Capital Punishment, the Holy Bible and the U.S. Constitution
Published: August 4th, 2018
Oklahoma City — Roman Catholics in the United States and a few other nations, to the extent they honor the teaching authority of the Church, face cross-pressures in wake of Pope Francis’ revision of the Catechism concerning the Death Penalty.
Right now I cannot suggest a ready path to resolution of these cross-pressures within the hearts of individuals, but here are informed reflections about where things stand today, as opposed to where they stood a few decades or a few days ago.
As my family, close associates and long-time readers of my work know, I oppose capital punishment as a matter of public policy and have done so for several years.
I have encouraged public officials, particularly in Oklahoma, to turn away from executions for multiple reasons – led by clear evidence of wrongful executions and other considerations. I believe I am charitable toward those who have a contrary view of the death penalty because I once shared that view.
Which is to say: On most matters of public policy, people are entitled to their opinions and have the right to act and speak within the law and the bounds of civility on the basis of those opinions.
Resort to capital punishment is explicitly anticipated in the Bible (in some Old Testament references it is required for certain crimes).
Capital punishment was recognized as possible (although discouraged) until the last few days in the Catechism, based on teachings from Saint Pope John Paul II and emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. For centuries before John Paul II it was explicitly considered valid in Church teaching and tradition, reflected through papal documents and in many other ways.
For Catholics here, now and henceforward, challenges in this matter are sharpened.
As faithful Roman Catholic Antonin Scalia wrote, capital punishment is explicitly permitted in the U.S. Constitution.
The Eighth Amendment forbids “cruel and unusual” punishment. The Fifth Amendment directs that a sentence of death can only follow a just and legal procedure (i.e. use of due process as understood in the Constitution) and in both common law (precedents in the form of common practice but especially in judicial decisions) and statutes (laws passed by representative bodies, signed by executives and upheld in both judicial review and in practice).
Some have argued that the death penalty should be stricken as unconstitutional through application of the two amendments to the actual practice in this era. That is a judicial-driven solution that would perhaps be as contentious as has another major public policy disagreement of recent decades.
The one clear way to remove the Ultimate Sanction from all of American law is through a well-crafted amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
While uplifting the teaching role of the Church to which I belong and honoring the founding document of the land I love, I support the latter path.