My letter to the Governor and legislative leaders of Kansas
Dear Governor Brownback, Speaker of the House Merrick, and Senate President Wagle:
I am writing to urge you to support repeal of the death penalty in Kansas. Although I do not regard capital punishment to be on a moral par with the deliberate killing of innocent persons—including killing unborn babies by abortion and killing elderly or handicapped persons in euthanasia—I believe that the abolition of killing as a punishment will promote a culture of life.
Although I believe that legitimate moral criticisms of the death penalty can be made even apart from religious arguments and teachings, my views on the subject are primarily informed by the moral teaching of the Catholic Church. An important development in Catholic understanding of the death penalty came with Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life). The pope wrote that the state “ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. 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” (56). John Paul II reiterated this point during his visit to the United States in 1999, when he called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and work to end the death penalty.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reflects this teaching (2267) and Pope Benedict XVI, Pope Francis, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops all have affirmed it. In short, the Catholic Church now firmly teaches that, in modern society, the state should abandon the death penalty and instead opt for nonlethal means to protect society, such as life imprisonment.
I am aware that many liberals object to introducing religious teachings into debates about issues of public policy. Some even regard it as illegitimate for legislators, executives, and other public officials to act, even in part, on the basis of religious convictions. They will presumably object to the appeal I am making to you. Being persons of principle, I expect that they will regard my invocation of Catholic teaching as out of bounds, even if they share my opposition to the death penalty. (Indeed, if they do not, they will expose themselves as hypocrites.) But I urge you to disregard their objections for the same reasons you should disregard objections to the invocation of religious teaching in opposition to abortion, embryo-destructive biomedical research, assisted suicide, and euthanasia.
It is my understanding that Kansas is considering legislation to forbid certain abortions or abortion procedures, such as those that dismember children in the womb late in gestation. I think it would be salutary if in 2015 Kansas would achieve this highly commendable goal while also replacing the death penalty with the punishment of life in prison for heinous murders. Together, these steps would place Kansas in the vanguard of building a culture of life.
McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence