One of Jesus Christ’s most difficult commandments is to love our enemies. Some enemies are personal, while others are more indirect, enemies of a peaceful society. The Church has upheld this commandment with its stance on capital punishment. The Church offers conditions for moral use of lethal force in cases of self defense (where all other non-lethal means for defense are exhausted), just wars, or in rare cases where execution is the only way to stop an individual from killing again. However, our modern forms of imprisonment our country has afforded us for the past 200 years provides us alternatives that prevent the necessity of executing a prisoner in most cases. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (provided free online by the Vatican at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM) explains these teachings in Chapter 2, Article 5 regarding the Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Not Kill (see: http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P7Z.HTM).
Last month, Archbishop Chaput wrote an article about Terrance Williams, a Pennsylvania man on death row for murder. The Archbishop writes that Williams, who claims he was sexually abused by the man he murdered since he was 13, “deserves punishment. But he doesn’t need to die to satisfy justice.” The defense attorney states that jurors, who were not told about the abuse in his trial, would have opted for life in prison had they known about the abuse. The courts have now issued a stay of execution, but he remains of death row. See the Archbishop’s article here, and his strong encouragement for Catholics to contact the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons and the Office of the Governor and urge them to recommend commutation of Williams’ sentence to life in prison:
It is easy to love those that love us back (Luke 6:32), but we must be mindful of Jesus’ declaration that whatsoever we do for the least among us, we do for Him (Matthew 25:40). Those on death row are truly among the “least” of our society. Our Church challenges us to decrease our desire for earthly justice and increase our focus on compassion, knowing perfect justice awaits all of us before the throne of the Father.
For a brief history of what the US prison system (which began in Philadelphia) was like during the early days of our nation, see: http://www.prisonsociety.org/about/history.shtml