Much of the discussion, often rancorous, within the church about the inadmissibility of the death penalty centres around the historical fact that Scripture and tradition acknowledge the authority of the civil authority to administer it. How, then, can the Church say it cannot justly be administered today by the public authority?
It seems clear that Pope Francis, developing an impulse already evident in the teaching of St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict, teaches that the death penalty is a violation of a prior, ineradicable human dignity granted by God, and that the conditions no longer exist wherein the state may justly condemn a person to death.
If the Church can condemn an unjust use of the death penalty in particular cases, it may do so in general by indicating that the conditions for just administration are not fulfilled in contemporary society. Further, the good of protecting others can be addressed in other ways.
This was in part the purpose of my comment on Twitter, proposed in the form of a question, comparing the federal government’s execution of Brandon Bernard to the decision of King Herod to execute St. John the Baptist. Both were acts of a public authority. Herod’s decision was obviously unjust, an almost Girardian example of blood lust. That Brandon Bernard was accused of heinous crimes is not in dispute. But we as a country cannot simply say, “the government made the decision,” so it must be just. Herod made a decision, too.
There are far too many questions about how the death penalty is pursued in heinous cases today. Was Mr. Bernard given a fair chance to defend himself? Is the disproportionate application of the death penalty upon the poor, African-Americans and other minorities relevant to how his trial came to end in a death sentence? Does a modern obsession with “someone has to die” for a heinous crime have some relation to a wider societal lust for vengeance? Did this attitude contribute to his death sentence? These are all moral considerations that the question about Herod’s decision implies. And all of these questions are relevant to the church’s wider judgment that the death penalty should be abolished worldwide.
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The Most Rev. Daniel E. Flores is the bishop of Brownsville, Texas.
With thanks to America Magazine, and Bishop Daniel E. Flores, where this article originally appeared.