Juan Masia, SJ (Sophia University, Theology / Bio-ethnic)
The issue of 24 February 2000 of the weekly magazine Bunshun had an article entitled: "19 year-old girl kept in custody inside a bag. The subtitle " Can the human rights of the criminal be taken into consideration? "provokes a chilly feeling in one's back. Expressions like this invite extreme opinions to deny all human rights of the assailants. And even if there is no need to go so far, the thinking behind, "let us reflect not only on the human rights of the murderers, but also on those of their victims invites people to justify too heavy punishments be inflicted on the assailants. Do we realize that by doing that, the criminal becomes a victim? The victim that asks for the death of the assailant, maybe without noticing it, turns into an assailant also. In this article I try to affirm the Christian position against the death penalty system, by checking the concept of assailant as it appears in the Bible.

The Bible tells us that God does not take pleasure in the death of the wicked, and see him live (Ezekiel 18:23). It is pitiful that, since the beginning of mankind, human beings have been killing each other as the Book of Genesis tells us in the dramatic narration of the story of Cain and Abel.
The striking end of the story affirms that the murderer Cain is punished and expelled from the land. Nevertheless, "Yahweh put a mark on Cain, to prevent whoever might come across him from striking him down." (Genesis 4:15)
Assailants are murderers not only of their victims but also of themselves. If we were to realize this fact we would pray for them to repent and would like to offer them time and opportunity to do so, but the death penalty system makes that impossible. Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them. They do not know what they are doing'. (Luke 23:34)
It will be impossible for the families of the victims to feel love towards the murderer, but if they could pray God that the assailants recognize their crime and repent, those families would feel healing. Jesus said, 'love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' (Matthew 5:44)
page -1-
Nobody is a spectator, but all of us are, in one way or other, assailants. We bring inside our hearts the roots of hate found in criminals, and we need to be liberated from the bottom of our hearts and be healed. By requesting the death penalty we block our hearts, and as a result, society as a whole, can not be liberated from the roots of hatred. Jesus told them, 'let the darnel and the wheat grow till the harvest; and at harvest time I shall say to the reapers: First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn.' (Matthew 13:29)

Based on such passages of the Bible, the Japanese Catholic Bishops have declared the following in their Millennium Message "A Look to Life". 'A true human splendor is shown by the fact of mutual forgiveness, no matter how difficult it is. This is the road Christ took when he faced the cross. He ordered his disciples to give up the sword and just before his last breath he asked the Father to forgive those who nailed him to the cross. Jesus, with his imposing attractiveness, has drawn many people to himself and continues to influence the hearts of many. Instead of selecting retaliation, he opted for the way of forgiveness by giving up his own life.' (n. 69)

When we look at human history and Church history we realize how much time it took to accept such a way of thinking. Although unthinkable today, in the past, due to many limitations of the times, there was no way to really oppose slavery, wars or death penalty. In our modern times it has become clear that the "protection of life" is a common principle to measure most of such issues.We should not forget that the early Christian communities opposed the death penalty. But, later on, when the Roman Empire accepted Christianity as state religion the Church received special privileges and protection from the State. That led the Church to being a spokesman of the State. St. Augustinus and St. Thomas and even Thomas More, the famous human rights protector of the 16th century, were unable to propose the abolition of the death penalty and accept it under certain conditions.
page -2-
In any case, the Church's teaching, especially with regard to concrete ethical issues, is better understood with the passing of time and is, little by little, upgraded. The changes in the position of the Church with regard to the death penalty are quite interesting from the point of view of doctrinal development. There is a big difference, for instance, between the official opinions of the Church of the 13th century and in modern times. In the old times, Pope Innocent III wrote an apology to Burdens the heretic, but at the same time he tried to convince him that the State had the right to give a death sentence. Luckily enough, the reflections done by the 2nd Vatican Council bore fruit at the epoch-making event when John Paul II officially apologized for the past mistakes done by the Church on the occasion of the entrance into the new millennium. At present, the Church, following the spirit of the Gospel, has become gradually more sensitive towards issues of human rights and of human respect. She is positively supporting now movements for the abolition of the death penalty.

During the 70's each Catholic Bishops' Conference issued official documents demanding the abolition of the death penalty.
In 1978 the Catholic Justice and Peace Commission of each European country asked the Catholic Church offer an official document for the abolition of the system of death punishment.
In 1984 the Japanese Catholic Bishops Conference published an official document "Life, a Gift from God". In the document they declared, "Although modern man is now more sensitive than before to the violations of human rights, to wars and to the death penalty, the cries to liberalize abortion seem to us to be a contradiction.
In 1988 the American Cardinal Bernardin published an official pastoral letter called, "Looking for a Coherent Approach to Life Ethics" where he refers to abortion, euthanasia and the death penalty. There he claimed the need for a coherent yardstick to make a judgement. It took 10 years to accept such an opinion in one of the encyclical letters of Pope John Paul II, the "Gospel of Life." (n. 57) The Pope declared that, Christians must accept respect not only for all human life, but also for any kind of life, from the point of view of claiming respect for the lives of each one. An as a result, it is natural to oppose not only abortion, but also the death punishment, discrimination and war. The commandment 'Thou shalt not kill" includes all life, even that of criminals and vicious assailants, he noted.
page -3-
The 1992 edition of the Catholic Catechism brings a statement (n. 2267) on the death penalty that is not clear enough. "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and 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.
The encyclical letter, the "Gospel of Life" offers a clearer stand on the issue.
"There is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such penalty is seen as a kind of 'legitimate defense' on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform." (n. 27)
Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom." (n. 56)
Some later statements of the Pope have called public interest. He has strongly appealed for the abolition of the death penalty in his 1998 Christmas Message, in his public address in Mexico (25 January 1999) and in St Louis, when 2 days later he visited the United States. L'Osservatore Romano (30 January 1999) quoted the Pope "Death punishment is brutal and does not have any meaning at all." And again on 12 December 1999, when the Pope addressed the public gathered for the Angelus at St. Peter's plaza, made the following statement: "I renew my appeal to all leaders to reach an international consensus on the abolition of the death penalty.
page -4-
1.Stand of the victims and their families.
Although this should be taken into consideration, the hatred for the criminal will not heal the family of the victim, on the contrary, it will increase their suffering. Unable to recover from the shocking reality of the crime, they will continue their lament and, by not stopping hating, they can hardly bear their anguish. No matter how great their efforts, how can the suffering of not being able to forgive by the death punishment really heal them?
2.The feeling of retaliation against the criminal is natural.
On the other hand, revenge might produce a temporary feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment, but will that heal a human person? Giving criminals opportunities to repent and recognize their crimes, to sympathize with the victims and their beloved ones and apologize to them is basically better. And when the victims and their families forgive the criminals both could achieve, for the first time, a basic healing.
3.It is impossible that the victims and their families could feel love for the criminal and there are times when criminals could never feel like apologizing.
"Forgiveness" does not mean to feel love for the criminal, but to pray for him. Pray that the criminal is conscious of his own crime and converts. We also, not only the victims and their families need prayer to get rid of the roots of hate.
4.Capital punishment guards the social order.
Maybe that is true, but the death penalty of a criminal is again to kill somebody. This can never bring social healing.
5.Capital punishment is a deterrent warning to stop crime.
The United Nations adopted a resolution (1989) for the "Convention to Abolish Death Penalty" (Japan voted against and did not join the Convention). Many countries there reported that, with regard to the opinion that the death penalty system is a deterrent against crimes, the death punishment does not stop crime.

page -END-