By Jude Fernando –
“Pope Francis: no crime ever deserves the death penalty,” by Vatican Radio, March 20, 2015
Public policies that treat some lives as unworthy of protection, or that are perceived as vengeful, fracture the moral conviction that human life is sacred.— United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith’s endorsement of President Sirisena’s approval of the death penalty for drug traffickers is contrary to the fundamental teachings of the Bible on crime and justice, as well as the current theological positions which many of his fellow cardinals, Pope Francis and his predecessors, John II and Benedict XVI, and majority of the world’s nations and human rights organizations, use to justify their opposition to death penalty. The cardinal’s endorsement is reminiscent of what Frederick Douglass said in the context of slavery in the southern United States: “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference.”
Today the Church is opposed to the Death Penalty.
The church is a human agency and its position on social, economic, and political issues continues to evolve. These changes are deeply spiritual since spirituality in Christian teaching ought to be a manifestation of the life Christians live in the world. Critical reflection, repentance, and acknowledgment of its failings, and forgiveness, mercy, and restoration are signs of a church obedient to God. Accordingly, over the years, the Catholic doctrinal responses to “crime and punishment” have evolved from the changes of its theological reflections of church’s biblical convictions about good and evil, sin and redemption, justice and mercy.
The Church’s position on the death penalty has a rich history and it is always driven by the question of what does it mean to be a Christian in the way it actually relates to the state and society in given context. Early Church drawing on Pope Innocent III (1161-1216); “sanctioned capital punishment” so long as it was carried out “with justice, and not out of hatred; with prudence, and not with precipitation.” This position seeks to put ‘an end to the cycle of violence and death by seeking justice without revenge.’ Even in this context Papal authorities have consistently called for the end of the death penalty and demanded clemency for those sentenced to death around the world.
After years of critical reflection of its theologies, wisdom, and experience, the current Church opposes the death penalty, and in its place advocates other modalities of punishment based on mercy and restorative justice. In 1999 based on a document “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration: Catholic Perspectives on Crime and Criminal Justice” Catholic Bishops, after the visit of Pope John Paul II to the United States, unanimously call to end the death penalty. Church’s current position, advocated by Pope Francis and many of his predecessors, emphasizes the sanctity of life ethics of justice and forgiveness, and “justice for all citizens as well as the opportunity for those who harm society to make amends through acts that affirm life, not death.”
Church’s current position on the death penalty is drawn strictly from the life of Jesus and his teachings on justice that the Christians are expected to emulate. For example, according to the Bible, Jesus when questioned about the death penalty for adultery, a capital offense at the time, said, “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone.” The point Jesus was making was that no one had the moral authority to condemn a fellow human to death. Jesus’ commandment, “judge not lest you be judged,” implies that we humans are inevitably flawed in our execution of judgment. The Church’s position is not based on selective readings of the Bible, rather a nuanced understanding of justice, love, and mercy within the context of the overall narrative of God’s relations with humans from the books of Genesis to Revelation.
Pope Francis, at the 25th anniversary of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on October 11, 2017, said that capital punishment“ heavily wounds human dignity” and is an “inhuman measure.” The Pope also said that the death penalty is “in itself, contrary to the Gospel, because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the Creator and of which, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor.” The death penalty, according to the Pope, “not only extinguishes a human life but also extinguishes the possibility that the person, recognizing his or her errors, will request forgiveness and begin a new life.” Traditionally, the Catholic Church permitted the death penalty under certain circumstances. However, in 1969, Pope Paul VI formally banned the death penalty, even though it had not been imposed since 1870.
In explaining the change in the Church’s position on the Death Penalty, Pope Francis said that Catholics should “take responsibility for the past and recognize” that use of the death penalty was “dictated by a mentality that was more legalistic than Christian.” He then stated that “remaining neutral today when there is a new need to reaffirm personal dignity would make us even guiltier. For him the “change in the Church’s position is about the “development of church teaching and that it is not the same as contradicting or changing church teaching”, and that “tradition is a living reality and only a partial vision would lead to thinking of ‘the deposit of faith’ as something static.”
Cardinal Ranjith’s position on the death penalty is at odds with the fundamental Christian teachings and the Vatican and many Catholic lay organizations’ position of on the death penalty. My point here is that the Cardinal Ranjith’s endorsement falls far short of his position as a Christian spiritual leader. I am not saying that a state should run its legal apparatus according to the spiritual reasoning of the Catholic Church.
The cardinal’s position on the death penalty is at odds not only spiritual grounds but also on practical grounds and years of lessons learned from over militerized efforts to deter trafficking. Studies after studies have shown the death penalty do not deter illicit drug trafficking. For example, the experts, speaking ahead of the 13th World Day Against the Death Penalty said that the “imposition of death sentences and executions for drug offenses significantly increases the number of persons around the world caught in a system of punishment that is incompatible with fundamental tenets of human rights.” Krisanne Murphy, managing director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network in the United States, which is opposed to the death penalty, points out that “to suggest the use of the death penalty as a way to address the opioid epidemic ignores what we know to be true: the death penalty is a flawed and broken system of justice.” How can the death penalty deter illicit drugs in a corrupt and malfunctioning legal system such as ours?
The Cardinal’s endorsement of the death penalty also comes at a time when the global support for the death penalty is increasing. In 1977, the Amnesty International started a campaign to end the death penalty. Today, 139 countries, the majority of the world’s states, have turned their backs on the death penalty for good. They have either ended it in law or practice. Even Singapore, well known for its uncompromising stance on law and order and its use of capital punishment, particularly for murder and drug trafficking, amended the law in 2012 to give a judge the choice to impose the death penalty or life imprisonment with caning. Some speculate that these changes are evidence that “Singapore may be moving with the global trend towards greater restrictions on the use of the death penalty and its eventual disuse” (Chan et al., October 2017).
What are the reasons behind the growing opposition to the death penalty that the cardinal ignores?
The death penalty is irreversible. There is ample evidence from around the world that many innocent people have been executed for false charges, and others have been released from death row, including some who came within minutes of execution. People who are poor or socially marginalized often lack the means for proper defense. Many have been executed or remain on death row despite doubts about their guilt. The application of the death penalty has often been selective as it is dependent on the broader social and political context. When the death penalty is the only sentence for drug trafficking, “judges can’t take the accused’s personal circumstances or anything else into consideration when making a decision.”
The illicit drug trade is a growing transnational industry that thrives despite the billions of dollars spent to destroy it. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and European crime-fighting agency Europol, the annual global drug trade is worth around $435 billion a year, with the annual cocaine trade worth $84 billion Illicit drugs are trafficked across manifold borders before ultimately reaching consumers; these routes are not random, rather interwoven with the corruption in existing routes of legal trade, corrupt and polarized law enforcement, criminal activities and money laundering activities. While it is true that increasing demand for drugs is major issues for drug trafficking, overly militarized counter-drug efforts while have succeeded in disrupting criminal markets in the short term, the same policies have made the problem worse rather than better.
Drug trafficking is a hierarchically-structured industry conducted by local and international networks involving people from all walks of life, such as politicians, large business owners, celebrities, and law enforcement authorities. Often the people who are convicted are those at the bottom of the drug trafficking hierarchy, the death threats against them and their families prevent them from exposing those at the top of the hierarchy. We also know those at the top of the trafficking network hierarchy wield power and influence over politicians and law enforcement authorities. Too often wealthy and politically influential drug traffickers evade the death penalty while those who are poor, marginalized and cannot afford to bribe face execution, and the risk that the state executing the wrong person is higher. In corrupt and politicize legal systems death penalty also lead to higher bribes to law enforcers to avoid prosecution or seek lenient sentences.
There have also been instances of people being framed for drug trafficking, and people have carried drugs unknowingly or been coerced by threats to their families and their own lives. A good recent example is the case of Podikumarihami of Mahiyangana. During a public hearing held on 29th June 2018, Podikumarihami testified that when she, refused to give up the land for the illegal sand mining operation and the authorities “fabricated false accusations against her and her children, saying that they dealt in drugs.”
The death penalty has also been imposed on innocent people when the authorities found traces of drugs on the keys to a hotel room in which they were staying. This “violates a person’s right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty – a right that is essential to the principle of fair trial.” The death penalty in most contexts is an ultimate injustice to the poor and the marginalized who cannot defend themselves in the current justice system.
The global illicit drug crisis is incomprehensible outside of the context of the every globalizing market economy and geopolitics, and it converges with corruption, terrorism, and state failure. The crisis is deeply intertwined with poverty, market-driven consumerism, disenfranchisement, and the militarization of society. It has been proved again and again that the death penalty is imposed on people from vulnerable racial minorities, especially in countries where racism is deeply interwoven with the identity and popular legitimacy of the state. For example, geopolitical battles opened the gateway for drug trafficking between Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan and are interwoven with European countries. Can we only hold traffickers accountable for opium production in Afghanistan? Can anyone with a good conscience say that the drug crisis in Sri Lanka has nothing to do with these global realities?
Another reason behind the opposition to the death penalty is that it involves someone taking the life of the convicted person. Studies have shown that executioners frequently suffer post-traumatic stress from having to kill a person, regardless of the fact that they are simply doing their job. Why should an average civilian take the entire responsibility for policy decisions made by politicians that will affect his or her life? Will those endorse the death penalty take the responsibility for executing a person or be present at an execution?
The death penalty is a highly politicized public spectacle which violates the right to life recognized by many international conventions. Often it punishes most vulnerable in the hierarchy of drug industry and leaves the rest unpunished. According to Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui of Amnesty International, “All executions violate the right to life. Those carried out publicly are a gross affront to human dignity which cannot be tolerated.” Studies have consistently failed to demonstrate that executions deter people from committing drug-related offenses. There are numerous examples of the trade in drugs thriving in the face of the most draconian penalties. In response to the Philippines’ use of extrajudicial killings to address drug issues, the group In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND) argued that “extrajudicial killings here in the Philippines have been the solution for quite some time by the Philippine government, and these killings and capital punishment share the same flaw—they will, they do not, and will not address criminality.”
According to Sanho Tree, program director of the Institute for Policy Studies and the Director of its Drugs Policy Project, in the Philippines where it’s President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs has killed between 5,000 and 20,000 people, there is no proof that usage has actually decreased. “The number of so-called drug addicts — originally, they said it was 1.8 million, and then President Duterte came up with the number of 3 million, then 4 million,” Tree says. “Now his foreign secretary has said 7 million users. The more people they’ve killed, the number of users keeps going up. The Catholic Church in the Philippines vehemently opposes the death penalty of country’s government, and despite the climate of fear and terror and government opposition to the church, “a growing number of churches have opened their network of safe houses to people at risk of being killed.” Manila Cardinal Luis Tagle said that “the illegal drug problem should not be reduced to a political or criminal issue. It is a humanitarian concern that affects all of us.”
I am perplexed as to why a pro-life Cardinal defying the Pope’s authority and support the death penalty. Perhaps, we might find the reason for the confusion lies in the context in which President Sirisena and the Cardinal endorse the death penalty. President Sirisena is faced with a serious legitimacy crisis in his government regarding its inability to restore law and order in the country. Like the citizens of Philippines, the Sri Lanka citizens might allege that the government’s show of heroism by approving death penalty is a dismal attempt to cover up the government’s failure of the government to maintain law and order.
Religious leaders are not always apolitical; they are part of the everyday politics of society, and they too seek popular legitimacy and are embroiled in battles over doctrinal issues that could mask power struggles within their own religious communities. The means they use to secure legitimacy and fight their battles are not always consistent with the teachings of their respective religions. It is well known that inside the Vatican there are tensions between those who support and those who oppose Pope Francis’s radical doctrinal and policy changes.
The Cardinal’s statement may be a reflection of his differences with the current Pope, and how he wants to position himself and the Church in relation to state and society in Sri Lanka. One might even find the Cardinal’s position on the death penalty is consistent with the way, he in the past has responded to the Sri Lankan government’s positions on human rights and humanitarian issues in the country.
There is a far more serious logistical issue regarding the Cardinals position than the theological and pragmatic issues I raised in this article: Who is “we” in the following statement by the Cardinal?
“We will support President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to subject those who organize crime while being in the prison to death sentence but we also feel that there is more to be done,” (Daily Mirror, 12/06/2018)
Is Cardinal referring to the Catholic Bishops Conference in Sri Lanka and/or clergy of Sri Lanka? Is he also referring to the laity? Did the Cardinal consult the Bishops and Clergy before making the decision? It would be a serious error on Cardinal’s part if his position is entirely his personal opinion. On a matter as serious as the death penalty, the Church as a body of Christ, need to be representative of its diverse bodies.
I do not want to be too judgmental about the theology and intentions behind cardinal’s support for the death penalty. But I am concerned with confusion and concern among many Catholics and many of those who opposed to the death penalty due to the Cardinal’s support for the death penalty. With all humility, I suggest that the Cardinal provides an explanation of his position to the all Catholics, clergy, his superiors, and to all citizens.