On August 2, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis approved changes to Catholic teaching, declaring the death penalty unacceptable in all cases.
Previously the church accepted the death penalty in limited cases when the responsible person or people were fully determined and the penalty was the only way to defend human lives.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church now reads “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”.
This is a significant shift for a church with 1.2 billion members.
We have long been against the death penalty. It is final and irreversible, yet the criminal justice system often gets it wrong. The death penalty is also disproportionately carried out on the poor, uneducated and under-represented.
Bahamians overwhelmingly support the death penalty. Though the courts have essentially ended the punishment, there is widespread nostalgia for the days of execution.
Some want it as an act of revenge in a country that has had a murder crisis for a decade. Many of the young men who violently die on our streets are involved in disputes with other young men. Some are over drugs; some are gang related; some are just silly differences between young men filled with too much testosterone and insufficient common sense.
Once one person is killed, the victim’s friends or family want revenge. They kill a member of the other side. The other side responds, killing another.
The killings go on and on until either everybody is dead, or almost everyone is and the others are arrested. Some violent disputes span years.
Other Bahamians falsely think the death penalty reduces crime. A simple comparison of places that practice the final punishment and those that don’t proves that assumption incorrect. Canada and Western Europe, for example, long banned the death penalty. Their crime rates are lower than the United States, which still executes.
Our society is already too violent. We must work on policies that help reduce violence, poverty and social desperation. We must improve our education system. Parents must take a more active role in raising their children with rules and values. Our young men need to be taught how to solve conflicts without violence. Robust economic growth is needed to find work for those without.
The more we create a society of opportunity and dignity, the less violent crimes we’d have.
We must commit to doing the difficult, long-term work to reduce crime and violence. We must stop seeking simplistic, singular solutions to our circumstance.
Let’s as a nation get excited about helping our young men grow up to be law-abiding, rational actors. Let’s stop lusting for their deaths at the end of a rope in prison.
The Pope has committed the church to work toward the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. It’s time for The Bahamas to remove the barbaric practice from its laws. It has no place in a civilized, modern society.