BY James Hitchcock
On Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018, the Human Journey Colloquia Series presented “Is the Death Penalty Effective, Ethical or Unjust?” The discussion panelists included Dr. Patrick Morris (Criminal Justice), Dr. Brent Little (Catholic Studies), and Dr. Brian Stiltner (Theology and Religious Studies).
The discussion focused on a declaration by Pope Francis in August 2018 stating that the death penalty is an unacceptable punishment in all situations. This statement reflects a revision of a previously accepted principle in the Catholic teachings where the death penalty was acceptable in very rare cases.
The panelists debated the Pope’s right to revise official Catholic teaching on the issue of the death penalty. Dr. Little began the discussion with the question, “How can ancient teachings be changed?” The main focus of Dr. Little’s question was whether or not teachings and belief systems can change, and if so, what causes them to change.
“It is this ‘big picture’ issue that I focus on for the colloquium, as I would like students to think about how Catholic teachings develop,” said Dr. Little. His goal was to encourage students to think about the religious and legal perspectives of the death penalty.
“I am not the most religious kid and I’m indifferent about the death penalty. If a rapist is convicted, it really makes no difference to me if he sits in a cell or is executed; either way I think they’re both fair punishments,” said junior Joshua Carr.
Although the church permitted executions for centuries, Pope John Paul II significantly changed the church’s stand on the death penalty in 1997 by creating limited standards permitting acceptable use of the death penalty.
The recent ruling by Pope Francis makes even those instances unacceptable, suggesting that regardless of how horrific the circumstances, the Catholic Church does not support ending a life as an acceptable punishment.
“I chose to join the panel because the death penalty is an important issue that speaks to broad challenges in our society – how to keep people safe, how to prevent crime, and how to make the criminal justice system work fairly for all,” said Dr. Stiltner.
Legally, there are laws in place to deter people from committing crimes. Fear of being incarcerated or put to death deters many people from committing crimes. It is unclear how eliminating the death penalty may impact society. It is costly to keep individuals in jail for many years and yet the possibility of executing an innocent person is the alternative, an ethical problem raised by Dr. Morris during the panel discussion.
“My personal position on the death penalty has changed over the years. At one time, I was a supporter. Today, I oppose it completely. My main opposition centers around the possibility of an innocent person being executed,” said Dr. Morris.
Students here at SHU have varying opinions on the issue of the death penalty. “I side with the death penalty. To me, there are certain people in the world that I just believe don’t belong in it. There are just certain individuals that don’t deserve what God has given them,” said senior Brad Cingolani.
Pope Francis’ decision to declare the death penalty unacceptable reflects a changing belief system. Dr. Little suggested that many people still believe the death penalty is a fair punishment and yet have strong religious beliefs. However, Dr. Morris explained that his time in law enforcement showed him that individual belief systems can change over time based on life experience.