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Abbot Peter Novokosky

Abolish death penalty: pope

Pope Francis made a strong plea Feb. 21 for countries to abolish the death penalty. Initiated by previous popes, it’s a change he has advocated since the beginning of his pontificate.

In this Sunday’s address, Pope Francis linked the abolition of the death penalty to the Year of Mercy. He appealed to Catholic leaders around the world to work to stop executions during this year. He emphasized that the death penalty should be abolished permanently. “The commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value, and covers both the innocent and the guilty,” he said. “Even the criminal keeps the inviolable right to life, a gift from God.”

His address came on the eve of an international conference organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome. The conference was titled, A World without the Death Penalty.

The pope said he hoped the event would give renewed impetus to the momentum to abolish capital punishment. He added that everyone deserves the chance for redemption.

The Saint’Egidio Community followed up the papal plea with a statement saying that in a world where terrorism and violence are widespread, governments respond to violence with more violence, but in 2000, Pope John Paul II stated emphatically that there’s no justification for capital punishment. He said “the death penalty, an unworthy punishment still used in some countries,” should be “abolished throughout the world” during a visit to Rome’s Regina Coeli prison. Earlier, in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life, 56), he had said that cases calling for the death penalty “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

When Pope Francis spoke at a joint session of the U.S. Congress last September, he also called for the global abolition of the death penalty.

According to Death Penalty Information Center, the United States is one of 37 countries where the death penalty is legal and has been used in the past 10 years. Other countries include China, Japan, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Syria, Iran, and Pakistan.

In Canada, the death penalty was abolished in 1976. The last hanging occurred on Dec. 11, 1962, at Toronto’s Don Jail. 

Opinion about the death penalty has remained divided, however. On June 30, 1987, a bill to restore the death penalty was introduced and defeated in the House of Commons by a 148 – 127 vote. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Minister of Justice Ray Hnatyshyn, and Minister of External Affairs Joe Clark were among those who opposed the bill.

Polls show that 48 per cent of Canadians favoured the death penalty for murderers in 2004; this climbed to 62 per cent in 2010. A 2011 poll found that 66 per cent of Canadians favoured capital punishment, but only 41 per cent would actually support its re-introduction in Canada.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267) notes that traditional church teaching does not exclude recourse to the death penalty in extreme cases. But, it argues, “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.”

Hopefully this teaching will strengthen Canadians’ resolve to keep the death penalty off the books.


When politicians are friends

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scali died Feb. 13 at a Texas lodge while on a hunting trip. It was a sudden and unexpected death.

Many comments are being made about him, the longest-serving judge in the Supreme Court. He is lauded as a dedicated public servant, a great jurist and a faithful Catholic. He was the face of a conservative legal movement that confronted dominant liberal legal attitudes and movements in America. 

One of his traits that should not be overlooked was his capacity for friendship. He has been called one of the few major Washington figures who cultivated private friendships with people he routinely opposed in public. 

His storied friendship with the liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg actually inspired an opera that debuted last spring. “We were best buddies,” she wrote in a tribute to him. “We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation.” 

Scalia himself once remarked: “Call us the odd couple. She likes opera, and she’s a very nice person. What’s not to like? Except her views on the law.”

Michael Sean Winters, in his National Catholic Reporter blog, wrote that Fred Rotondaro, chair of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told him, “I had the good fortune to know and be a friend of Justice Scalia for some 30 years. We agreed on virtually nothing politically but had fun lunches, almost always over Italian food and wine, talking often about Catholic thinkers like Chesterton. On the occasions we would move into political issues, he would needle me without mercy on my left-wing politics.” 

Washington has too few friendships like that anymore, Winters comments. And Canadian politicians would do well to also take note of this.