By Tony Magliano
“Anyone who inflicts a permanent injury on his or her neighbor shall receive the same in return: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Lev. 24:19-20). Thus, this Old Testament development in moral law insisted that one could inflict punishment on a person who injured him, but only to the same degree that she was hurt, but no worse.
But when Jesus arrives, he develops this teaching to its highest moral level by declaring, “You have heard that it was said, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil [read offer no violent resistance]. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. … You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.”
Here Jesus further develops the fifth commandment to its fullest meaning: an absolute ban on all killing, no exceptions!
The first generations of Christians – even during times of severe persecution – took most seriously Jesus’ command not to kill.
Christian literature from the first three centuries consistently affirms that the earliest followers of Jesus Christ completely rejected all forms of violence and bloodshed – no abortion, no euthanasia, no war, no death penalty.
But from the fourth century – when Christianity became legal – much of Christianity lost sight of Jesus’ absolute teaching against all killing – not even killing a murderer.
But in modern times the Catholic Church has come full circle on the death penalty. St. Pope John Paul taught that legitimate cases calling for capital punishment “are very rare, if practically non-existent.”
And Pope Francis developed St. John Paul’s development to its full conclusion. Pope Francis has declared “the death penalty is inadmissible.”
This declaration by the Holy Father necessitated a change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which now clearly teaches the Catholic Church’s total rejection of the death penalty.
The new text in the Catechism says that “There is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. … More effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
“Consequently, the Church teaches, in light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
According to Amnesty International, 55 countries still use the death penalty; including Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, China and 27 states in the U.S.
After the total nonviolent teachings of Jesus, the strongest reason for banning the death penalty is the very real possibility of executing an innocent prisoner. Case in point: According to the Death Penalty Information Center, “Since 1973, at least 190 people who had been wrongly convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated.”
In the state of Florida, where I live, 30 persons have been exonerated – that’s more than any other U.S. state. Thank God these 30 fellow human beings were finally set free after being proven innocent – before they were murdered by the state.
As I write, I have just returned from a small gathering in front of the Key West, Florida courthouse. There, during the time that Darryl Barwick was being executed in Florida State Prison, four of us stood in vigil holding signs asking for an end to the death penalty.
During our vigil, I reflected on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, praying for the soul of Rebecca Wendt whom Barwick was convicted of murdering. I prayed for all those painfully affected by her murder. I prayed for mercy upon those who were participating in Barwick’s state-sanctioned murder. And I prayed for God’s mercy upon Darryl Barwick.
God of life and love, may we finally learn your way that killing is never the answer.
Tony Magliano (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an internationally syndicated Catholic social justice and peace columnist and speaker. He is not a member of the AUSCP. His point of view is his own and not necessarily that of the Association of U.S. Catholic Priests.