In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus teaches us:
You have heard how it was said, You will love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say this to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, and sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike.
Mt 5: 43-45 (NJB).
All persons possess human dignity
All persons are made in the image of God
The most evil person remains a person made in the image of God and possessing human dignity. Indeed, a person is responsible for his or her sin precisely because he or she possesses human dignity and freedom. Reconciliatio et paenitentia ¶ 16. That explains why Jesus commands us to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors.
Human dignity is the context in which Saint Pope John Paul II urges us to consider the death penalty. He says:
Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
Evangelium vitae ¶ 56.
God shows mercy to evildoers
We should at least be wary of taking a life even of a murderer. When Cain murdered his brother Abel out of jealousy, Yahweh declared: “Listen! Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” But Yahweh did not take Cain’s life in retribution. Cain’s punishment was exile, not death. In fact, Yahweh took steps to protect Cain’s life. Cain exclaimed, “Why, whoever comes across me will kill me!” To this, Yahweh responded: “Very well, then, … whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance.” Then Yahweh put on mark on Cain so that no one would kill him. Gn 4: 10-15 (NJB). If God shows mercy to one who murders his brother, should we not do likewise?
The bishops call for the end of the death penalty in the United States
Since 1974, the bishops of the United States have opposed the death penalty. A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, issued in 2005, is their most significant statement on the subject. In it, the bishops say that “it is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life.” Ten years later, the chairmen of the bishops’ committees on pro-life activities and on domestic justice and human development asked all people of good will to work for the end of the death penalty. They said:
1. Pray for victims of crime, those facing execution, and those working in the criminal justice system;
2. Reach out to the families of those affected by violent crime by bringing Christ’s love and compassion;
3. Learn about the Church’s teaching on capital punishment and educate others in this vital area of concern;
4. Advocate for better public policies to protect society and end the use of the death penalty.
Many people in this country who have supported the death penalty are reconsidering their position. It is a difficult question. Persons who commit murder and other heinous crimes should receive appropriate punishment. And victims of their crimes, including the victims’ loved ones, must be respected and safeguarded. But if we take seriously our faith in the human dignity of each person, we need to prayerfully look at this issue in light of Jesus’s words in tomorrow’s Gospel: Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.