Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

The important question about capital punishment

By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published April 1, 2015  | En Español

The state of Georgia has recently agreed to postpone the execution of a woman on death row because of concerns regarding the quality and therefore the effectiveness of the drugs that are used in the lethal procedure.

I consider this hiatus, no matter how brief it might be, a blessing because it provides another opportunity for us to step back and ask some far more significant questions regarding this subject. Rather than simply being concerned about the means of taking a life, should we not be more concerned about whether we should be taking any life at all?

Over the centuries and across all civilizations, the means of capital punishment have varied greatly. In more ancient societies, capital punishments were frequently enacted publicly, sometimes merely for the entertainment of the masses and sometimes as an attempt to provide a clear deterrent to certain crimes in that society. Some cultures even today still impose public executions. In our more “enlightened” societies, some forms of public execution have been deemed too savage and too cruel to be used and thus these communities look for more “humane” ways to take a life.

Nonetheless, throughout human history, people have been thrown to wild animals; burned alive; weighted down and then thrown into some watery abyss; hanged, drawn and quartered; or guillotined—all as public reminders that certain behavior was not to be tolerated. In more modern times, we have developed other means of taking a human life—we electrocute people, gas them, shoot them or lethally drug them—civilized sensibilities consider these methods more “humane.” The simple truth is that while the means and methods of taking a human life may appear to be less barbaric and perhaps even less painful, all of these methods beg the question of whether we ought to be taking a life at all.

The destruction of a nascent human life within the womb is currently completely exempt from any of these categories since that action has been tragically sheltered by the excuse of being a private decision of an individual no matter what the means of the abortion might be.

Civil authorities have defended capital punishment as an expression of restorative justice. Individuals who have committed horrible crimes must pay the debt for their actions. Families who have regrettably suffered the loss of a beloved member sometimes may request the death of the perpetrator as a way to bring some sense of closure to their sorrow and loss, although even in the wake of the death of the perpetrator, the deep sorrow and the loss of a loved one still lingers in their hearts.

Some people suggest that capital punishment is an effective deterrent to further criminal behavior. Research is at best inconclusive as to the deterrent effectiveness of capital punishment.

Recently the use of DNA materials has served to bring about the reversal of a number of criminal convictions, sometimes after many years have elapsed since the court’s decision.

Capital punishment eliminates that possibility. It is impossible to restore a life that has been lost to the death penalty even if new evidence might later reverse the court’s decision.

With increasing unanimity and intensifying force, our recent popes have voiced their denunciation of capital punishment. Pope Francis has most recently described capital punishment as an admission of the failure of civil justice.

So while the state of Georgia is now pausing to consider if the chemicals we use are effective, I would hope that we will ask the more significant question: “Should we be taking a human life at all?”

In all of the examples of the use of capital punishment throughout the ages, there is only one that was truly salvific, beneficial, restorative and unique—it took place once on Calvary, and we will recall it again this Friday as we thank the Father for sending His Son to accept it as the price of our redemption.