern era, it is second only to Texas in the number of persons executed since the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. It is the first southern state to abolish capital punishment.

Let’s hope and pray that other states follow suit and this abhorrent practice is soon left behind in the dust bin of history.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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