Respect Life! Justice calls us to support life until its natural end. The death penalty stands in direct contrast to this ethic of life. While not currently legal in Wisconsin, a majority of voters supported a non-binding referendum in 2006 to restore the death penalty.
As the US Bishops remind us:
“In his encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II asserted that punishment “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
The Catechism also makes clear that if other ways exist to protect society, the death penalty should not be permitted: “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.”
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church summarizes these principles and states that “‘modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless’… The growing number of countries adopting provisions to abolish the death penalty or suspend its application is also proof of the fact that cases in which it is absolutely necessary to execute the offender ‘are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’” Some ask whether those who commit the most heinous crimes or who are found guilty of repeated violence constitute the “rare” occasions when the death penalty is appropriate. According to The Gospel of Life, the existence of a “rare” occasion when the death penalty may be used is not determined by the gravity of the crime but by whether “it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” No matter how heinous the crime, if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.
Others question whether our criminal justice system can indeed protect society. They point to examples of the release of offenders who subsequently commit horrible acts of violence. But in the face of a growing culture of death, every effort should be made to promote a culture of life. Therefore, we believe that the primary response to these situations should not be the use of the death penalty but should instead be the promotion of needed reform of the criminal justice system so that society is more effectively protected.”
USCCB, “A Culture of Life and the Death Penalty,” Section IV