Every human life is sacred. Every human is made in the image and likeness of God.
Even if that person’s actions are unconscionable.
Ernest Johnson, who was executed by the state of Missouri on Oct. 5, is one such example. Johnson was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder in the 1994 deaths of Mary Bratcher, Mable Scruggs and Fred Jones, employees of a Casey’s convenience store in Columbia, Missouri.
The Vatican’s ambassador to the United States, writing on behalf of Pope Francis, sent a letter Sept. 27 to Missouri Gov. Mike Parson requesting clemency for Johnson.
The request was not based on the facts and circumstances of his crime, or claims of his intellectual capacity. Instead, he explained, Pope Francis “wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life.”
In response to that request and others, Parson issued a statement, saying “the state is prepared to deliver justice and carry out the lawful sentence Mr. Johnson received in accordance with the Missouri Supreme Court’s order.”
Unfortunately, Parson mentioned nothing about upholding the sacredness of all human life. In his letter on behalf of the pope, Archbishop Pierre noted Missouri’s courageous stand in upholding the dignity of life, including at its earliest and most vulnerable stage. But he also said that it would be an equally courageous recognition of the dignity of human life to reject the death penalty as Johnson’s punishment.
In 2018, Pope Francis revised paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to state that, in light of the Gospel, “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and the Church works with determination for its abolition worldwide (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267).
While the death penalty once “was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes,” its use is no longer necessary to safeguard the common good. The Catechism states that in our modern world, “more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”
The U.S. bishops have said that no sin or crime is greater than God’s mercy. The sacrifice of the Cross reveals that Christ’s greatest desire is to forgive those with a repentant heart.
The death penalty contributes to the culture of death. To be truly pro-life means to uphold the sacredness of all human life, from conception until natural death. Yes, Johnson should have faced a just consequence for his actions. But the death penalty should not have been the answer.
Full text from the Catechism:
“Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267