The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines gathered in Plenary Session in Tagaytay on July 23-26, wishes to register its opposition to the restoration of the death penalty in our country, for the following reasons:
The abolition of the death penalty by the 1986 Constitution was a very big step towards a practical recognition of the dignity of every human being created to the image and likeness of God, and of the value of human life from its conception to its natural end.
This advance was in accordance with the 1971 Resolution of the United Nations which declared, “in order fully to guarantee the right to life, provided for in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), the main objective to be pursued is that of progressively restricting the number of offenses for which the death penalty may be imposed, with a view to the desirability of abolishing this punishment in all countries” (emphasis added).
It would indeed be regrettable, if after that step forward embodied in our Constitution, we should now take a backward step without moral necessity.
Some people, and many in the mass media are today insistently urging for the restoration of the death penalty. For this step to be taken, there must be very serious moral justification. We submit that the arguments advanced so far do not justify the restoration of the death penalty.
a. There are those who say that the death penalty is a deterrent to the commission of crimes.
But this deterrent effect on the commission of future crimes by others has nowhere been convincingly established. In fact, the 1989 Amnesty International (AI) report states. “The fact that no clear evidence that the death penalty has a unique deterrent effect has emerged from the many studies made, and the methodological difficulties inherent in all such studies, point to the futility of relying on the deterrence hypothesis as a basis for public policy on the death penalty” (p.14).
The American Bishops have also pointed out that “There are strong reasons to doubt that many crimes of violence are undertaken in a spirit of rational calculation which would be influenced by a remote threat of death. The small number of death sentences in relation to the number of murders also makes it seem highly unlikely that the threat will be carried out and so undercuts the effectiveness of the deterrent” (Statement on Capital Punishment, 1980).
Another justifying reason adduced today is retribution or the restoration of the order of justice violated by the criminal’s action.
But this retribution need not entail the imposition of the death penalty even in cases of murder. While the killing of a murderer by the State may satisfy vindictive desires, such a satisfaction cannot be the objective of a humane and Christian approach to punishment. From the Christian point of view, Christ’s words about the forgiveness of injuries and above all his own example on the Cross call not for vindictive punishment, but rather for more humane and humanizing punitive responses to evil doing. We cannot argue that we should do to the criminal what he did to his victim. For certainly, as the American Bishops say, we would not justify inflicting torture and the maiming of the limbs of a person who has criminally tortured and maimed another.
There are some people who reason out that as in a body it is legitimate to excise a sick organ when such excision is for the good of the whole body, so also it is legitimate to execute a criminal when to do so would redound to the good of the whole of society.
But we reply: a human being is not only a member of society as an organ is a member of a living body. While a human being must live for the good of society, society exists in order to promote the good of the individual human being. A human being has a value in himself/herself and is the goal and purpose of society in a way that a limb or organ is not the goal and purpose of the human body. So, a criminal should be treated only like a sick bodily organ.
3. We positively object also to the restoration of the death penalty for the following reasons:
We cannot exclude the possibility of the imposition of the death sentence on innocent human beings. These mistakes have happened before. In our country there have been many instances of reversals of death sentences by the Supreme Court. How are we to be sure that the Supreme Court which does not profess infallibity, has not erred in affirming death sentences by the lower courts? Such errors, when finally executed, are irreversible.
The imposition of the death penalty in our country today will have a bias against the poor. We know how inadequate our present judicial procedures are, and how the rich can literally get away with murder, while the poor have few if any to defend them. The ones who will suffer the death penalty will rarely be the rich who have committed crimes, but the poor who have no adequate defence. The preferential option for the poor which the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines has decided upon finds an application in our opposition to the death penalty. We believe that we should not even think of restoring the death penalty as long as we have not reformed our police and justice systems to the extent at least that there is a real guarantee of truly equal justice for all.
The abolition of the death penalty is also consistent with our stand for life, which we want to be protected and enhanced from conception to its natural end. Our present Holy Father has articulated this position in the following manner: “The right to life (is) the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights…. The human beings is entitled to such right, in every phase of development, from conception until natural death; and in every condition, whether healthy or sick, whole or handicapped, rich or poor” (Christifideles Laici, No. 38). We believe that human life and the right to it are better defended by abolishing the judicial authorization to impose the death sentence.
In asking for the non-restoration of the death penalty we are articulating the growing conviction regarding the sacredness of human life, and following the example of Pope John Paul II who in an address to the Diplomatic Corps (December 19, 1983), defended “the seamless garment of life” and recommended “clemency, even pardon, for those condemned to death.”
Finally, we believe that the abolition of the death penalty is most consistent with our faith in Jesus and in the merciful God whose face He has revealed to us. While in the Bible, we find texts that allow legitimate authority to impose the death penalty, we find the even more pervasive picture of a God who does not wish the death of the sinner, but rather that he be converted and live (cf. Ezek. 18:23). The Lord Jesus himself laid down in life that sinners might live. In the only case in the gospels where our Lord was asked about his opinion on the imposition of the death peanlty on a woman who, according to the Mosaic Law deserved to die, he refused to pass sentence on her, and saved her from certain death (cf. Jn. 8:1-11).
4. Instead of restoring the death penalty, we propose the following:
The relentless pursuit of the direct attack on poverty that President Ramos has been insiting on during these first days of his presidency (cf. His inaugural address and state of the nation speech before Congress), because poverty–especially abject destitution — is a fertile breeding ground for criminality.
The reform of our law enforcement and justice systems so that speedy justice will be meted out to all offenders of the law, especially to grave offenders, regardless of economic and social status. Such a reform is a more effective deterrent for crimes than capital punishment would be, and it will help establish an atmosphere of peace and order.
The reform of our penal system, so that criminals will indeed be reformed instead of becoming more hardened when they served out their sentences. Examples exist of such true reform prisons in other countries.
A relentless and well-coordinated effort to combat the causes of heinous crimes. Among such causes are the gang culture, drug dependency, and the gambling syndrome.
The cleansing of police and military ranks of scalawags in uniform, many of whom have perpetrated crimes or have connived with criminals.
The elimination or lessening of the atmosphere of violence propagated by the mass media. The harm done by films that vividly and repeatedly portray violence and even make it an attractive solution to problems is incalculable.
The enforcement of the gun ban, so that no persons may carry guns in public places unless they are persons in authority, and (for regular policemen and soldiers) wearing their uniform.
We believe that the fulfillment of these proposals will go a longer way than the restoration of the death penalty towards taking our society safe for every human being. The non-restoration of the death penalty will send a very strong message to our violence-torn nation that we want to break the role of violence. It is very urgent to see and hear that message today!
For the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines:
(Sgd.)+CARMELO D.F. MORELOS, D.D.
Bishop of Butuan
24 July 1992