Human dignity is imbued by God

Originally Appeared in : 9817-8/16/18

I’ve worked in catechetical ministry since 2000, and I don’t recall a more significant change in the Catechism of the Catholic Church than the one Pope Francis recently made. The Catholic Church’s position on the death penalty has moved from permitting it in “cases of extreme gravity” to deeming it “inadmissible” and a violation of human dignity.


This change could not come soon enough. Doing research for this column, I was surprised to read a 2018 Pew Research study that revealed an uptick in Americans’ favorable view of the death penalty from previous results in a 2016 Pew study.


In the most recent survey, 54 percent of Americans favor the death penalty as punishment for murder; whereas in 2016, 49 percent of Americans favored the death penalty. Among Catholics in the 2018 study, 59 percent of whites were reported to favor the death penalty, while the death penalty was favored by 47 percent of Hispanics and 36 percent among blacks. The Catholics’ numbers also increased from 2016: 2 percent more whites, 11 percent more Hispanics, and 7 percent more blacks favored the death penalty. This most recent 2018 Pew study revealed the first increase in favorability after a downward trend of many decades (source: “Public Support for Death Penalty Ticks Up” Baxter Oliphant, June 11, 2018).


I will leave it up to social scientists to attempt to explain why the death penalty became a more favored option among all Americans. Perhaps even an unwarranted undercurrent of fear creates a sense that we need to adopt more punitive measures against those whom we deem a threat to society? This, despite the concrete reality that homicide rates are the lowest measured since the late 1960s (Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018 Trend Report).


As a religious educator, I’m curious to know how the pope’s decision to change the catechism will affect attitudes among those in the pews. Will those 53 percent of Catholics who reported a favorable view of the death penalty prayerfully re-evaluate their positions? How can we, who are charged with teaching from the catechism, help them reconsider?


Clearly, those who are pro-life should have no difficulty accepting the change. The dignity of the human person has been the foundation of all pro-life activity. Christ has taught us that the human dignity of the person does not disappear when he or she commits a crime, even the most heinous. We believe that human dignity is inherent, that is, “existing in something as a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute.” We believe that human dignity is imbued by God. As pro-life people, we acknowledge that dignity exists from conception forward.


A person’s behavior does not change the fact that he or she is created in God’s image.


Still, as one who’s worked in catechetical ministry for almost two decades, I have found that teaching – the inherent dignity of all people –  difficult for many to accept.


Many good Catholics are tempted to personally carve out exceptions. Or, they construct a hierarchy of dignity. Innocents should be afforded more dignity than those who do bad things. But that’s not the teaching. And that is not God’s way.


The death penalty is wrong for a myriad of reasons, both moral and practical. It is cruel and inhumane to sentence someone to death row. The death penalty is used unequally, with more death sentences given to the poor and persons of color. And, DNA testing has revealed that innocent people have been unjustly executed or confined to death row for years. Our Catholic doctrine of human dignity clearly sits atop all of these moral reasons that Americans should oppose the death penalty.


From a practical standpoint, the death penalty costs taxpayers more than life imprisonment. Legal appeals drag on for years. The methods of execution have become problematic; what once seemed “humane” (lethal injection) has, in multiple cases, proven otherwise. And ultimately, there’s no evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent.


In his essay “A Hanging,” George Orwell writes of an execution he witnessed in Burma when he served with the Indian Imperial police. I first read the essay, published in 1931, decades ago, and Orwell’s words resonate today. As he watches the condemned walk to the gallows, Orwell writes:


“It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working — bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming — all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned — reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone — one mind less, one world less.”


Even this secular perspective speaks to the great mystery of human dignity.


Let us take to heart the change that our pope has adopted, and may we work as a Church to protect the dignity of all human life by demanding our legislators and courts end this brutal practice.


Mary Hood Hart is a freelance writer and educator living in Pittsboro, NC. She can be reached at

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