Church Body urges removal of Death Penalty from Constitution
27 May 2001
Issued by the Catholic Communications Office on Behalf of the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace
A Church body has urged Catholics to vote in favour of the removal of references to the death penalty from the Constitution, in the forthcoming June 7 referendum.
In a statement issued today (28 May) the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace, a commission of the Irish Bishops’ Conference, says that to retain even the possibility of re-introducing the death penalty “appears increasingly at odds with the Church’s overall witness to the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death”.
The statement says that any toleration of capital punishment is increasingly indefensible in moral terms, even in cases of extreme gravity. It refers to the growing Catholic insight that a pro-life stance has to be consistent across the board.
Today the common good of society can be protected without recourse to the death penalty. Capital punishment is no longer necessary to prevent criminals from re-offending. Modern society has the administrative means to imprison offenders.
Catholic teaching now asserts that the judicial taking of life by the State is now to all intents and purposes unjustifiable. The Pope has appealed for abolition of capital punishment, which he calls “cruel and unnecessary”.
“By refraining from judicial killing, the State makes a silent but powerful statement about the sacredness of all human life, even the most guilty. Such a stance educates the moral conscience of the community. The culture of violence, which creates an unending stream of new victims, is much better confronted by measures which themselves avoid the further taking of life. If, as we believe, each person is of unique value, how can Irish Catholics fail to give a clear witness to the sanctity of human life by not supporting the referendum proposal?”
Full Text of Statement follows
Further information: Jerome Connolly
The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace,
169 Booterstown Avenue, Blackrock, Co Dublin.
Tel 01.2885021; fax: 01.2834161; email [email protected]
The Catholic Communications Office,
St. Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare.
Tel 01.6016700; fax: 01.6016699; email [email protected]
Fr Martin Clarke (087 220 8044)
Ms Brenda Drumm (087 233 7797)
Voting in the Referendum on the Death Penalty
Statement by the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace: A Commission of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference
On 7 June next Irish electors are asked to vote on three separate proposals, one of which to remove references to the death penalty from the Irish Constitution. If this proposal is approved it would remove from our legal system the final traces of an earlier approach which allowed the killing of a human being as a judicial punishment. This is something in which Catholics can rejoice.
As far back as 1981 the Commission for Justice and Peace, as a body of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, urged the abolition of the death penalty from a Catholic and Christian perspective. The arguments put forward then have become stronger year by year. In 1989 the death penalty, which had not been carried out in the Republic of Ireland since 1954, was removed from the statute book for all offences, whether civil or military. Subsequently Ireland took a further step by ratifying Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights. In doing so the State has bound itself not to re-introduce the death penalty for as long as it adheres to the Protocol. The only exception is in respect of acts committed in time or war or of imminent threat of war. In 1993 Ireland ratified the Second Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which has the same effect.
There is always a risk, however remote, that the death penalty could be re-introduced as a judicial punishment as long as the Constitution allows for this. To retain even the possibility of re-introducing execution as a punishment in the ordinary criminal justice system appears increasingly at odds with the Church’s overall witness to the sacredness of human life from conception to natural death.
Historical developments, the universal availability of long-term custodial alternatives to judicial execution, and the growing Catholic insight that a pro-life stance has to be consistent across the board, make any toleration of capital punishment increasingly indefensible in moral terms, even in cases of extreme gravity.
Traditional Catholic teaching justified capital punishment by reference to society’s right to self-defence; it was held that the death penalty was needed in certain cases to defend the common good. Today the common good can be protected without using the death penalty. Irrespective of the degree of guilt and the gravity of crime involved, Catholic teaching now asserts that the state’s judicial taking of life is now to all intents and purposes unjustifiable (see Evangelium Vitae, n.56 and Catechism of the Catholic Church, pars. 2266-7).
At the level of the Universal Church the Pope has appealed unequivocally for the abolition of capital punishment, which he describes as “cruel and unnecessary”. In his 1998 Christmas address the Pope called for a moratorium on the death penalty in the year 2000. Shortly afterwards he made a general plea for an end to the death penalty:
The new evangelisation calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. 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 recently at Christmas  for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary. (Address at St. Louis, Missouri, USA, January 27, 1999).
It has never proved possible to establish the deterrent effect of capital punishment beyond reasonable doubt; indeed in some circumstances it may well have the opposite effect, as Irish history witnesses. Given the irrevocable nature of the taking of a God-given life, this lack of certainty about the deterrent nature of the death penalty strengthens the argument for refusing moral sanction of its use in any circumstances.
The United Nations accepts that there is no information to show that the resort to the death have abolished and then re-introduced the death penalty, crimes for which it is prescribed have not been diminished.
In previous times societies generally did not possess the means to hold criminals in prison for long periods or in appreciable numbers. Modern societies, in contrast, dispose of a variety of means to punish evildoers, including prison systems geared to keeping convicted persons deprived of their liberty for extended periods if necessary. Thus, even in practical administrative terms, imprisonment as an alternative to judicial execution is a perfectly practical option for the State and the community. Given the cost to the State of legal appeals against the death penalty, to which condemned persons would always be entitled, available figures suggest that the death penalty is actually a more expensive option for the community than imprisonment.
By refraining from judicial killing, the State makes a silent but powerful statement about the sacredness of all human life, even the most guilty. Such a stance educates the moral conscience of the community. The culture of violence, which creates an unending stream of new victims, is much better confronted by taking measures which themselves avoid the further taking of life. If, as we believe, each person is of unique value, how can Irish Catholics fail to give a clear witness to the sanctity of human life by not supporting the referendum proposal?
Catholic witness to the sanctity of human life must show itself as consistent and comprehensive, if it is to be fully credible. The rejection of the death penalty by the Church’s teaching authority as “cruel and unnecessary” is part of such a consistent witness. For the same reason we believe it is now not only desirable but morally incumbent on Irish Catholics to vote in favour of the referendum proposal to remove all references to the death penalty from our Constitution.