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Choose life: Reflections on the reimposition of the death penalty

Choose life: Reflections on the reimposition of the death penalty

Fr. Elias L. Ayuban, Jr., CMF

August 13, 2020

Manila, Philippines

I used to admire Manny Pacquiao when he was still Manny the boxer, not the “biblical scholar”. I remember when he knocked Eric Morales down, my brother priest who came with me to SM North Cinema to witness the fight, suddenly embraced me. Overwhelmed with joy myself, I embraced him back. Meanwhile, I wondered when was the last time we celebrated that way. When the bout was over, we were greeting the people around us and giving exuberant high five as if we were already friends for a long time. Manny taught us how to celebrate in a more intimate way and brought strangers a little bit closer, albeit only momentarily.

What impressed me most, though, was the way he promoted our faith through symbols and gestures before and after every event: the rosary hanging around his neck, the repeated signs of the cross and the silent prayer on his corner, now converted into a “chapel”, that seemed more powerful than any Sunday sermon. He was not only a boxer; he was an evangelizer in his own right, promoting the devotion to Mama Mary and demonstrating how to be magnanimous in victory. For me, he epitomized the Filipino spirit: faith and resilience rolled into one.

But he suddenly changed. He now appeals to the Scriptures to pursue his cause. However, everything that is written in the Old and New Testaments should be understood and interpreted from the optic of Jesus Christ. He is the definitive revealer of God the Father so that if Jesus did not approve the capital punishment of the woman caught in adultery through lapidation (Jn. 8:1-11), there is no way that we can use the name of God to legitimize the death penalty. As simple as that!

On May 11, 2018, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis declared the death penalty unacceptable in all cases and thus modifying number 2267 of the Catechism. Before, Church doctrine accepted the death penalty if it was “the only practicable way” to defend lives against unjust aggressors. According to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, SJ, the new formulation of the Catechism expresses “an authentic development of doctrine that is not in contradiction with the prior teachings of the Magisterium.”

The Prefect clarifies, “Today, 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.” He adds that “there are 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.” It is for this reason that the Church teaches that the practice is now inadmissible.

But above all, “It 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 whom, in the last analysis, only God can be the true judge and guarantor,” says the Cardinal.

On the practical side, there is no proof that the death penalty deters the commission of crimes. In fact, because of our flawed justice system, the death penalty is sadly meant for the poor who cannot afford their counsel and are without connections. Most of the world’s nations, including nearly every nation in Europe and Latin America, have already banned the death penalty (cf. Amnesty International Report). Thus, legalizing it in the Philippines one more time is not a sign of progression, but retrogression, as a country.

Thus, says Yahweh, “Today, I call heaven and earth to witness against you: I am offering you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live” (Dt. 30, 19).

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Fr. Elias L. Ayuban, Jr., CMF, JCD, is currently the Provincial Superior of the Claretian Missionaries of the Philippine Province and Board Member of the Association of Major Superiors in the Philippines (AMRSP). He served as canon lawyer at the Vatican’s Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life and professor of canon law at the Claretianum in Rome.

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