The big debate on the proposed revival of the death penalty has begun in Congress, following President Duterte’s call in his State of the Nation Address (SONA) for its application as punishment for heinous crimes related to drugs and for plunder.
There are many legislators firmly opposed to the death penalty for religious reasons, citing the Ten Commandments in the Old Testament book of Exodus, one of which says: “Thou shall not kill.” But over the centuries, the Church has been torn by the conflicting views of eminent church leaders on this issue. Some like Pope Pius XII in 1952 said the Church does not regard the execution of criminals as a violation by the state of the universal right to life. Pope John Paul II in 1995 was for incarceration in lieu of the death penalty whenever possible.
In 2015, the Vatican officially gave its support to a United Nations campaign against the death penalty. In 2018, it was announced that the teaching of the Catholic Church would be revised so that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” Pope Francis made the change in the Catechism and a majority of the world’s countries with large Catholic populations proceeded to ban the death penalty.
During the Spanish colonial regime, our national hero Jose Rizal was executed by firing squad, while the friars Gomez, Burgos, and Zamora were executed by garrote. Executions continued during the American regime. There was none under Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon in 1935. They resumed in 1999 until President Estrada declared a moratorium in 2000, as did President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who succeeded him. The executive ban became law when Congress approved RA 9346 in 2006.
This is the law that will be set aside if Congress now enacts a law providing for the death penalty for heinous crimes related to drugs and for plunder. Many of the legislators of the present 18th Congress are Catholics representing the 81 percent who are Catholics in the county; it will be a great inner struggle and a very difficult decision for them.
But most of them are also part of the super-majority in the House and the emerging majority in the Senate loyal to President Duterte who is determined to have the death penalty in his war against drugs in the country.
There has been a side discussion on the means for executing convicrs – firing squad, electric chair, hanging, or lethal injection. There is also some debate on whether to include plunder as subject to the death penalty; plunder is stealing government funds in excess of P50 million and many legislators might not be inclined to punish this violation with the death penalty. There is also the issue raised by those who say the present system of justice in the Philippines is so unfavorable to the poor, so that more of them will suffer this punishment.
But it is the very concept of the death penalty that is at the center of the controversy — as a moral issue, as an element of belief and of faith. It will be a key discussion, debate, and decision in the coming sessions of Congress.