Political pundits and commentators noted many things about last week’s Republican Presidential Debate at the President Ronald Reagan Library.
However, the most chilling part of the entire debate was the loud round applause from the assembled audience to the announcement that under the administration of Governor Rick Perry the state of Texas has executed 234 condemned murderers. Rejoicing in the taking of another life is not only disturbing but utterly repulsive. No matter what one believes about the death penalty, applauding the execution of human beings is macabre and ghoulish.
Catholic teaching on crime and punishment begins with the recognition that the dignity of the human person applies to both victims and offenders. It rightly affirms our commitment to seek justice, comfort and support victims and their families, while also acknowledging the God-given dignity of every human life, even that of the condemned murderer. The fundamental moral teaching of the Catholic Church is rooted in the belief that all human life has inherent dignity that must be respected and defended from conception until natural death. In this encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Blessed Pope John Paul II challenged followers of Jesus Christ to be “unconditionally pro-life.” The late Pontiff reminded us that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”
Our nation’s founding documents affirm the right to life. As a matter of principle, the government should only end a human life if it is absolutely necessary to protect society. Today, sentences such as life in prison without parole make it possible to protect society without having to kill the convicted person. If, as a society, we want to establish that killing is wrong, we cannot do it by killing people who kill people. That is simply too much killing.
Recent studies and new technologies have provided strong evidence against the use of the death penalty. At least 130 people from 26 states have been exonerated from death row after evidence of innocence was found. Studies in state after state have shown that the death penalty is more costly than alternative sentences. There is also strong evidence that the death penalty is applied unfairly. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, over 90 percent of those on death row in the United States were too poor to afford their own attorney.
Killing is never something to be applauded. Rejoicing in the death of a fellow human being can never be acceptable. The applause that filled the Reagan Presidential Library last Wednesday night in Simi Valley, California diminishes us all. Catholics and all people of good will must reject such callousness and cold-heartedness. Clapping for capital punishment can never be acceptable if we are to ever establish a culture of life in our nation. Human dignity deserves more. Human life must be respected, even the life of a condemned criminal. The U.S. Bishops have wisely and courageously stated: “Ending the death penalty would be one important step away from a culture of death and toward building a culture of life.” Now that is something we should applaud.