Jesus was condemned to death.
This fact becomes, like far too many of our prayers and reflections on Scripture during Holy Week, overlooked by much of the Church because it takes on a “religious” or all-too-familiar tone and quality. It is simply the First Station of the Cross or it becomes associated with something much larger than its own reality, the small prelude to the bigger Passion. It becomes tamed and domesticated and pious. It becomes something other than what it is: the stark, scandalous reality that the Son of God, the Word-made-flesh was sentenced to the death penalty and died as one of society’s criminals.
While what we call to mind this week is the whole life, death and resurrection of the Lord, we also call to mind the fact that the Lord died because he suffered at the hand of the state’s Death penalty. What better time is there for us to pause and consider the ways in which we are committed to being part of, as Pope John Paul II had said, the “culture of life” over and against a “culture of death?” Here we recall with horror execution of Jesus Christ, but do we exhibit a comparable horror at the reality that the United States continues to execute men and women today?
In 1999 the United States Bishops (USCCB) released a document titled, “A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty,” inspired by the call of the Holy Father, then Pope John Paul II to end this barbaric and inhuman practice. Instead of reiterating what the bishops say, I’ve posted the text below. During your prayer this Holy Week I invite you to reflect on this call, now more than a decade old and as relevant as ever, and consider what you can do to help end this attack on the dignity and sanctity of human life.
The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition 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. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.1
–Pope John Paul II, January 27, 1999, St. Louis, Missouri
For more than 25 years, the Catholic bishops of the United States have called for an end to the death penalty in our land. Sadly, however, death sentences and executions in this country continue at an increasing rate. In some states, there are so many executions they rarely receive much attention anymore. On this Good Friday, a day when we recall our Savior’s own execution, we appeal to all people of goodwill, and especially Catholics, to work to end the death penalty.
As we approach the next millennium, we are challenged by the evolution in Catholic teaching on this subject and encouraged by new and growing efforts to stop executions around the world. Through his powerful encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), Pope John Paul II has asked that governments stop using death as the ultimate penalty. The Holy Father points out that instances where its application is necessary to protect society have become “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”2 In January 1999, our Holy Father brought his prophetic appeal to “end the death penalty to the United States, clearly challenging us to “end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”3 Our Holy Father has called us with new urgency to stand against capital punishment.
Sadly, many Americans–including many Catholics–still support the death penalty out of understandable fear of crime and horror at so many innocent lives lost through criminal violence. We hope they will come to see, as we have, that more violence is not the answer. However many in the Catholic community are at the forefront of efforts to end capital punishment at state and national levels. Catholics join with others in prayerful witness against executions. We seek to educate and persuade our fellow citizens that this penalty is often applied unfairly and in racially biased ways.4 We stand in opposition to state laws that would permit capital punishment and federal laws that would expand it.
We strongly encourage all within the Catholic community to support victims of crime and their families. This can be a compassionate response to the terrible pain and anger associated with the serious injury or murder of a loved one. Our family of faith must stand with them as they struggle to overcome their terrible loss and find some sense of peace.
We fully support and encourage these and other efforts to uphold the dignity of all human life. The actions of Catholics who consistently and faithfully oppose the death penalty reflect the call of our bishops’ statement Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics: ”Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others. The antidote to violence is love, not more violence.”5
Respect for all human life and opposition to the violence in our society are at the root of our long-standing position against the death penalty. We see the death penalty as perpetuating a cycle of violence and promoting a sense of vengeance in our culture. As we said in Confronting a Culture of Violence: ”We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.”6
We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes but for what it does to all of us as a society. Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes all of us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life. We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.
We are painfully aware of the increased rate of executions in many states. Since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976, more than 500 executions have taken place, while there have been seventy-four death-row reversals late in the process. Throughout the states, more than 3,500 prisoners await their deaths. These numbers are deeply troubling. The pace of executions is numbing. The discovery of people on death row who are innocent is frightening.
In the spirit of the coming biblical jubilee, we join our Holy Father and once again call for the abolition of the death penalty. We urge all people of good will, particularly Catholics, to work to end the use of capital punishment. At appropriate opportunities, we ask pastors to preach and teachers to teach about respect for all life and about the need to end the death penalty. Through education, through advocacy, and through prayer and contemplation on the life of Jesus, we must commit ourselves to a persistent and principled witness against the death penalty, against a culture of death, and for the Gospel of Life.