Lv 19:1-2; 17-18; 1 Cor 3:10-23; Mt 5:38-48
Taken together, this week’s readings offer a comprehensive scriptural basis for the repudiation of the death penalty by the Magisterium of the Church.
Technically, it’s not a complete repudiation. Pope John Paul II when he visited St. Louis on his second trip to the United States, reminded his listeners of the only legitimate justification for the Death Penalty in former times: If a criminal was so dangerous that society could not safely confine that person so as to remove the threat, the death penalty could , reluctantly, be imposed as an extension of the principle of self-defense. Given the conditions in a modern maximum security prison, however, the Pope observed that it was “hard to imagine” such a situation existing in the modern world.
Any other justification for the death penalty has never squared with Catholic moral teaching. Certainly not a desire for vengeance: “Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizcen, do not incur sin because of this.” Indirectly this exhortation from Levitcus points to an important distinction: there’s a mile-wide difference between seeking justice and seeking to get even.
How about deterrence? Even if in fact the death penalty does deter crime – and this is by no means an established fact – it wouldn’t justify the terrible sin against life the death penalty implies. Or, as St. Paul says: ” If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.” (Probably best to understand Paul’s words as applying to the hardening of the heart that occurs when we begin to view some lives as disposable. The same rationale would apply to abortion or euthanasia.)
Then along comes Jesus to cast the whole issue in a new light by proclaiming the spirit of the Levitical command to Love your neighbor as yourself: “But I say to you, love your enemies.”
It’s worth reflecting upon this teaching of the scriptures and the Church for a number of reasons. One, however, stands out in my mind at the moment. We already knew, of course, that God is not a member of the Democratic Party of the United States of America. Did you also realize, however, that God is not a Republican?
In fact, God is the Ultimate Independent.
Jim Philipps (3rd millennium pilgrim)
To find and purchase my full-length reflections on the scriptures, go to www.twentythirdpublications.com. My latest book is entitled, “Make Room for Scripture”.)