The Catholic position on the abolition of death penalty in Zimbabwe: Life is a gift from God

Fr. Phillip Kembo

Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office

Our nation has experienced in the last few years a rise in the number of people being robbed, murdered, and tortured. Such cruel practices, leading to the loss of innocent lives, have given rise to a public debate on what should be done to those who take the lives of other people. As the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, we acknowledge the current debate on capital punishment, and we take this opportunity to explain the position of the Church on this issue.

The Church wishes to share the pain and loss experienced by families who lose their loved ones at the hands of murderers and ritual killers. The loss of life affects not just the families themselves but society. The Church calls for policies that protect citizens and punish perpetrators of such heinous activities. In the past, the death penalty was legitimized as a means to attain justice and safeguard society. Even perpetrators would accept the punishment due to them. The crucifixion scene in the Gospel reflects this reality. It records the words of one of the two thieves:  “We are receiving the due reward of our deeds but this man did not do anything wrong.” (Lk. 23:41). His contention that the innocent one, Jesus, should be spared, went unheeded.

In light of the current discussion on death penalty as a form of punishment for perpetrators, the Church today calls for the abolition of the death penalty. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that capital punishment is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the human person and it is inadmissible at all times (The Catholic Catechism No. 2267). The right to life is a fundamental right and should not be compromised due to a criminal offence. Life is a gift from God. The Church therefore opposes the practice of death penalty and calls for its abolition not only in Zimbabwe but worldwide because it infringes upon this fundamental right to life.

The basic dignity of the human person is not removed even in the face of a serious crime being committed. Governments worldwide, have long since developed penal sanctions through life imprisonment or other forms of detention that ensure the protection of its citizens. As the convicted person is serving sentence, the healing of bereaved and wounded families is required. Restorative justice seeks the reconciliation of perpetrator and victim, and the victim’s family. The Church also calls for the use of meaningful traditional ways to bring healing and peace among the bereaved. These ways should be supplemented by modern forms of conflict resolution and not infringe on the rights of others as experienced in kuripa ngozi, where young girls can be used to appease the spirits of the deceased.

Lawyers and investigation officers too may fail to adequately investigate and provide proof for awarding a death penalty, and hence innocent life may be lost, as seen in numerous past cases. The accused is entitled to competent legal representation, which is too often lacking. The widely read Encyclical of Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti (Fraternity and Social Friendship), calls for all people of good will to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. The encyclical affirms the position of the Church about the death penalty, and in no circumstances can it be permitted. The Holy Father further reflected on the danger of the death penalty being imposed due to judicial errors, or misuse of capital punishment as well as being used as a tool of persecution or revenge.

The gospel of life must be promoted in every situation, even when one’s freedom is restricted due to incarceration. This gospel is a true witness to human dignity, which must be preserved even in view of the worst of crimes. The death penalty by its very nature is cruel and unnecessary (Pope St. John Paul II, 27th January 1999). 

As the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, we call for the abolition of the death penalty in our peace-loving country, Zimbabwe, and rather foster a culture of life. Christ teaches us to protect life, desist from vengeance, and embrace mercy. (Mt. 5:38-42). Jesus explained to his followers that the era of “an eye for an eye” had been overtaken by the message of mercy. God protected Cain’s life by sending him into exile after he terminated the life of his brother, Abel (Genesis 4:15). God put a mark on him, lest anyone should kill him.  In this passage, God as the giver of life strongly showed that he condemns any attempt to end the life of an offender by violent means. Global prophets like Mahatma Gandhi, stated, “An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind. The death penalty if allowed, would affect not only the offender, but also his or her family and society as a whole.  A cycle of revenge would easily ensue.

We therefore call on every Zimbabwean to respect the life and dignity of every person as enshrined in the Fourth Chapter of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No. 20) Act 2013.This dignity is God-given and must be protected. It must not be removed from anyone, even the most notorious criminal in Chikurubi maximum-security prison. In grave criminal offences, one should be incarcerated for life, until God calls him or her. If there are alternative means available to punish the offender, these should be used to protect the society from the convicted person. The assumption that the death penalty provides closure and vindication to those left behind should be opposed. No action can bring back a loved one or heal the wound created. The pain of losing someone cannot be wiped away by the death of the one who caused it.

As the Catholic Church, we state that the sanctity of life is to be upheld and that authorities must refrain from applying this ultimate punishment by taking the life of a person convicted of a heinous crime. We join the campaign in opposing the death penalty and call for upholding the sanctity of life in Zimbabwe.

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