Capital Punishment

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August 5, 2018 Click on the left end of the black bar to play/pause

August 5, 2018
Ephesians 4:17, 20-24
Fr. George Smiga

Pope Francis made news again this week by changing a key moral teaching of the Church. That teaching refers to capital punishment. Although his predecessors John Paul II and Benedict discouraged the use of capital punishment, Pope Francis said this week that it is now Catholic teaching that the death penalty is never acceptable. It can never be used. The Pope added that he intended to use the Church’s influence to abolish the death penalty throughout the world. Francis’ teaching is of particular relevance to us as Americans. Although most Western democracies have already abolished the death penalty, we in the United States still use it. In fact last year we were among the top five countries in the world to execute people—along with China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen. So how can we as American Catholics absorb the new teaching of our Church?

A good place to begin is today’s second reading. The author of the letter to the Ephesians says to his audience and to us that to be disciples of Jesus we must conform ourselves to his teaching. We must put aside old ways of thought and put on a new self that is created in holiness and in truth. The author goes on to say that truth is in Jesus. So far so good. We are to conform ourselves to Jesus’ teaching. But how do we know what that teaching is?

There are a variety of ways. First of course we are to read the Scriptures that contain his teachings. We also should look at the example of holy people who we trust and test our own experience. Also, as Catholics, we should listen to the authoritative teaching of the church. You see that Catholics believe that the Pope and bishops speak to us with the authority of the Apostles. Therefore, it is not a Catholic position to say, “Well I know that Pope Francis is against the death penalty, but that’s just his opinion.” It’s not just his opinion. As Pope he speaks with apostolic authority.

So does that mean that if we disagree with this teaching, we have to leave the Church? We do not. Catholic moral teaching gives pre-eminence to conscience. Therefore any Catholic can after careful study of an issue and prayerful discernment decide to dissent from a particular Catholic position. Now, of course, dissent is never to be chosen casually or often. We should always strive to conform our beliefs to the official teaching of our Church.

Therefore, the task that is before us today is to form our consciences on the morality of capital punishment. I invite you to do this. As we undertake this process, we should carefully consider what the Pope has said. And let me end today by offering two reasons why I feel the Pope’s teaching is correct and should be accepted.

The first is this: Ephesians says that the role of a Christian is to conform one’s self to the teaching of Jesus. Opposition to the death penalty certainly reflects Jesus’ position. Can any of us imagine the Jesus of the gospels teaching that criminals and sinners should be executed? Did not Jesus stop the execution of a woman caught in adultery? Was Jesus not himself the victim of capital punishment? Did he not forgive his executioners and the criminal who was hanging next to him on the cross? Does he not teach that we should love our enemies? There is little doubt that opposition to the death penalty brings us closer to the teaching of Jesus.

The second thing to consider is that opposition to the death penalty makes us a more pro-life Church. Catholics are known to be opposed to abortion, committed to protect innocent life in the womb. We also reject the active termination of life at the end of life. Catholics hold these beliefs because we assert that every life is sacred and should be protected. What Pope Francis has done this week is to extend our belief even to those people who commit serious crimes. Practically such offenders will often need to be imprisoned to protect society. But Church teaching now directs us to see the life of every such criminal as a gift from God, a life that is sacred and should be protected.

This week we are asked to form our consciences in regard to capital punishment. I would suggest to you that in a world where violence is running rampant and where human life is too often and casually extinguished, we should take our stand with Jesus and Pope Francis. Believing that every human life is sacred and every human life should be protected is exactly where we need to be.

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