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CHURCH/ “Enough of the unnecessary recourse to the death penalty”

Lorenzo Albacete comments on the execution of Troy Davis and the teaching of the Catholic Church on the death penalty, from John Paul II to the catechism.

(photo ANSA) (photo ANSA)

I found it interesting that for a few moments last week the economic and political drama taking place in the country was set aside by the media to consider the case of Troy Davis, sentenced to be executed by lethal injection for the murder of a policeman in Savannah, Georgia, on August 18, 1989. After all these years of various legal appeals for a retrial, Davis, who always maintained his innocence, was executed on September 21. His final appeals to the State of Georgia were denied despite the fact that seven of the nine witnesses against him had recanted their testimony. His last hope, a stay of execution by the United States Supreme Court, was rejected on the very night in which he was put to death.

The Davis case unleashed a national discussion among American people about the death penalty unparalleled in recent history. The discussion was intensified by the support for Davis’s appeals by countries in Western Europe and Latin America where the death penalty has been abolished. Even the US former president Jimmy Carter intervened on behalf of Davis. The Pope was also said to have supported the request for a stay of execution. The victim’s family, especially the victim’s mother, was given a lot of television time to explain her support for Davis’s execution in spite of being a believing Christian. Concerning the Pope’s request she dismissed it as a product of Vatican officials who are in any case against the death penalty. The Pope personally, she said, probably knew nothing about the case. I do not remember seeing or reading the percentage of support for or rejection of the execution by Catholics in the United States among which there is reported to be a gradual shift favoring the abolition of the death penalty.  For this reason I thought that it would be interesting in this column to review what exactly the teaching of the Magisterium concerning the death penalty is.

In 1995, in his Encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope John Paul II directly referred to the morality of death penalty in the following words: "It is clear that for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and 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 nonexistent."