God created each human person with loving care and with great intention. Each of us is so very precious in His eyes. For he fashioned all things that they might have being (Wis. 1:14).
Yet, our propensity to commit violence against one another seems to have been deeply ingrained in us from the beginning. This is sin at its most raw and forceful. We see it again and again throughout human history and, indeed, it is a recurring theme in the Holy Scriptures, from the story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis to the passion of our Lord as told in the Gospels.
Violence stirs many emotions in us. We feel fear for our safety, or sadness at the injury caused by violence, or we may be angered at its injustice and desire retribution.
As Roman Catholics we believe in the dignity of every human person and that every life has value. Acts of violence disrespect that dignity. We are especially pained when we see acts of violence that are sanctioned by law. Abortion is a prime example of this. The use of the death penalty is another.
The parishes in our diocese were very active earlier this year in promoting proposed state ballot measures that reflect the Catholic belief in human dignity and our opposition to both abortion and the death penalty. Despite the efforts of our diocese and the other 11 in California, the abortion-related measure did not obtain enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. The SAFE California Act, which would replace the death penalty in California with a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, did qualify for the state ballot. So we will have an opportunity on November 6 to, in a significant way, promote the culture of life by voting in favor of this measure, Proposition 34.
It is difficult for some to see the abolition of the death penalty as part of the consistent ethic of life in our Church, especially those who may have lost a loved one to an act of violence. Carrying the weight of such loss inevitably makes it more difficult to view the death penalty this way. If you have experienced this kind of loss please know that I hold you in my prayers and ask God to bring you peace and reconciliation. Several years ago I created the Office of Restorative Justice to minister to all those affected by crime and this past year they have begun retreats for families of murder victims and also trainings for ministers to accompany those who have lost a loved one to murder. I ask the faithful of the diocese to be aware of these victims and to reach out to them in prayer and pastoral support.
Our Church’s long history is not without the stain of violence, and even support for capital punishment. This must be acknowledged. At the same time, Church leadership from Rome to Washington D.C. to Sacramento has expressed with increasing volume the belief that the death penalty is a violation of human dignity. This began at the end of the last century under the leadership of Blessed John Paul II and brings us to the present stance of the U.S. Bishops that the death penalty should be abolished in our country and, specifically, the California Bishops’ support of Prop 34.
This change, as with all good things, is rooted in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ who God sent to “shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow, to guide our feet into the path of peace (Luke 1:79).” Blessed John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life offers many important reflections that speak to the present position of our Church on the death penalty. In it, he revisits God’s protective marking of Cain and his subsequent exiling of Cain as a commentary on how we might treat those who commit murder. “God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide,” wrote Blessed John Paul II.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church allows that punishment by death is permissible if it is the only means to protect the public. As first noted by Blessed John Paul II and often by my brother Bishops since, our society has developed sufficient methods for protecting the public from violent criminals that the Catholic criteria for using the death penalty can no longer be met. Whoever commits murder must surely be held responsible for that sinful act, and a life of imprisonment, as stipulated in Prop 34, surely represents a high price.
But at the heart of this very difficult issue is God’s call to us that we recognize the sanctity of all human life and the dignity of every person, even of the one who commits a grave act of violence. Jesus’ promise of unrestricted forgiveness is offered even to the worst of sinners. That gift to our humanity comes with no qualifications or stipulations.
And just as we cannot qualify our belief in the dignity of all life, we must also recognize the peril of sending our children and young people mixed messages about violence. We teach them not to bully, not to fight, not to kill, and yet we show them through state-sponsored execution that violence can be an acceptable solution. This, in no small part, perpetuates the culture of violence that has flared in the tragedies of recent months.
Signs that we, as a nation, are waking up to this double standard have emerged with the decisions over the past three years of New Mexico, Illinois and Connecticut to abolish the death penalty. Six more states, including our own, have put use of the death penalty on hold because of unresolved procedural or ethical concerns. With Prop 34, we will have an opportunity to be part of this conversion of heart on Nov. 6.
The Lord Jesus calls us to turn away from violence and to be sowers of peace (Luke 8:4-8). When we are ready to call for the death of a grievous sinner, He reminds us that our own sinfulness makes us unfit for such judgment (John 8:1-11). He came so that we might have life.
I pray that in this election season, as we are bombarded with information and partisan opinion, that you find time for prayer, reflection and examination of your conscience with respect to the many important matters that will be before us on Nov. 6. May the light of faith be your guide.
And may God bless you.
Most Reverend Gerald R. Barnes
PUBLISHED IN THE SEPTEMBER 2012 INLAND CATHOLIC BYTE