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Ramiro Pellitero, Professor of Theology, University of Navarra, Spain School

The death penalty and human dignity

Fri, 10 Aug 2018 10:56:00 +0000 Posted in Word

"The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that "the death penalty is inadmissible, because it violates the inviolability and dignity of the person"". This affirmation can be read in the new essay of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2267), made public in these days.

Within a broader text, this new essay is also accompanied in these days by a Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and by a article by Bishop Rino Fisichella in the Osservatore Romano.

It is a fruit of the doctrinal development that has taken place in recent decades concerning the awareness of the fundamental dignity of the human person, as being created in the image of God; and consequently, a deepening of the respect due to every human life.

Specifically, St. John Paul II maintained in 1999 that, in this renewed perspective, the death penalty is tantamount to denying human dignity and deprives the possibility of redemption or amendment; it is therefore a "cruel and unnecessary" punishment. The Magisterium now pronounces itself along these lines.

For a long time, the death penalty was admitted on the basis of guardianship or legitimate defense of society. In its first edition of 1992, the Catechism of the Catholic Church contemplated the death penalty in the framework of "punishments proportionate" to the extreme gravity of certain crimes. At the same time, it limited the resource to the death penalty to cases in which bloodless means are not sufficient to defend human lives against the aggressor, "because they correspond better to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity with the dignity of the human person".

In its typical or official edition of 1997, the Catechism advanced this argument by making it "the only possible way". It added that today the State has more possibilities to effectively prosecute crime, without the need to deprive the criminal of the possibility of redeeming himself; so that the cases in which it is necessary to apply the death penalty, if they occur, this rarely happens.

Now we are witnessing a further step in the doctrinal development on this issue, to the point of declaring that today the Church considers the death penalty to be contrary to human dignity and therefore inadmissible.

The Letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith points out the three important arguments on which the new essay of the Catechism is based on this point: 1) fundamental human dignity, precisely because it is linked to the image of God that man possesses in his being, "is not lost even after very serious crimes have been committed"; 2) penal sanctions "must be oriented above all to the rehabilitation and social reintegration of the criminal"; 3) "more effective systems of detention have been put in place, which guarantee the necessary defense of citizens".

The Catechism now concludes: with regard to the death penalty: "the Church (...) commits herself with determination to its abolition throughout the world".

Some reflections on three aspects are in order.

1. First of all, it should be noted that it is a question of the fundamental dignity of man, which does not depend on the opinion or decision of some or many, and which is never lost, even in the case of a great criminal. Hence, every person has value in himself (he cannot be treated as a mere means or "object") and deserves respect for himself (not because a law says so), from the first moment of his conception until his natural death.

On what is this "absolute value" of the person based? Since ancient times, the person has been distinguished by his spirit, by his "spiritual soul", among the other beings of the universe. Also for his special relationship with the divinity. The Bible confirms that man was created in the image and likeness of God. And Christianity makes it clear that every person is called to receive a share in the divine filiation in Christ. Those who do not recognize the existence of a Supreme Being have more difficulty in establishing human dignity. And historical experience sample that it is not a good experience to let some or many decide whether or not someone has human dignity.

Another thing is moral dignity, which someone can lose, or in which he can diminish, if he does something unworthy of a person. On the level of fundamental dignity, there are no unworthy persons. On the moral plane, there are people who make themselves unworthy by trampling on the dignity of others. Moral dignity grows every time a person acts well: giving the best of himself, loving, making his life a gift to others.

2. Secondly, the adjective inadmissible, used by Pope Francis and included in the new essay of the Catechism, may seem excessive to some. The reference letter is taken from his speech on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The context of this speech could be explained as follows: today we have come to a renewed reflection in the light of the Gospel, not only in the light of natural ethics on which the argument of self-defense is based. The Gospel financial aid to better understand the order of Creation that the Son of God has assumed, purified and brought to fullness, contemplating the attitudes of Jesus towards people: his mercy and his patience with sinners, to whom he always gives the possibility of conversion. And so, after this process of discernment also doctrinal, today the Church teaches that the death penalty is inadmissible because she has come to the conclusion that it is contrary to the fundamental dignity of every person, which is never lost even if a great crime is committed.

The letter of the Congregation of the Faith notes that the duty of the public authority to defend the life of citizens still stands (cf. the previous points of the Catechism nn. 2265 and 2266), also taking into account the current circumstances (the new understanding of penal sanctions and the improvement in the effectiveness of the defense) as pointed out by the updated essay of n. 2267.

At the same time, the new essay is presented as an "impetus for a firm commitment" that will lead to the means, including dialogue with the political authorities, to recognize "the dignity of every human life" and to eliminate the legal institution of the death penalty wherever it is still in force.

3. Finally, it is worth noting, as Msgr. Rino Fisichella - President of the Pontifical committee for the New Evangelization - does in his article published in the Osservatore Romano (2-VIII-2018), that we are before "a decisive step in the promotion of the dignity of every person". It is, in his opinion, a true progress -development harmonious in continuity - in the understanding of the doctrine on topic, "which has matured to the point of making us understand the unsustainability of the death penalty in our days".

Evoking the opening speech of St. John XXIII at the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Fisichella writes that the deposit of faith must be expressed in such a way that it can be understood in different times and places. And the Church must proclaim the faith in such a way that it leads all believers to take responsibility for the transformation of the world in the direction of the authentic good.

This is indeed the case. In pointing out the role of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Bull promulgating it in 1992 noted that it "must take into account the clarifications of doctrine which in the course of time the Holy Spirit has suggested to the Church". And it added: "It must also help to shed the light of faith on new situations and problems which have not yet arisen in the past" (Apostolic Constitution Fidei Depositum, 3).

In the same vein Pope Francis expressed himself in the speech cited by the point of the Catechism whose new essay occupies usFrancisco, speech on the XXV Anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 11-X-2017: L'Osservatore Romano, 13-X-2017).

It is not, in short, a question of mere words, but of fidelity - authentic fidelity is a dynamic fidelity - to the message of the Gospel. A fidelity that, on the basis of reason and therefore of ethics, wishes to transmit and proclaim Christian doctrine starting from the contemplation of the Person, life and teachings of Jesus Christ.