Thursday, June 08, 2006

On the repeal of the death penalty law

The Philippines Congress has approved a government bill repealing an earlier bill instituting capital punishment. While laudable, the problem is the public seems not to have been part of the debate. The Catholic Church of course was a leading party to the debate and so were organizations that represent victims of heinous crimes.

The death penalty has had a long history in human society. It is a logical extension of the individual’s right to self-defence. The theory was society being composed of individuals possesses the same right. While the intended act of self-defence is to protect life, the possible unintended effect is to destroy life. This principle is also extended to the concept of a “just war” and even why we have to slit the necks of innocent chickens if there is a threat of bird flu infections.

In the Catholic Catechism, the death penalty is discussed under the section on punishment. Punishment should result in the correction of the offender and if the offender accepts his/her crime, then an additional result is expiation.

In its two thousand year history marked by people being burned at the stake, the Church has finally come into the realization that there are really very few reasons why the State has to impose the death penalty. Thus it strongly supports the removal of the penalty from the Law books. While the Church may say that there are very few reasons to impose the penalty, it cannot say that there are NO longer any reasons why the penalty should not be imposed. I spoke to a Catholic theologian in the USA and he said that the death penalty is allowed by the moral law under certain circumstances and the Church does not have the authority to change the moral law. It can however determine to the best of its competence, what circumstances make it legitimate to impose the penalty.

And so I disagree with the idea of removing the death penalty from the law books for this recognizes that there are no longer any reasons why the penalty should be imposed. In situations where there is a threat to one’s life, the right to self-defence and self-preservation is absolute although the law may put conditions when and where the right is legitimate and morally right. I believe that the Filipino Evangelical Protestants have it right. They recognize that there are very few reasons why we should impose the penalty but there may be a reason why we still need it.

My opinion is probably influenced by my training in the martial arts when I was in high school. My masters taught me a lot of self-defence skills some of which can inflict death but these skills will never be used. The Japanese say that the peaceful nature of a man is revealed when he spends hours and even years honing these skills which apparently will never be used.  With this training, we aim to reach a state of peace and when that does not happen then we fall into our moral weaknesses.

What is very regrettable in Filipino society and politics is that the idea of repealing the death penalty law has been purely used for political mileage and not for the opportunity for moral reflection that this could have entailed. The President has many times changed her mind depending on the public sentiment. The Philippine Catholic Church has been patently dishonest when it does not fully explain to the laity why it supports repeal. Thus the media continues to report that the Church anti-death penalty stand is in its canons: false and it has changed the moral law: definitely false. The pro-death penalty party while we can understand why they support it has never gone beyond its calls for vengeance. The Bible has consistently stated that vengeance does not belong to man, but to God only.

I do not wish to see the death penalty imposed on criminals as I do not wish to kill a man in self-defence. I can only pray that the Lord will defend me at all times and I have no reason to use my skills.

I will support the repeal of the death penalty law when perhaps we have outlawed war.

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