Personalizing issue of capital punishment

By Father Dennis Meinen
View from the Scooter

When you were young, how far did you have to walk to school? Twelve miles in the snow?

Thanksgiving Day was approaching, and the family had received a Thanksgiving card with a painting of a pilgrim family on their way to church. Grandma showed the card to her small grandchildren.

“The Pilgrim children liked to go to church with their mothers and fathers,” she observed.

“Oh yeah?” her young grandson replied. “So, why is their dad carrying that rifle?”

Do you have any experience with firearms? My father gave me a small 4-10 shotgun to begin driving out rabbits in Northwest Iowa. As luck would have it, my dog Oscar started pointing in our backyard, so we took him with us – me with my trusty shooter – and this black canine, with his backyard pointing reputation. I don’t know who fired the first shot, but the rabbit went in one direction and Oscar, in the opposite, that is, back to our car.

This may seem a humorous article about guns. Unfortunately, many of us have heard tragic stories of evil people and innocent victims, prompting gun control debate. How should a Christian view gun control? What does the Bible have to say that would apply to gun control?

On the one hand we don’t hear too much of firearms in the Old Testament. Jesus talks of swords when we hear, “Put your sword back into its sheath, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Matthew 26:52).” But, it was mentioned in a positive light by Jesus himself on one occasion.

He said to them, “When I sent you forth without a money bag or a sack or sandals, were you in need of anything?”

“No, nothing,” they replied.

He said to them, “But now one who has a money bag should take it, and likewise a sack, and one who does not have a sword should sell his cloak and buy one (Luke 22:35-36).”

Many priests formed their opinion on this subject after hearing from two saint theologians: St. Augustine, 354 AD and St. Thomas Aquinas, 1225 AD.

St. Augustine said, “The same divine authority that forbids the killing of a human being establishes certain exceptions, as when God authorizes killing by a general law or when he gives an explicit commission to an individual for a limited time” (The City of God, Book 1, chapter 21).

St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Every part is directed to the whole, as imperfect to perfect, wherefore every part exists naturally for the sake of the whole. For this reason, we see that if the health of the whole human body demands the excision of a member, because it became putrid or infectious to the other members, it would be both praiseworthy and healthful to have it cut away” (1 Cor. 5:6; Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2).

Times do change. Pope St. John Paul II declared the church’s near total opposition to the death penalty. In his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (The Gospel of Life) issued March 25, 1995, and after four years of consultations with the world’s Roman Catholic bishops, Pope John Paul II wrote that execution is only appropriate “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 improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”

In a letter to the President of the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, Pope Francis expressed the Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty, calling it “inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed.”

He continued, “It is an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God’s plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective.”

Well, what do we do? I think we should personalize the issue of capital punishment. I found someone who “walks the walk.” For two decades, Sister Helen Prejean has traveled around the country and the world, speaking out against capital punishment. She tells audiences about being a spiritual adviser to inmates on death row and talks about what it means to accompany a man to his death. She tells of meeting the families of the doomed men and the families of their victims. She talks about how the court system works, and how it doesn’t. She speaks of forgiveness. She calls her passion to end the death penalty “a journey that’s still happening.”

However, the question remains: Well, what do we do?

Father Dennis Meinen serves as chaplain at Holy Spirit Retirement Home, Sioux City, for Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts in the diocese, and Faithful Friar of the Garrigan 4th Degree Assembly of the Knights of Columbus, Sioux City.


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