On Sept. 21, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia. He had been convicted of the 1989 murder of a police officer. Over the years, Davis continually protested his innocence.
The murder verdict was based on the testimony of witnesses. There was no physical evidence linking Davis to the crime, and no murder weapon was ever recovered.
Over time serious doubts were raised about the verdict. Seven of the nine witnesses who identified Davis as the one who shot the police officer changed their testimony.
As the execution date approached, many public figures, including members of the Catholic hierarchy, wrote to the Georgia Board of Appeals and Pardons requesting clemency for Troy Davis due to the serious questions about his possible innocence.
Pope Benedict sent a letter requesting that Davis' death sentence be commuted to prison without parole, pointing to special circumstances about Davis' court case.
However the letters from the Catholic leaders went further to challenge the legitimacy of capital punishment itself. Pope Benedict called upon all people, especially government leaders, "to recognize the sacredness of all human life."
Pope John Paul said, “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.”
The bishops of the Catholic Church in Georgia were explicit in their condemnation of the death penalty: "We believe that the death penalty is not compatible with the Gospel. . . . The Gospel calls us to proclaim the sacredness of human life in all circumstances."
The Catholic Church's position on the death penalty has changed appreciably over the centuries. In previous centuries, there was Church support for the death penalty in cases of heresy and other crimes. The Papal States conducted state executions up until the 19th century.
Recent popes have challenged state executions. The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirmed the right of public authority to impose penalties for crimes, "not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty."
Significantly, this section was rewritten five years later in the second edition of the catechism. The revised text said the death penalty should be allowed when it is "the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor." Today this condition is almost impossible to meet.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states: "the sanction of death, when it is not necessary to protect society, violates respect for human life and dignity. . . . Its application is deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime is committed. We have other ways to punish criminals and protect society."
Public executions are a distant memory in Canada. The last execution took place in 1962. Passionate public debates about the death penalty in Canada reached a peak in the late 1980s. The archdiocesan Social Justice Commission participated actively in those difficult debates.
I remember participating in a debate on the death penalty with the father of one of Clifford Olson's victims in a local Catholic parish. The Canadian Catholic bishops in 1986 issued a statement, The Spiral of Violence, strongly opposing the reintroduction of capital punishment into Canada. In 1987, the House of Commons, in a historic vote by a margin of 148-127, voted against reintroducing the death penalty into Canada.
Talk of capital punishment has resurfaced in recent weeks. News reports of serial killer Clifford Olson's terminal illness and recent death have brought back to public attention the record of his terrible crimes of rape, torture and murder of 11 young girls and boys. Olsen spent the last 30 years in prison.
Some Canadian public officials and commentators, such as the former public safety minister Stockwell Day, have argued that in the case of such serious crimes where the guilt is certain that capital punishment should be reintroduced into Canada.
However, according to contemporary Catholic moral teaching, the decision to impose the death penalty says less about a moral judgment about the convicted prisoner than about the society and members of the government that would impose the death penalty. Pope John Paul II puts it well when he states that "the dignity of the human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil."
(Bob McKeon: firstname.lastname@example.org)