In the first Christian century, St. Clement of Rome wrote to his people that even "to witness a man's execution, regardless of the justice of his prosecution, is forbidden by the moral law of Christ, for to assist at the killing of a man is almost the same as killing him."
As a bishop of the 20th Christian century, I feel compelled to restate for my people the same warning of St. Clement of the first century, for we are once again "witnesses" to executions. In a nation such as ours, however, founded as it is on democratic processes, we are more than witnesses. Whenever the state acts in our name and with our consent we share a moral responsibility for the acts of the state. If even witnessing executions was a moral problem for Christians in the first century, it is reasonable to suggest that the use of capital punishment as an instrument of public policy poses a moral problem for 20th century Christians.
Each year in Holy Week the Passion according to St. John is proclaimed in our churches; do we not cringe when we hear the words: "We have our law, and according to that law he must die..." (Jn. 19:7). We can never forget that our Lord, Jesus Christ, was executed. God has revealed to us why he chose to redeem us. God has also revealed to us why he chose to redeem us by sending as redeemer his only begotten Son. What God has not explicitly revealed to us is why, among the countless ways in which the innocent Lamb of God could have been offered up for our sins, the Father chose to have his Son be found guilty of a law which demanded the death penalty. And so Jesus, who was sinless and guilty of no crime, was adjudged to be guilty I and was executed. Perhaps by planning our redemption through such a miscarriage of justice, God has revealed to us that the deliberate act by which society takes a human life in the name of "law and order" is a heinous perversion of justice.
We Christians must seek to conform our lives not only to the letter of the teachings of Jesus, but also to the spirit of his life and I teachings. The manner of his death speaks eloquently to us more eloquently even than some of the fragments of his verbal teachings which the evangelists recorded for us in the Gospels. The death of Jesus must serve to illuminate our minds as we examine the relationship between Christians and civil law, especially law which imposes the death penalty.
Our time is filled with paradoxes. We were long the most affluent society on earth, yet there is great poverty in our midst. We are a peace-loving nation on the international scene, yet at home violence is almost a way of life for many of us. Violence abounds in our cities and towns, on our streets and in our homes. Good people are filled with anxiety, and in their search for relief they increasingly look to the state for solutions, solutions of law.
In America, law has been used to achieve all kinds of worthy objectives: protection from arbitrary use of uncontrolled power, actual or potential injustice to person or property and many other examples of encouragement of restraint for individuals, groups or the whole body politic. But law has been sometimes misused also in some instances, with disastrous results. One has only to recall laws implementing the 8th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, "Jim Crow" laws which legalized racial discrimination, laws which have infringed on our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and which have subsequently been struck down by the courts; all such examples serve to remind us that the force of law can be, and has been misused. The force of law has been most frequently misused, it would seem, when, in an effort to protect the rights of one group of our society, the rights of another group are seriously curtailed or violated. Such a situation is bad enough when it involves property rights, but is intolerable when it directly affects persons physically and especially when it affects the very life of a person.
In his book We Hold These Truths, Father John Courtney Murray has written of our American tendency to solve all problems with laws. "There ought to be a law" is a familiar American refrain. This trait breeds another, namely, the tendency to believe that what is "legal" is by that very fact also "right." Christians have a moral responsibility to review continually in the light of our conscience laws which are enacted in the name of the people of the state and nation. The separation of church and state in no way limits a Christian's moral responsibility to evaluate laws from the perspective of Christian moral and ethical principles.
If laws are not subjected to a thorough and critical evaluation in the light of Christ's life, teaching and death, an evaluation which has a fundamental reference to the God who is the creator of all men and women, then there is a tendency for society to make law an end in itself. If what is right ought by that fact to be legal, it seems to follow that what is legal is also right; if it is not against the law, it is all right. Here the chaos becomes complete. Father Murray says that in that situation, "law is deprived of all true sanction from the order of morals and morality is invoked to sanction any sort of law." As a result, both law and morality lose all true meaning. Jesus Christ said it best, when he said: "A time will come when anyone who puts you to death will claim to be serving God!" (Jn. 16:2)
Slavery was abolished, and racial discrimination has been diminished because the consciences of religious men and women became aroused, leading many to spend themselves in the struggle to obtain abolition and repeal as well as to promote equal opportunity, regardless of race or color. The simple truth is that with the passage of time, and with a growth in understanding on the part of people that a particular law or system of laws contains a basic moral flaw, it becomes the responsibility of those people to change the law or even to repeal it. So it was with the law which promoted slavery it must be now with laws that impose the death penalty.
The attachment of the death penalty to a law would seem to stem usually from one or both of two motives: vengeance and deterrence. With regard to the former, the law of the talion ("An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth") surely ought to be abhorrent to the secular humanists in our society and it is completely ruled out for the those who propose capital punishment is to make it serve as a deterrent to future acts Christian by Jesus Christ (cf. Mt 5:38). Besides vengeance, the other motive usually advanced by those whoo propose capital punishment is to make it serve as a deterrent to future acts of violent crime. But the fact is, in our society, the violent crimes to which the death penalty is most often attached are committed in moments of passion-induced blindness. The human passions of anger, lust, avarice, hatred and others, more often than not "blind" a person in terms of seeing clearly the consequences of his or her acts. All that counts, all that matters at the moment is that one's passions be satisfied. Only in retrospect is one able to "see" that the act carried within it the possibility of one's own destruction; by then is too late, there is a victim.
Only the well-read, the well-educated members of our society are likely to be able to understand and to weigh in advance the consequences of a premeditated act of violent crime, but statistically they are the least likely to be executed and they know it. How many "professional persons" are on death row? It is simply and sadly true that those with money and power can indeed influence our imperfect system of justice. It is the poor person, the illiterate person, the person who lives a marginal existence in our sophisticated and complex society who is least likely to "see" beyond his or her act of passion to the jeopardy it brings to his or her own life. The death penalty is no deterrent to the types of violent crimes committed by the types of persons who presently occupy death row in our prisons.
I echo the expressed belief of the founding fathers of our great nation when I assert that the state exists to "establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty" for all. But I would go further and assert that, while it may indeed be necessary for the state to take human life while in the very act of resisting aggression or stopping a violent crime, it is counterproductive for the state to deliberately take the life of anyone. When the state does so it contributes to the never-ending spiral of violence in our society.
A society which vicariously pushes the button, pulls the switch or administers the lethal injection is brutalized thereby to the point of accepting deliberate, premeditated killing as a means of accomplishing an end which is construed as good. "A time will come when anyone who puts you to death will claim to be serving God!" (Jn. 16:2)
If we believe in the sanctity of human life and if we believe that God is the creator and source of human life, then we must ask ourselves whether the deliberate taking of human life, especially when it is the formal act of the state, acting in the name of all of the people of the state, is not the greatest sin of all.
While all persons of good will abhor crimes of violence and sympathize with the victims of violence, their families and their friends, it is legitimate to ask whether a greater evil is made real when the state undertakes the deliberate execution of a human being. The execution of a person has, by the very nature of the act, such an aspect of finality that, once accomplished, there is no further appeal should another form of punishment, or even acquittal and release, come to be seen as having been more desirable in the light of new evidence. The history of capital punishment in the United States sadly contains the names of innocent executed persons, whose lives the state could not restore once the error of judgment was discovered.
I call upon the Catholics of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, and on all of their fellow Christians in northwest Florida, and on all men and women of good will, to assume responsibility for what is done in their name, to refrain from echoing the shout heard almost 2,000 years ago: "Let (their) blood be on us and on our children" (Mt. 27:25).
I urge all of these to call upon the governor to refrain from signing any more death warrants and I urge all of these to request their legislators to remove the death penalty from our laws. I urge Catholics to become actively involved in those movements which seek to abolish capital punishment as an instrument of public policy. It will be to the everlasting credit of Protestant Americans that they led the struggle to abolish human slavery from the face of America. I urge Catholics to unite with their Protestant brothers and sisters, and all men and women of good will, in the struggle to abolish capital punishment from the face of our land.
Asking God to bless all your efforts, whether in homes, schools, churches or businesses to foster those values which promote a general atmosphere wherein human life, at all stages of development, is respected and preserved, remain sincerely yours in Christ.