Saturday, January 13, 2007

The importance of understanding the dignity of the human person

It is not infrequent to see dissent from the Church's teaching on capital punishment hinge on the distinction between innocent life and the life of the guilty murderer. In the context of my recent preoccupation, Saddam clearly falls into the latter category. While such a distinction certainly exists and needs to be recognized, it is not a refutation, nor even a comprehensive rebuttal of what the Church authoritatively teaches. This distinction is recognized, however, in the Church's teaching by the fact that in cases where capital punishment is the only way to safeguard the population from a dangerous person or persons, the state has recourse to this form of punishment. Therefore, while innocent life must always be protected by the State, this absolute duty does not carry over to cases of the guilty.

We turn to The Catechism of the Catholic Church to learn the basis of the Church's teaching on this controversial issue:

2258 Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end. God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.

Now, I can see the rejoinder, "But that section deals, clearly, with innocent human life". True enough explicitly, but it implicitly deals with all life, guilty or innocent. This is borne out by the rest of the section on the Fifth Commandment. We see this as regards the sections devoted to capital punishment.

2266 The State's effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.

Followed by:

2267 The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.

This caveated in a huge way by what Pope John Paul II taught in Evangelium Vitae, which is quoted in 2267 in the Catechism's second, authoritative edition:

"If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
"Today, in fact, given the means at the State's disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender 'today ... are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'[Evangelium vitae 56]

Therefore, the Church's teaching on the death penalty, flowing from her teaching on the sanctity of life across the board- Cardinal Bernadin's Seamless Garment- as well as on human rights, does not find its roots in the distinction between innocent and gulity human beings, but in the dignity of all human persons. If one does not realize this fundamental truth, the tapestry of genuine Christian faith unravels. On a weekend during which we celebrate the prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I take this opportunity to recognize another prophet in our midst, Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, whose book Dead Man Walking and the resultant film has done much to convict the conscience of our nation that takes pride in being Christian.

Of course, we must not forget the theme chosen by Pope Benedict XVI for this year's World Day of Peace, which we observe each year on 1 January, in conjunction with the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God: The Human Person, the Heart of Peace. In the opening section of his message, the Holy Father writes: "I am convinced that respect for the person promotes peace and that, in building peace, the foundations are laid for an authentic integral humanism. In this way a serene future is prepared for coming generations."

Every human being, innocent or guilty, is ennobled by the imago dei that each of us bears and that sin does not and cannot extinguish. A reality for which we should all thank God, our loving Father, everyday!

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