A week ago, I was making a presentation to the Year 10 students at the completion of their project-based learning task on social ethics. For most of the period I fielded questions on all manner of issues, as best I could. A question came up about the morality of capital punishment. In recent times, there has been a concerted move in western countries to abolish the death penalty. It came close to our shores with the execution of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in Bali two and a half years ago. We were proud then of Old Ignatian Julian McMahon (OR1981) defending and standing by them.
I remember as a schoolboy the day Ronald Ryan was executed in Melbourne, early in 1967. He was the last person to be so executed in Australia – and on dubious evidence. A nation was numbed that morning. It was to become a question closer to my own heart when I had been working over many years in the maximum security section of the National Penitentiary in the Philippines. There I saw first-hand the cruelty and inequity of the system. I have seen two men convicted of the same heinous crime, rape of a minor: one a poor worker, executed, and the other, a well-connected politician (found guilty on two counts of rape), released after a term – and he was allowed to build his own comfortable house within the prison compound! I have heard confessions and celebrated Mass with prisoners (the poorest and most unrepresented victims) locked in on Death Row, not knowing when their time of execution will spring upon them. Broken and dehumanised. Almost a thousand of them. Thankfully the death penalty there is now suspended.
I informed the young questioner in the Q&A that the current revised version of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church “does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” but acknowledges that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent’.” So, possible, but rarely justified.
Yet as it so happened, the very day after my talk, Pope Francis declared that the death penalty was absolutely “contrary to the Gospel”. He was speaking on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the promulgation of that Catechism. The Pope pointed to a development of doctrine in this matter and to a change in consciousness of the people. It was a bold move because some might have been quick to remind him that such extreme and inhumane sentences were common in the Papal States themselves in the past. Immoral then if immoral now? And foreseeing that this might unsettle conservatives who view papal teachings as something static, immutable and unchangeable, the Pope employed a wonderful image:
The Word of God cannot be conserved in mothballs as if it were an old blanket to be preserved from parasites. No. The Word of God is a dynamic reality, always alive, that progresses and grows because it tends towards a fulfillment that men cannot stop.
He is speaking here of ethics as an empirical science, which grows with understanding, reflection and prayerful consideration of what it is to be human and how human life is to be lived.
There are many ‘secular’ reasons to oppose the death penalty: It has been shown to have no deterrent effect on crime rates. There is no way to remedy a mistaken execution. It discriminates against economic and racial groups of society. It can be arbitrary and capricious in application. And so on.
But Pope Francis is pointing here to the dignity of the human person. In a letter two years ago to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, Francis wrote:
No man ever, not even the murderer, loses his personal dignity, because God is a Father who always awaits the return of the son who, knowing that he has done wrong, asks pardon and begins a new life. … [For this reason] life cannot be taken away from anyone [and there must always be] the possibility of a moral and existential redemption that will be to the favour of the community.
Last week the Pope was even more unambiguous:
One has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out. And [it] is, of itself, contrary to the Gospel, because it is freely decided to suppress a human life that is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator, and of which, in the final analysis, God alone is the true judge and guarantor.
Pope Francis then indicated that the question of the death penalty “should find a more adequate and coherent space in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.” This suggests a forthcoming revision.
God did not seek the death of the first murderer, Cain. Jesus prevented the execution of the woman caught in adultery. Good precedents both. Pope Francis is underscoring what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin was to call the “seamless garment of life” – that is, a consistent life ethic. An ethic that spans the moment of conception to natural death.
Watch this space.