The Catholic Church celebrated “Respect Life Month” in October. Building a culture of life goes beyond this one month a year, or specific events or initiatives. It happens through our daily actions, how we treat one another, and through policies we value and promote.
The greatest failure in our society today is the lack of respect for the human dignity of others from conception to life’s natural end. Human life is valued less now than ever — abortion on demand, increase in all types of violence, racism, the rise in assisted suicide laws and the continued use of capital punishment.
In his 2015 address to Congress, Pope Francis spoke of his mission to end the death penalty: “The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.”
The death penalty violates the sanctity of life. It is contrary to the Gospel because it promotes the inhumane treatment of a person created in God’s image and likeness as we all are.
Yes, the state has an obligation to hold violent criminals accountable for their actions and to protect society from those who are a threat. Non-lethal means to defend and protect are sufficient in South Dakota. Violence in response to violence doesn’t relieve personal anguish or result in societal protection, but only adds to the cycle of violence that plagues our country. State-sanctioned executions do not heal or redress wounds. Only forgiveness can do so.
The death penalty disproportionately impacts people who are vulnerable and marginalized. These individuals are the ones whom Jesus so loved — and whom we are called to love in spite of what they may have done.
In South Dakota, we depend heavily on the Department of Corrections to care for individuals with severe mental illness who have committed crimes. But according to a 2017 report from the Office of Research and Public Affairs, those living in South Dakota with a severe mental illness who are convicted of felony crimes are not sent to the state hospital for treatment. They are sent to the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
This misguided policy is tragically compounded by the death penalty because those condemned to die disproportionately suffer from severe mental illness. A 2016 report from the Death Penalty Information Center reveals that at least 60 percent of those executed in the U.S. showed significant evidence of intellectual disability, mental illness or brain impairment. This significant overrepresentation of our mentally vulnerable brothers and sisters forces us to confront the fact that some of the most marginalized members of society have been put to death.
The death penalty is always an inhumane and inappropriate punishment. In condoning capital punishment we greatly diminish our capacity to embrace Christ’s command to "love all" and respect the dignity of every human life.
All life is sacred. Instead of death, should we not create solutions which are restorative and allow God’s grace and mercy to transform our society into one that is holy? I pray that South Dakota joins the many other states that respect the dignity of life by ending the death penalty — in particular for those with severe mental illnesses.