NOW that Pope Francis has made it a Church doctrine that the death penalty is inadmissible, we have to review the basis for the true value of human life.
We cannot exaggerate the value of human life, since it is a life meant to have an eternal relation with God, its creator. Even if that life is deformed physically and morally, God will always love it and will do everything to save it. That is why abortion and euthanasia or mercy killing are wrong. They go against the fifth commandment: Thou shalt not kill.
And capital punishment, while approved or at least tolerated in the past, is also wrong, because no matter how bad or criminal a person is, his life can still be saved by the infinite mercy of God. From the Book of Ezekiel, we read: “As I live, said the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.” (33,11) The reason behind its approval or tolerance in the past is the protection of the common good. But this reason does not hold water anymore since there are many other ways the common good can be protected today without resorting to the death penalty.
Besides, given the many imperfections of our legal systems, we cannot risk the loss of life just because of a guilty sentence of the judicial process. The abolition of the death penalty would, of course, challenge us to be more determined in reforming the offender. This may be the area where many of us are still hesitant to tackle.
Human life is, of course, not just any other life here in the world. Plants and animals also have life but they do not have a spiritual soul as their principle of life. Theirs is a soul that is simply a product of a combination of earthly elements that would enable them to grow, move, act in some manner. But it is a soul that disappears with their death. Human life has a spiritual soul as its principle, and as such, it can survive death. It is immortal and is, in fact, meant for eternal life. It is a soul that comes directly from God and is forever in a relation with God. It is not a soul that is transmitted by human reproduction.
In some passages of the Bible, there is a reference to a distinction between soul and spirit. This is mentioned for example in 1 Thessalonians 5,23: “May your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
My take in this distinction between the spirit and the soul is that the spirit refers to our spiritual soul that needs to be nourished by its union with God, while the soul refers to those aspects of our soul that are akin to the soul of the plants and the animals with whom we also share characteristics. To be sure, we only have one soul, and it is spiritual, though that soul may be affected and conditioned by the similarities it shares with the plant and animal soul. It is this spiritual soul of ours that makes for the basis of the real value of human life.
Having said that, we can also say that out of love for God and for all men, human life can be sacrificed as what happens in the cases of martyrdom and in the crucifixion of Christ himself. As Christ said, this is the greatest proof of love. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (Jn 15,13) In fact, we have to look forward to our own death and somehow give our life up little by little by denying ourselves and carrying the cross to follow Christ daily.