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.

Killing another human being as an act of free will—as opposed to an unintentional or accidental killing—is murder, and is always wrong (Catechism, no. 2268). Since the criminal is indeed a human being, and his or her execution is an intentional act, it is fair to ask whether the execution is “murder.”

The Church has always treated capital punishment as a kind of self-defense. If, for example, the only way I can immediately prevent someone from killing me or another person is by killing the aggressor, then I am morally permitted to do so. In other words, it isn’t “murder.” How can this be? When a person kills another in self-defense, the immediate and proportionate good effect of saving one’s own life justifies the action, even though there is also the evil effect of taking another’s life (cf. Catechism, nos. 2263-64).

The Catechism teaches that legitimate defense can be not only a right but even a grave duty for one who is responsible for the common good of the state (no. 2265). Bl. John Paul II says in EV 56 that this concept of legitimate defense provides “the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty” (original emphasis).

The Catechism then goes on to recognize that “the defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm” (no. 2265). That means that, at least in principle, capital punishment can be justified when used to protect society from an unjust aggressor.  Assuming there is such justification, society may execute the criminal for its own protection, but not because society desires the death of the criminal itself.

This understanding of the Church’s rationale for historically teaching that the death penalty is permissible in some cases may come as a revelation to many. For example, some people hold that a person who commits a capital crime has forfeited his right to life, so the best he could hope for is the “clemency” of the state to stay the execution. There is indeed a sense of “forfeit,” just as an intruder has forfeited his right to life if I should be forced to kill him to protect my family from being harmed. But in the latter case, this “forfeit” is not absolute. If I am able to protect my family by less drastic means, I should do so, and once the threat is over (e.g., the intruder is apprehended and in jail), I no longer have the right to use deadly force.

Likewise, in the case of capital punishment, it is not enough for someone to have committed a serious crime. If the preservation of the common good of society does not require it, then it cannot be justified because of the ever-present command, “Thou shall not kill.”

Further, we need to look at the primary reasons why we punish criminals. Our “culture of death” has largely given up on the possibility of reforming or rehabilitating (i.e., “converting”) the criminal, despite the fact that “as far as possible, [punishment] must contribute to the correction of the guilty party” (Catechism, no. 2266).

While “it may be granted that the imminence of capital punishment may induce repentance in the criminal, . . .  we should certainly not think that this threat is somehow necessary for God’s grace to touch and to transform human hearts” U.S. Catholic Bishops, Statement on Capital Punishment (November, 1980). Sadly, the death penalty today serves to perpetuate the cycle of violence and diminish respect for human life, without providing authentic healing for the victims of crime.

We must be clear on this point: Respecting the value and inviolability of all human life is not a conservative or liberal issue, but a Catholic issue. Of course, the Holy Father’s treatment of capital punishment in EV is subordinate to the treatment of abortion and euthanasia. Yet all these subjects trace back to what the Holy Father calls the “Gospel of Life,” which involves the proclamation of “the incomparable value of every human person” (no. 2).

After the release of Evangelium Vitae, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later to become Pope Benedict XVI) gave this explanation of EV’s teaching on the death penalty:

“You ask about the correct interpretation of the teaching of the encyclical on the death penalty. Clearly, the Holy Father has not altered the doctrinal principles that pertain to this issue as represented in the Catechism, but has simply deepened the application of such principles in the context of present-day historical circumstances. Thus, where other means for the self-defense of society are possible and adequate, the death penalty may be permitted to disappear. Such a development, occurring within society and leading to the foregoing of this type of punishment, is something good and ought to be hoped for.”

As Supreme Pontiff, Pope Benedict has continued his support of legislative efforts to eliminate capital punishment. Addressing a group of pilgrims gathered in Rome last fall for an international conference on the controversial topic, he expressed the hope that such gatherings “will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty.”

Click here for some additional statements from Church leaders on this subject.

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