Capital punishment

Dominik Jabs

When the news about another macabre murder is spread all over Poland or when we learn that some offender has received a lenient sentence the subject of the death penalty returns. Politicians, feature writers and even theologians present various attitudes concerning the legitimacy of this verdict.
In Poland the last execution was carried out in 1988. Since that time we have had a moratorium on executions. Officially, the capital punishment was abolished on 1 September 1998, but the question of its reintroduction has returned several times.
Attempts to amend the penal code were made by the ‘Law and Justice’ but they were unsuccessful. Lawyers do not reach an agreement concerning the possibility to allow the death penalty in Poland after we have become members of the European Union.
Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski does not hide his support for capital punishment. On the other hand, a CBOS poll in 2007 shows that 63% of Polish people are in favour of capital punishment. And although this has been the lowest support within the last 10 years it is still the majority of our society.

The Pope is not taken into account

Naturally, the subject of the death penalty evokes enormous controversies ad emotions, regardless of the social or political support. When Pope John Paul II appealed to abolish the penalty of death in the world, giving his blessing ‘Urbi et Orbi’ at Christmas 1998, he and the whole Catholic Church were severely attacked. In the weekly ‘Najwyzszy Czas’ [The Highest Time] Dariusz Hybel claimed that the Pope’s wish was ‘the expression of the left-wing tendency in Rome.’
It is true that one of the loudest opponents of capital punishment is the left-wing environments, both in Poland and in the world, but at the same time they support abortion and euthanasia. Nevertheless, they oppose the death penalty giving completely different reasons than the Christians’ one, namely they base their views on the Enlightenment atheism. And they are far from the Vatican. The 18th century ideologists negated among other things the original sin, replacing it with the conviction of the natural goodness of man. Journalists also stress that for irreligious environments the death penalty is barbarous since they believe in the present time, so life constitutes the main good. ’From the Christian point of view life is God’s gift so man cannot control this gift. It means that certain spheres of life are reserved only to God and man cannot control them’, said Wojciech Boloz, bioethicist, in his interview for ‘Niedziela’. ‘Because of that one should ask whether we have the right to take someone’s life at all’, he notices. But Jacek Bartyzel wrote in ‘Rzeczpospolita’ that ‘the authorisation of the secular power to apply capital punishment has been confirmed by the teaching office for the period of almost two thousand years, since the times of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the Apostles.’ But he did not mention the fact that for example in the Middle Ages theologians admitted that death penalty was right because it was needed to keep public order. In the 6th century Christianity was so close to the throne that e.g. betrayal of one’s faith was regarded as treason. The above-mentioned St Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans ‘But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose’. However, contemporary exegetes see the duties of Roman Christians for the emperor in this fragment, thus - from the point of exegesis - one cannot draw any conclusions on teaching on the state or punishment. Furthermore, ‘the alleged right of the state to apply death penalty is absolutely contrary to the Gospel since it presupposes the rejection of the fundamental law of love and forgiveness even towards our enemies’, writes Fr Edward Kaczynski, OP, in his book ‘Prawda, dobro, sumienie’ [The Truth, Good, Conscience].

Did Jesus support the death penalty?

Vittorio Messori presents an interesting conception concerning the historical and biblical conditions of capital punishment. ‘In the Christian perspective the penalty of death is a gift for offender. It is a way for him to cleanse himself’, Messori says in one of his interviews. At the same time the convict must accept punishment and express contrition. The feature writer points to the Saviour’s dialogue with the good criminal. ‘Through this punishment Jesus lets great sinners have the honour of believing but now when people do not believe in God they cannot understand the essence of the death penalty’, adds Messori.
On the occasion of the Third World Congress Against the Death Penalty, held in Paris in 2007, Benedict XVI named that kind of penalty ‘an offence against human dignity.’ Some feature writers suggested that his statement undermined the teaching of the Church on that subject and repudiated his predecessors. They used the fact that until the 19th century common offenders were executed in the territory of the ecclesiastical state. They also referred to the last edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that preserved the statement about the death penalty.

Hangman’s noose for the chosen

It is true that the Catechism does not exclude causing someone’s death when we are absolutely sure of the offender’s guilt and if there are no other means of defence against aggression. But it adds that if the authority can use bloodless means to defend and ensure security of people being in danger it should use them since that serves dignity of human being.
John Paul II’s encyclical ‘Evangelium vitae’ (1995) gives an extensive teaching on the death penalty. In paragraph 56 we read, ‘On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely.’ Then the Pope characterises the duties of the state, ‘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. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.’ Currently, as we read in the document ‘Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’ Amnesty International, which has been controversial recently, says over half of the countries in the world have already abolished the death penalty. And 94% of all known executions were done in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States. The number of people supporting executions in the U.S.A. has decreased to 30% within 30 years (it was 80%). Undoubtedly, mistakes made by the courts have contributed to that decrease. Thus innocent people or mentally handicapped were executed. The question of defence of necessity remains. Some supporters of the death penalty treat the killing of aggressor and execution as one. ‘At the moment of killing, regardless of the circumstances, man is helpless and this is the most painful thing’ says Fr Jan Sikorski, who has been prison chaplain for many years. ‘Evangelium vitae’ defines legitimate defence as a dramatic case and ‘values proposed by God's Law seem to involve a genuine paradox.’ Since it is hard to reconcile the right to defend one’s own life and the duty not to harm another man’s life.

Execution = life?

Those who are in favour of the death penalty claim that its application scares off lawbreakers. Janusz Korwin-Mikke thinks that one execution prevents ca. 5 murders but one can read about bigger numbers. However, as Amnesty International reports there has been no evidence that delinquency increased in these countries that have abolished the death penalty. Fr Wojciech Boloz and some feature writers have also mentioned that.
‘The conviction that the death penalty decreases delinquency is only a theory, and additionally various research undermines that’, Fr Boloz emphasizes. Whereas Fr Sikorski believes that the argument for the death penalty, speaking about potential threat posed by the offender, is incorrect. ‘If a life sentenced prisoner kills a guard this is a sign that there were wrong things in this prison and not a signal for the executioner’, says the priest. There are also opinions that in the regions where executions are done aggression increases in the society. Texas can be a good example. This state, three times bigger than Poland, has ca. 20 million inhabitants. In spite of that the number of sentenced prisoners is four times bigger than in Poland. The prison in Huntsville executes even up to 35 people a year but Texas is still the most dangerous state in America...
The lenient Polish law can explain support for the death penalty in Poland.
‘The present penal code originated in definite conditions. After the experiences of the regime its authors wanted to guarantee protection of the convicted offenders’ rights. Today lawbreakers skilfully use these rights, often to their victims’ disadvantage’, Fr Boloz explains. ‘Now the law should be changed’, says Fr Edward Kaczynski. He promotes prevention and not repression in the above-mentioned book. He also emphasizes that one cannot credibly oppose abortion and euthanasia, being indifferent to the death penalty.

"Niedziela" 39/2007

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Fr Jaroslaw Grabowski • E-mail: