Our beloved people of God:
“The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations, and forgiving wickedness and crime and sin; yet not declaring the guilty guiltless, but punishing children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation for their father’s wickedness.” (Ex. 34:6-7)
The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy declared by Pope Francis is an auspicious time for the church to draw strength from the merciful love of God and address issues of vital importance in the life of the church in our country. As bishops entrusted with pastoral care, it is our moral duty to draw reflections on the gospel of life as it touches the burning issues of our day. In season and out of season, we take our shepherding role seriously before Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
We ask all Filipino Catholics and all men and women of goodwill to read these words borne out of our collegiality as your bishops to reflect on them and to create “circles of discernment” so that we can reflect together, decide together, work together and pray together that the truth may prevail!”
Why the Church Must Speak
It was when God had created man and woman, bringing human life upon the earth that God rested from the work of creation. In every human person is that incomparably precious breath of life from God himself, as we read in the book of Genesis, “the Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
It is this Divine gift of life, sublime and unsurpassable, that the death penalty takes away. It is the breath of life, the gift of the Creator, that every judicial execution snatches and cuts short.
To every man and woman is open, by the Savior, Jesus Christ, the invitation to the fullness of life. Every man and woman is a person redeemed by God’s own Son, made an adopted son or daughter of God, and heir to the promise of the Resurrection.
This is the dignity of the human person. It is this dignity that the death penalty transgresses!
Our Moral Sense Evolves!
For many centuries, the death penalty was unquestionably accepted by most including the Church. However, with time our understanding evolves and we learn to become more human in our behavior according to the dignity bestowed upon us and our moral sense evolves. In the last century, due also to a better understanding of the human person, the input from psychology and a deeper understanding of human frailty, many began to question the need for the death penalty. The Spirit blows in the world and we are also asked to read the signs of the times (see Matthew 16:3): a growing consensus against the use of the death penalty.
From the time of the 1935 Constitution to the present, our fundamental law has always insulated all from “cruel and unusual punishment”, but for a long time, it was understood – according to the moral sense at the time – that the death penalty constituted an exception to this proscription.
But our sense of what is just and our reading of the laws evolves. And while, in the past, our courts may have not found any repugnance between the imposition of the sentence of death and the constitutional proscription of cruel and unusual punishment, now, the contradiction and irreconcilability are striking and compelling.
You cannot, without contradiction, insist that the person is secure from cruel punishment and at the same time open the possibility of inflicting upon him or her the most cruel punishment possible: the calculated, planned and deliberate deprivation of life!
This was exactly the point eruditely made by Mr. Justice William Douglas in an Opinion he wrote in the case of Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972). He very instructively wrote:
It is also said in our opinions that the proscription of cruel and unusual punishments is ‘not fastened to the obsolete but may acquire meaning as public opinion becomes enlightened by a humane justice’. A like statement was made that the Eighth Amendment ‘must draw its meaning from the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.’”
Church teaching for the 3rd millennium
Saint Pope John Paul II increasingly voiced his stance against the death penalty. In Evangelium vitae, his famous testament to the value of human life, he pointed out that cases warranting the death penalty now are “very rare if not practically nonexistent” (Evangelium Vitae, no. 56). At a mass in St Louis, USA, Pope John Paul II also made the following appeal: The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life…A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary” (Pope John Paul II, Jan 27, 1999.)
Pope Francis, together with the worldwide Bishops, stated emphatically that the Church “firmly rejects the death penalty” (see Amoris Laetitia, no. 83). This is the definitive Catholic Church teaching for the third millennium. Pope Francis also addressed the Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty on June 23, 2016 in the following words:
It is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person. It likewise contradicts God’s plan for individuals and society, and his merciful justice. Nor is it consonant with any just purpose of punishment…It must not be forgotten that the inviolable and God-given right to life also belongs to the criminal.
It is time then to rid ourselves of the obsolescent notion that a person who commits a heinous wrong “forfeits his right to life”. No one can forfeit the right to life, because life is at the free disposal of none, not even of the State!
An International Obligation
The Philippines is in fact under a legal obligation not to restore the death penalty. This is an obligation in law that it took upon itself when our government ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Significantly, Article I of the Protocol cannot be clearer about our legal obligations:
1. No one within the jurisdiction of a State Party to the present Protocol shall be executed.
2. Each State Party shall take all necessary measures to abolish the death penalty within its jurisdiction.
And there is nothing in the Protocol that would allow the Philippines to denounce the international agreement. In fact, it would not be in our best interests to do so, in light of the fact that in respect to other aspects of our national life, we take refuge and seek legal relief under the norms of international law and international agreements.
Not only the operative provisions of the Protocol, however, are instructive, but also the perambulatory clauses.
Believing that the abolition of the death penalty contributes to the enhancement of human dignity and the progressive development of human rights, convinced that all measures of abolition of the death penalty should be considered as progress in the enjoyment of the right to life, these are some of the premises underlying the obligation of State-parties, among them the Philippines, not to execute anyone and not to restore the death penalty to our statute books.
Quite significantly, on December 21, 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Resolution No. 65-206. In part, it reads:
Mindful that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the implementation of the death penalty is irreversible and irreparable;
Convinced that a moratorium on the use of the death penalty contributes to respect for human dignity and to the enhancement and progressive development of human rights and,
Considering that there is no conclusive evidence of the deterrent value of the death penalty.
3. Calls upon States to (d) establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty; 4. Calls upon States which have abolished the death penalty not to reintroduce it.
Our position against the death penalty therefore rests not only on considerations of human dignity but has legal foundation. In the country’s legislature R.A. 9346, the act repealing the death penalty and granting universal commutation to life imprisonment and reclusion-perpetua (June 24, 2006)
We Cannot Give Up on Anyone!
Nowhere does the Gospel grant us any authority to write anyone off as “unsalvageable human material”, one who can be disposed of by execution. The Gospel is the good news of redemption – that no one is ever completely beyond the reach of Divine mercy.
When the State kills in the name of justice, it is in fact saying that the condemned person has no right to live, is undeserving of the basic right to life, and that there is no saving quality or attribute in him or her whatsoever.
This is a position that the Christian cannot and must not maintain. The Gospel by which we all live and in which we all find hope is one that proclaims the inestimable value of human life and the inexhaustible love and mercy of God that constantly renews, even when it seems that no renewal is likely or possible!
The Unconscionable Cruelty of the Death Penalty
Aside from the almost unbearable anguish that the condemned person experiences awaiting the fated hour of death, there is the cruelty visited on the members of the condemned person’s family. Have we not, as a nation, experienced the anguish while awaiting news of the fate of a condemned compatriot sentenced to suffer the ultimate penalty?
And as we heed with greater sensitivity the rights of children, is it not clear that by stigmatizing the children of an executed person with the almost indelible scarlet marking of “children of an executed criminal”, we inflict cruelty on innocent children way beyond our present laws make criminal and punish? We find it noteworthy that it may be hypocritical for us to seek the death penalty on drug related crimes in the country while seeking for clemency for Filipinos convicted of drug-related capital crimes in other countries.
Restoration, not Retribution
While it is true that the concept of “retribution” has been central to many theories of penalty, it is, at best, a nebulous concept that is hardly distinguishable from a stylized and sanitized form of vengeance. When the State kills, it kills with no less reprehensibility as when a criminal kills, for the same violence is involved, and the result is the same: the curtailment of human life and the violation of its inalienable value and worth!
If retribution means something akin to “paying back”, how can suffering death “pay back” for the offense committed, except by some primitive sense that engenders the discredited “eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”!
Not really retribution then but the restoration both of the victim as well as society and the offender to optimal, human, humanizing and just relations! This is the positive moment of justice.
1. Ask Catholic law-makers to withhold support from any attempt to restore the death penalty;
2. Call on our Catholic jurists to study the issue and to oppose, through proper judicial proceedings, the re-introduction of capital punishment;
3. Appeal to our Catholic judges to heed the teaching of the Church and to appreciate every possible attenuating or mitigating circumstance so as not to impose the death penalty.
We appeal to the patron Saint of lawyers, St Thomas More, who admirably combined his earthly duties with his heavenly ones. A brilliant lawyer, orator and statesman, he served his king and country faithfully. He would not however compromise his principles and was even willing to die for the truth. His last words were “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.” May all Catholic lawyers be inspired by his courageous example and along with the whole Church, firmly reject the death penalty. In this Year of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, it is our prayer that we will all realize that the world is saved by the Infinite Mercy of God, and by the mercy by which we forgive each other’s faults, in the realization that we too stand in continual need of forgiveness.
From the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, September 14, 2016, Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross
+ SOCRATES B. VILLEGAS
Archbishop of Lingayen Dagupan