Is capital punishment on the table?

  • April 5, 2011
When Prime Minister Stephen Harper let it be known earlier this year that he was “personally” in favour of the death penalty, the opposition New Democrats and Liberals exploded like firecrackers.

But was Harper’s support for the culture of death really so surprising? He and his governing Conservatives had already tried to reverse an important pro-life orientation of Canadian foreign policy when they decided to end the practice of seeking clemency for Canadians facing capital punishment in other countries. (The decision was eventually rebuffed by the courts.)

The Prime Minister’s personal preference is also unsurprising in view of the fact that most Canadians appear to agree with him. Harper is a crowd-pleaser, and that’s what crowd-pleasers do: go with the polls.

A study conducted in January by Abacus Data in Ottawa found that 41 per cent of Canadians surveyed advocate the application of the death penalty in certain circumstances and believe the government should bring back the noose. Another 25 per cent support the death penalty in theory, but don’t think the Canadian status quo as an abolitionist state should be changed. If these figures accurately reflect reality, two-thirds of all Canadians believe that putting a man or woman to death for a crime can be a correct administration of justice.

Clearly, Catholics who are trying to promote consistent pro-life policies in the public sphere have their work cut out for them. The minds of the Prime Minister and his cabinet need to be changed. But more important, the minds of Canadians as a whole must be changed, if Canadian society is to reflect the essential, urgent truth embodied in the Catholic Church’s well-known condemnation of capital punishment.

Only rarely do public opinion and Catholic teaching find themselves on the same side of any divide. But, in the case of the death penalty, they do so — though this concord between the Church’s teaching and progressive social thought is fragile, and could snap at any time. (If, for example, authoritarian governments were swept into power around the world, bringing with them an ideology favouring legal punishment by death.)

At this moment, however, time is on the side of Christian truth.

The human rights organization Amnesty International reports that, in 1977, only 16 countries around the world had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. By the end of last year, the figure stood at 96. More than two-thirds of all nations on Earth have dispensed with the death penalty, either by acts of legislation or by changes in judicial practice. That leaves a dwindling number of countries — China, Cuba, North Korea and the United States among them — where the barbaric practice of judicial murder persists.

Yet even in the United States, where the death penalty is fervently supported by millions, change is definitely under way. On the most recent Ash Wednesday, the governor of Illinois signed legislation that removed capital punishment from the state’s criminal code. That brings to 14 the number of American states that have abolished or never instated the death penalty. Legislative initiatives to bring about the same end have been launched in other states, and, in March, Catholic lawyers in California founded a state-wide movement to rally support for a referendum on repeal.

But while the overall tendency in the United States is toward abolition, some states have back-tracked on former repeals and reinstated the death penalty. Could this happen in Canada?

One prominent Catholic activist who believes Canada’s position on capital punishment can be described as “very precarious” is the American nun Helen Prejean. (Sr. Helen rocketed into international celebrity with her 1993 book Dead Man Walking, about the roots of her own fiery opposition to capital punishment.) In Toronto last autumn, Sr. Helen told The Globe and Mail of her misgivings about Conservative firmness on the issue of death-penalty abolition. “If (the Conservatives) gain in ascendency in the next five to 10 years,” she said, “you’d have a party in power that would put back the death penalty in a heartbeat.”

Be that as it may, Canadian Catholic voters should take Stephen Harper’s personal views on capital punishment into account as they go into the voting booths in May. The human right to a natural death is a principle no less important than the right of every fetus to be born. Catholic teaching demands that faithful Catholics hold both rights in mind as we vote for our leaders.

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