Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

A power humans were not meant to wield

By BISHOP JOHN N. TRAN | Published October 20, 2023  | En Español

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” ~ Is 55:8-9 

Bishop John N. Tran

This past Oct. 10, the 21st Annual World Day Against the Death Penalty, Archbishop Gregory Hartmayer joined other faith leaders to ask our state elected officials to change the standard of proof for those with intellectual disabilities in capital cases. Bishop Joel Konzen, Bishop Bernard Shlesinger III, and I joined our archbishop in an interfaith statement published online at The Georgia Bulletin regarding the issue. 

May I take this opportunity to express my hope not only for our state to change the standard of proof, but to abolish the death penalty. The death penalty can take an innocent life, does not solve society’s problem nor does it bring true healing to the loved ones of the victims.  

As Catholics, we are faced with the brutality of the death penalty every day when we look at the crucifix and see the person of Jesus Christ, who was executed and died an unjust death on the cross. Surely, we know that he was an innocent man, who died for the sins of humanity. We know that innocent people should not be executed. 

That is one of the problems with the death penalty in the United States: according to statistics from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), 14 people on death row were exonerated from 2020 through this year, half of those using DNA evidence. 

Since 1973, 195 former death row inmates were exonerated of all the charges that put them on death row. Those, of course, are the ones who had good legal counsel to pursue exoneration. What of the others? What happened before the advances in DNA evidence? There is no doubt that innocent people have been executed.  

There are other valid reasons to oppose the death penalty, even for the guilty. First, statistics show that it does not work as a deterrent to violent crime; it is also costly (a 2009 poll by DPIC found police chiefs ranked the death penalty last among ways to reduce violent crime. The police chiefs also considered the death penalty the least efficient use of taxpayers’ money).  

Second, it is racially unjust, as it is disproportionately used in cases where the crime victim was white (refer to statistics link below).  

Finally, and most importantly, as Catholics, we must recognize that executing a human being is a violation of their human dignity as a child of God. That is why, in 2018, Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state unequivocally, “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.” 

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. 

Consequently, the church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” and works with determination for its abolition worldwide. 

The death penalty puts an awesome power into human hands, a power we were never meant to wield. God’s ways are far above our ways, the prophet Isaiah reminds us, and those in positions of power should always remember that—especially considering life and death policies.  

The words of another prophet are also worthy of our attention in this matter: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Mi 6:8).  

We are all called to walk humbly, to listen to the voice of God whose ways are full of mercy. And it’s only in showing mercy that loved ones of victims will truly find healing and peace. Having lost a mother at the age of 34 and a brother in middle school, I know of no other choice but to forgive in order to experience healing, in order to live. And God desires for us all to live!