The late Cardinal Avery Dulles has perhaps one of the most compelling arguments against the death penalty — that the modern state is no longer a worthy instrument for so solemn a task. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Death to the death penalty

  • March 12, 2015

I have been staunchly against the death penalty since I started visiting the now-defunct Kingston Penitentiary as an undergraduate, meeting weekly with a group of prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment.

It is more of a practical judgment about the state than any theological argument. The criminal justice system vacuums up the people it can — the poor, the addicted, aboriginals, those who grow up in environments where crime is the opportunity to get ahead. It doesn’t mean that the convicted are not responsible for their crimes, but the profile of the people who are convicted ought to raise ethical concerns. Then there are wrongful convictions. I have never thought that our police, prosecutors and judges are, by that fact alone, superior morally or professionally to government officials who organize road construction or administer the health care system. All make mistakes. That seemed sufficient not to give this particular arm of the bureaucratic state the power to execute people.

I was also sympathetic to the argument that in a culture of death, protest even against the killing of heinous criminals is a powerful form of pro-life witness. Yet that argument could also be made the other way, that precisely because life is precious, grave offences against it require the most serious penalties.

Last week, an unusual bit of co-operation emerged among four American Catholic newspapers that often disagree about much of great importance. They do agree about the death penalty, and issued a joint editorial: “We, the editors of four Catholic journals — America, National Catholic Register, National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor — urge the readers of our diverse publications and the whole U.S. Catholic community and all people of faith to stand with us and say, ‘Capital punishment must end.’ ”

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