Archive | 3:33 am

The Church and Capital Punishment

8 May

When it comes to the controversial topic of capital punishment, Catholics are often divided along political lines: Political conservatives tend to favor capital punishment, while political liberals tend to oppose it.

But are the Church’s teachings on the death penalty so bland and/or confusing that our political affiliation should, by default, form our perspectives on the issue?

It seems that much of the disagreement on this subject stems from the fact that we have not allowed ourselves to be formed by the Church’s teachings in their fullness and that, at times, we have received a distorted presentation of such teachings. While immersing ourselves in the Church’s teachings will not eliminate all disagreement, it will at least allow us to understand the parameters of authentic plurality and perhaps come to a deeper appreciation of God’s plan for all humanity.

Now, the Church has never taught that capital punishment is intrinsically evil. Moreover, the Church has always recognized that the state has the authority, in certain circumstances, to impose the death penalty on one who has committed a “capital offense.” This point immediately distinguishes capital punishment from acts such as abortion and euthanasia, which are intrinsically evil and thus ought never to be chosen (Bl. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae [“EV”], nos. 62, 65 [1995]), and certainly can never be legitimized by the state (EV 73).

So abortion and capital punishment are not morally equivalent, even though it should be self-evident that fundamental principles concerning the right to life should inform our thought on both topics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, despite its well-publicized opposition to the use of capital punishment, does not categorically condemn the practice. Rather, it affirms that in appropriate cases “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” (Catechism, no. 2267).

This “traditional teaching” is found in the Roman Catechism produced following the Council of Trent (1545-63) and in the writings of many noteworthy saints, such as St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Paul himself taught that civil government bears the sword as the agent of God’s vengeance and therefore is “God’s servant for your good” (Rom. 13:4).

Recognizing that the Church has always admitted that the death penalty can be a justifiable exercise of the state’s authority, we now examine why the Church opposes capital punishment today. Continue reading