“Justice will never be reached by killing a human being”, Pope Francis, quoting Dostoevsky, tells campaigners for the end of the death penalty.
In this letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, Federico Mayor, he outlines loudly and clearly the Christian case against the state’s taking on itself the right to end the life of human beings as a punishment or a way of doing justice to the victim of a crime. He writes in the letter:
The Magisterium of the Church, beginning with Sacred Scripture and the centuries-old experience of the People of God, defends life from conception until natural death, and supports full human dignity in as much as image of God (Cf. Genesis 1:26).
Human life is sacred because from its beginning, from the first instant of conception, it is fruit of the creative action of God (Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2258), and from that moment, man, the only creature God loves for itself, is the object of personal love on the part of God (Cf. Gaudium et spes, 24).
Life, especially human life, belongs to God alone. Not even the murderer loses his personal dignity and God himself makes himself its guarantor. As Saint Ambrose teaches, God did not want to punish Cain for the murder, as He wants the repentance of the sinner, not his death (Cf. Evangelium vitae, 9).
On some occasions it is necessary to repel proportionally an aggression underway to avoid an aggressor causing harm, and the necessity to neutralize him might entail his elimination: it is the case of legitimate defense (Cf. Evangelium vitae, 55). However, the assumptions of legitimate personal defense are not applicable to the social milieu, without risk of distortion. Because when the death penalty is applied, persons are killed not for present aggressions, but for harm caused in the past. Moreover, it is applied to persons whose capacity to harm is not present but has already been neutralized, and who find themselves deprived of their freedom.
Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime of the condemned. It is an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person that contradicts God’s plan for man and society and His merciful justice, and it impedes fulfilling the just end of the punishments. It does not do justice to the victims, but foments vengeance.
For a State of Law, the death penalty represents a failure, because it obliges it to kill in the name of justice. Dostoevsky wrote: “To kill one who killed is an incomparably greater punishment than the crime itself. Killing in virtue of a sentence is far worse than the killing committed by a criminal.” Justice will never be reached by killing a human being.
The death penalty loses all legitimacy given the defective selectivity of the criminal system and in face of the possibility of judicial error. Human justice is imperfect, and not to recognize its fallibility can turn it into a source of injustices.
With the application of capital punishment the condemned is denied the possibility of reparation or amendment of the harm caused; the possibility of Confession, by which man expresses his interior conversion; and contrition, gateway of repentance and of expiation, to comer to the encounter of the merciful and healing love of God.
As I expressed in my allocution of last October 23, “the death penalty implies the denial of love to enemies, preached in the Gospel. All Christians and all men of good will are obliged not only to fight for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also for prison conditions to be better, in respect of the human dignity of the persons deprived of freedom.”
The full text of the letter is here.