The Pope mentioned that support for the death penalty is generally rooted in desire for revenge. He acknowlegded the legitimate urge for justice, but suggested that justice can never be achieved through vengance. He admonished those who cite Biblical scripture to justify a pro-death penalty stance. According the the Pope, the oft-repeated proverb "an eye for an eye...." (Lev. 24:20) was not a recipe for vengance, rather to meant to serve as a cautionary tale against the escalation of violence in general. The Pope also pointed out that Jesus' position on the death penalty was clear: rather that reltaliation, we should "turn the other cheek" and extend our hand in healing, blessing, and forgiveness. (Matthew 5:38-55)
Rather that relying on a second-hand account of stuff I heard John Paul II say three years ago, I wanted to find some actual quotes from the Pope which support the values I've just described. It wasn't difficult. A Google search on the words "Pope John Paul + death penalty" turns up 641,ooo hits. The Vatican has its own website complete with an archive of transcripts from many Papal speeches and masses. (Who knew?) From paragraph 56 of Evangelium Vitae (Gospel of Life) Pope John Paul II states:
It's clear that for punishment to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought to not go to the extreme of executing the offender except when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, such cases are practically non-existent.The Pope advanced the argument that when a prisoner (who poses no threat to society) is executed, it sends the message that life is worthless, thus we can view the death penalty as an injustice to the sanctity of life. I share the Pope's belief that execution does not end with the death of the criminal, but affects each and every one of us living in a society which justifies capital punishment.
I admit it's instinctively pleasing to jugde those who commit henoius crimes as worthless or "less-than" but we should resist this temptation. If we convince ourselves that some among us deserve death, then we forget that all of us deserve forgiveness and the grace to ammend our lives. Fighting violence with violence for the sake of vengance does not serve a useful role in this country. Nor does it allow society to cultivate less vengeful methods of dealing with violent crime.
A 1994 piece entitled Confronting a Culture of Corruption: A Catholic Framework for Action the American Conference of Catholic Bishops states: