January 21, 2011

Be Our Guest / Greg Zoeller

Respecting life in faith and justice

(Editor’s note: Both houses of the Illinois state legislature this month passed bills banning the death penalty in their state. As this newspaper went to press, the bill was sitting on Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn’s desk awaiting his signature. Quinn has not indicated whether he will sign the bill into law. Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller submitted the following commentary after seeing how the state of Illinois is addressing the death penalty question.)

On Nov. 8, 2010, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., the office of the Indiana Attorney General hosted a criminal justice summit convening members of the three branches of state government to address the economic reality of the death penalty.

Two prosecutors, who are considered leading experts in the prosecution of capital cases, referred to the system as “broken” due to the runaway costs that threaten to bankrupt smaller counties.

A Justice of the Indiana Supreme Court cited statistics that show the increasing length of the appellate process, and the reduction in executions over the past two decades.

A research scientist in economics reported on the extreme difficulty in quantifying the overall costs of the death penalty within the criminal justice system for budgetary purposes.

One of the primary reasons for this criminal justice summit was to begin a discussion of the costs of capital punishment in an era of decreasing state resources. There were several options offered to address the growing financial concerns as well as the issue of fundamental fairness in applying statutes equally among all counties regardless of their financial resources.

Convening the three branches of government to address issues of importance to our system of justice is an important role of mine as the state’s legal representative.

But as a Catholic, my faith leads me to view the death penalty from a vastly different perspective.

Our Church’s teachings on the death penalty are part of the moral principle of the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shall not kill.” The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for the end of the use of the death penalty as no longer justified as necessary as a “legitimate defense” of life since society can be safely protected through modern incarceration methods.

In calling for the abolishment of capital punishment, retired Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who had previously supported the use of the death penalty, said, “We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing. We cannot defend life by taking life.”

Though the Catholic Church, in principle, still allows for the death penalty to be carried out by human institutions, our Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes Pope John Paul II in his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (“The Gospel of Life”) that “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent” (CCC, #2267). He also noted that “non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people … in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

This absolute respect for the dignity of all life, the innocent unborn life as well as those who have committed the most heinous of crimes, comes from the faith and hope for redemption of sinners, and the absolute knowledge that we are all sinners. This can be seen in our failure to live up to the perfect life example of Jesus Christ, who sought out sinners for redemption and forgave with his final breath.

From the perspective of faith, the absolute respect for all life does not allow for taking of life except to save and protect other life. The “right to life” is a divine right not subject to the fallibility of human determinations based on human perspectives and knowledge. We are all called to follow the example of Christ in loving God above all and loving our neighbor as ourselves.

While this is an impossible command to fulfill through human means alone, it is, nonetheless, what we are called to do with our lives and is best demonstrated by our respect for all life.

(Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller is a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis.)

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