“So, what about the death penalty?”
It seems like every time I talk about being pro life I get asked this question. Sometimes it’s an actual question, sometimes it’s a deflection because they don’t want to deal with their prefered candidate or party’s position on abortion, and sometimes it’s an attack from a non-believer that they think scores points because they believe it’s an obvious contradiction.
I have been meaning to write on this topic for a while, but never got around to doing it. I have been accused of neglecting other issues to focus on abortion, but of all the articles I’ve written on this site, only a couple have been about abortion. To be fair though, I have been silent on this site on the issue of capital punishment, so I intend to fix that here. As Archbishop Cordileone said in a recent letter, the issue of abortion is preeminent but “Preeminent does not mean ‘only,’ of course.” So while I have no regrets for focusing on an issue that kills over half a million a year, I do feel like capital punishment deserves some space on these pages.
The USCCB has spoken out against the death penalty before and after almost every execution in America, but they still say abortion is the “preeminent issue of life” for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest being the massive scale. Every year there are over 500,000 abortions procured in America, and there are around 100 executions of convicted criminals. Of course the cause of death for half a million innocents is going to cause more angst and sorrow among our leaders, while they still recognize that the death of a single person is tragic.
With all that being said, here’s the thing; I’m against the death penalty. I’ve been against the death penalty for years, and it actually predates my conversion to Catholicism. It’s partly due to the political philosophy I hold to, and it’s partly due to my recognition that I have been forgiven by God of sins that would’ve warranted death under the Old Covenant, so for me to advocate for death today makes me no better than the unforgiving servant from the Gospels (Matthew 18:21-35). But my opinion is inconsequential to what the church teaches, and as a Catholic that strives to always be in communion with the Church’s teachings, if I find myself out of line with these teachings I re-evaluate my beliefs and bring them into line.
What does the Catholic Church teach about capital punishment?
The 5th commandment prohibits the unjust taking of human life. We are all made in in image an likeness of God, and so all lives are precious and sacred, therefore they must all be protected.
One of the biggest misconceptions about the 5th commandment is that it prohibits killing, “thou shall not kill” is how it’s often translated, but it actually reads “thou shall not murder” and that makes a big difference. That is why I said the “unjust” taking of human life in the previous paragraph, murder and killing are two very different things. Some extreme pacifists will argue that killing is murder in all circumstances, but the Church, and common sense, will tell us that there’s an obvious difference. A soldier fighting in a just war (another topic for another time) doesn’t commit murder when he kills, and a police officer that uses deadly force, in a legitimate way to defend the innocent, and society-at-large, does not commit murder even if the suspect dies from this legitimate use of force. Even when someone takes a human life through purely negligent acts, our legal system usually charges this as negligent homicide or manslaughter, but not murder.
This is what sets abortion apart when speaking about other issues of life. The bishops of the United States have called abortion the “preeminent issue of life” because it’s a direct and willful act that results in the death of an innocent person. There’s no situation in which abortion isn’t an attack on a human person, unlike self defense or just war, abortion is diabolical and intrinsically evil. Abortion fits the definition of murder in every way, and so is prohibited directly by the 5th commandment.
So we’ve established that not every act that ends in the death of a human life can be classified as murder. Pope Saint Pius X said this in his 1908 catechism when he laid out some (but not all possible) in which killing can be legitimate,
It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defense of one’s own life against an unjust aggressor.
Pope Pius X, Catechism of 1908
Already we see that one of the situations laid out is capital punishment, but we’ll get to that later.
Saint Paul defends the state’s use of capital punishment in his letter to the Romans, by referring to the practice of decapitation (which is ironic because that’s traditionally how Saint Paul is believed to have been martyred),
For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer.
Also speaking in favor of the possibility that the state may deprive a person of life, without doing so unjustly, is Pope Pius XII,
When it is a question of the execution of a condemned man, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.
Pope Pius XII
We’ve established, there are times in which the death penalty can be legitimate, and some where it may even be necessary. So why do people say that the Catholic Church is opposed to capital punishment? Well that is because the Catholic Church is against capital punishment. Confused yet? Let’s unpack this a little more.
The Church has consistently taught that recourse to the death penalty is a legitimate use of state power, and as I showed with the passage from Romans, this goes all the way back to Saint Paul. But what the Church teaches now is more nuanced than in previous years.
Beginning with Pope Saint John Paul II, the Church has started to err on the side against capital punishment. This is probably due a lot to John Paul II’s personal experience of living under totalitarian systems of first the nazis and then the communists, where human life was disposable and regularly disregarded. John Paul II taught us that we are to respect human life at all stages, and in all persons, whenever humanly possible. When the catechism was promulgated in the early 1990s it included this new way of viewing capital punishment from Pope John Paul II, with the last paragraph of 2267 being a direct quote from his earlier encyclical,
CCC 2266: The State’s effort to contain the spread of behaviors injurious to human rights and the fundamental rules of civil coexistence corresponds to the requirement of watching over the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime. The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense. When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation. Moreover, punishment, in addition to preserving public order and the safety of persons, has a medicinal scope: as far as possible it should contribute to the correction of the offender.
CCC 2267: The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude, presupposing full ascertainment of the identity and responsibility of the offender, recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor. [Lk 23:40-43]
“If, instead, bloodless means are sufficient to defend against the aggressor and to protect the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
“Today, in fact, given the means at the State’s disposal to effectively repress crime by rendering inoffensive the one who has committed it, without depriving him definitively of the possibility of redeeming himself, cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender ‘today … are very rare, if not practically non-existent.’ [John Paul II, Evangelium vitae 56.]
If I could boil it down to a few basic points I’d say this about CCC 2266: punishment for a crime should not be disproportionate (so no 30 year sentences for minor crimes, but I digress), must protect society from the risk of the offender reoffending and causing even greater harm, and should hold out the possibility of rehabilitation. The last point being very important in the context of capital punishment because as we all know, if someone is dead they cannot be rehabilitated.
Paragraph 2267 says that the death penalty can be validly administered by the state, but considering the modern advances of prisons and means to prevent someone like a serial killer from killing any more innocent people, it legitimate uses are “very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
Now we come to today, where Pope Francis has spoken out in even more strict terms against the death penalty and has actually took the steps to revise the catechism to reflect this. In today’s revised catechism, that last chapter now reads,
CCC 2267: Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide. [Pope Francis, Oct. 11, 2017]
The new paragraph of the catechism says that the death penalty is now “inadmissible” because of a more developed understanding of penal systems, rehabilitation, human dignity and a more developed penal system that almost guarantees a dangerous criminal will not put innocent people in jeopardy. One of the most important points is that these more developed systems keep the general public safe, but “do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption” because the salvation of souls is the highest priority of the Church. Sure, many convicted killers might not ever seek forgiveness from their victims, or from God, but by taking their life we cut off that chance for reconciliation.
This paragraph closes with a call for all of the Church to work towards the abolition of the death penalty in our own societies. This is a call I take very seriously, and have personally contacted politicians that I otherwise agree with, and let them know that in today’s world the death penalty should be shown the door. We have to build a culture of life, and that means from conception to natural death.
We are all called to be open to life, and to advance the cause of life by working for an end to the genocide of abortion. The blood of the innocent cries out from the ground and is a stain on our nation, a stain the likes of which have not been seen since the end of the slavery in the 1860s. There may be situations in which the death penalty can be legitimate, but in an advanced society, with access to maximum security prisons, and an eye towards rehabilitation and reconciliation for the sake of the convicted’s eternal soul, the time and place for capital punishment has passed.
It would do well, both for the sake of justice and to advance the cause of life (which are inextricably linked) to also listen to the words of our Bishops, and work to end the application of the death penalty in America.