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The Holy Father is clearly opposed to the death penalty; but why doesn’t the Church oppose it as unequivocally as abortion and euthanasia?

It’s a real question: I simply don’t understand

By on Friday, 2 December 2011

The execution room in the US state of Oregon. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1984, two death row inmates have been killed by lethal injection (Photo: PA)

The execution room in the US state of Oregon. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1984, two death row inmates have been killed by lethal injection (Photo: PA)

I was glad to see the Holy Father, the other day, putting his weight behind those who are campaigning for the worldwide ending of the death penalty: on Wednesday, to a major international meeting which took place under the sponsorship of the Sant’Egidio Community, aimed at eliminating capital punishment, he made clear his approval of this intention:

I greet the distinguished delegations from various countries taking part in the meeting promoted by the Community of Sant’Egidio on the theme: No Justice without Life. I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.

I am bound to say that I don’t quite understand how any Catholic who is opposed to abortion and euthanasia (as all Catholics should be, though some, incomprehensibly to me – like the late Senator Teddy Kennedy – are apparently not) could be in favour of this equally deliberate taking of human life. I believe in democracy; but whenever I remember that in this country, if a referendum were held to decide the matter this barbaric punishment would almost certainly be restored, my belief falters. And I have to say, that greatly though (after many visits to different parts of the land of the free, covering destinations from Houston to Anchorage, Detroit to Los Angeles) I love America and the American people, I have to say that the way in which the death penalty is actually handed down and then carried out in some states in that great country (usually after many years on death row, often longer than a life sentence for murder here) leads me unavoidably to feelings about the American judicial system which are considerably less than respectful (I have other reasons for these feelings, into which I will not go here).

So what is Catholic teaching about capital punishment? I had in my simple way supposed that the Church today had come to the mind that it was wrong under all circumstances: but such is not apparently the case. This is how the Pope explained the matter when he was prefect of the CDF:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

The late Holy Father, in Evangelium Vitae, made clear his own view, that this was a punishment rightly on the way out: “There is,” he wrote, “evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of ‘legitimate defence’ on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.” However, he continued, “it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason.” But, he went on, “On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society.”

And now we come to the point at which I don’t quite understand the apparently equivocal way in which we have been taught by the Church’s highest pastors. And when I say “I don’t understand”, I mean just that: not, as these words so often indicate “surely anyone of the meanest intelligence can see I’m right”. I have a real question, to which I would be grateful for the answer. If, as the late Holy Father implies here, the abolition of the death penalty would be “more in line with human dignity and… with God’s plan for man and society”, why doesn’t the Church simply say that God’s plan for man and human society demands the abolition of the the death penalty? How is it ever necessary? Under what circumstances, for instance, does “the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm” ever “[involve] taking his life”?

Saif Al-Islam Gadaffi, for instance – who has certainly been the cause of many deaths and other untold harm – since he will be tried in Libya rather than at the Hague will almost certainly in the end be hanged by the neck until he is dead. But in what way would a life sentence handed down at the Hague make him any less incapable of causing any further harm? I suppose it could be argued that alive he might continue to be a rallying point for Gadaffi supporters (of whom there are still undoubtedly a good number). It’s just that I simply can’t get over the cold-blooded awfulness of deliberately bringing a man from his cell to a place where there is a gibbet and then with the full authority of the state stringing him up: it seems to me that the state which does that is always thereby immeasurably diminished. “We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing,” said the US bishops in 1994. I would like to see that in the next edition of the Catechism. But who am I? What I feel about it (feel as much as think) was eloquently conveyed by another opponent of the death penalty, Dorothy L Sayers, at the very end of her greatest Peter Wimsey novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, which you can read on Gutenberg, here.

  • Michael Petek

    It’s very simple. If capital punishment were on the same moral footing as abortion and euthanasia, then the repentant criminal could not, without blasphemy and a rebuke from his Saviour who was crucified with him, have affirmed that he and the other criminal were getting the punishment they justly deserved.

  • Apostolic

    I have, to say the least, great respect for Benedict XVI. With miscarriages of justice in mind, I can see that the death penalty should only ever be used in the last resort, where there is no reasonable doubt and where society could not be equally protected. I can also agree that in a modern state where there are facilities for imprisonment as an alternative to death may make the death penalty unnecessary. Nevertheless, I agree with those on here who have stated that no pope may forbid as a matter of principle the state to impose the death penalty. This has been the constant teaching of the church for centuries. Any pope, even one as great as this pope, who implied that imposing the death penalty was in principle against Catholic teaching would be exceeding his authority. This is an interesting example of the limits of papal authority. When Benedict XVI is expressing himself thus, he is expressing his private opinion; nothing more. Unlike an affirmation or definition of a time-honoured doctrine, we are no more bound in conscience to obey this opinion than that of any other pious Catholic. I say this despite having the highest regard for Benedict XVI.

  • Michael Petek

    Under what circumstances, for instance, does “the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm” ever “[involve] taking his life”?

    If a person commits murder while under arrest or detention, or in prison, or if he cannot be imprisoned without serious risk to the rehabilitation of inmates less wicked than he is.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for providing the reductio ad absurdum of traditional catholic teaching on the death penalty. 

    You describe accurately what was the Church’s teaching for over a thousand years, but you will not find anything remotely like it in any current authoritative source. The Church has once again learned from liberal and progressive thinkers that its previous teaching was false. On 12 March 2000 the then Cardinal Ratzinger joined Pope John Paul II in a formal apology for sins committed by the Church against human rights. 

  • Anonymous

    “On 12 March 2000 the then Cardinal Ratzinger joined Pope John Paul II in a formal apology for sins committed by the Church against human rights.”

    ## That apology – like rest – was a prudential act. There is no kind of obligation on any Catholic to think it was in any way justifiable. Like many others,  I think it was a colossal blunder. Catholics are under no obligation to think a Pope’s every act, thought or word is wise, or moral, or orthodox; it is servility, not Catholicism, to think every act of a Pope must be beyond reproach. To think so would be a theological monstrosity.

    There is, and can be, no human right whatsoever to spread heresy. A Church that does not do all it can – in its circumstances – to repress and correct it, is deceiving the faithful and abandoning or murdering  the flock of Christ.  The Church authorities are not entitled to expose the faithful to heresy. Shepherds who do that are serving Satan, not Christ.

    One can OTOH speak of a right to be punished for doing evil – and thus, of a right to be punished for spreading heresy. 

    “The Church has once again learned from liberal and progressive thinkers that its previous teaching was false. ”

    ## It was not false, nor can it be. It was a valid application, in times different from our own, of the facts (which are still facts) that heresy is a horrible crime against the Gospel & the faithful; that the Church has legitimate power to defend itself against heresy; that it has the authority & the right to use coercion against unrepentant heretics. That it has the duty to defend itself against heresy. That it can inflicted the sentence of  death upon heretic, was perfectly legitimate, but was contingent upon the arrangement of society in a way that the other things mentioned are not. Those other things, are permanent principles of the Church’s life as a society on earth; it OTOH is not. That’s not an excuse, for there is nothing to excuse. *In the circumstances*, executing heretics was entirely legitimate.

  • Anonymous

    “I would much rather see…arguing against why there is not an absolute prohibition on war in the Catechism”

    ## Excellent point – I would like to know how politicians who do not reject nuclear weapons are any different from politicians who do not reject abortion. Or is killing the born OK ? If so, on what grounds ?  If Christianity is really important, and if to live by the bio-ethical doctrine of the Church is required, no matter what – why should those work in the production of armaments not be held to the same standard ?

  • Bob

    One can see from remarks about “frivolous comments”, that you and your family have never been victims of violent crime.  After you have been threatened in this fashion, you will lose all sense of frivolity.  Things get very serious, very quickly, and you will suddenly realize that it is not “frivolity, because it now becomes very, very personal.  Ask anyone who was riding in the train and bus that were bombed, or anyone who escaped the World Trade Center.  It most certainly was not “frivolity” to them. 
    And your comment about “Lynch Law” certainly is “frivolous”.  We are not talking about unjust laws and lynching black people here. That kind of dismissive reply is not acceptable, and not reasonable.  It is just a sneering jab at our judicial system.
    Jesus and Mary be with you and your family, may they preserve you from violence….

  • Bob Hayes

    Two points: 

    ‘One can see from remarks about “frivolous comments”, that you and your family have never been victims of violent crime.’ Incorrect. Please do not presume to be so judgemental of others’ situations in life – just because they disagree with you. Six years ago I lost a very good friend in a mindless street killing.

    ‘It is just a sneering jab at our judicial system.’ The role of the Catechism is to set out the Church’s teaching, not to act as some kind of bulwark for any particular judicial system. If the Catechism and a judicial system are at odds, then I believe it is the judicial system that is flawed.

  • Anonymous

    Can you find any authoritative contemporary Catholic theologian, who agrees with your assertion that “there is no human right to spread heresy”? Failing that perhaps could you try instead to reconcile the moral right to kill heretics with modern Catholic teaching on freedom of religion as expressed in Dignitatis Humanae (and signed by Marcel Lefebvre). 

    There is no doubt that anyone publicly proclaiming the teaching expressed in DH in the middle ages would have been in danger of being burned at the stake.

  • Anonymous

    This is the BIG problem with a non-apologetic Church EdictorCT ; you see the ‘permissible’ and presume it means a can – without ever considering the ‘why’ . Look back at all your references and what do you find? Justification to carry out such acts as either direct appeals to defence or appeals to justice which are then justified by the justness in defence…you cannot escape it – we have no right to kill – we may for just cause in the gravest of circumstances – and the reason why is? Every twist and turn throughout the history of this issue it always falls back on the right to defend oneself against an unjust aggressor. You don’t deny the ‘fact’ but you refuse to go beyond it to find the reason why…and if the reason why no longer becomnes valid? [e.g. tenable means of incarceration where there is no direct immediate lethal threat at all?] Upon what do you fall back…no – don’t tell me – you go right back to the catechism of Trent and Bellarmine and refer to the executed having a ‘good death’ through expiation of their sins by this sacrificial act – well I’m sorry but that may be ‘romantically virtuous’ – but it is not a categorical imperative – Hebrews already tells us there is but one sacrifice for the expiation of sins and there is no other required.

    We were allowed to execute because we were allowed recourse to self-defence. And this is not an appeal to utility because automatically those aggressors threatening lethal direct force are immediate transgressors – but it is not our job to punish them with death – reluctantly we are given no other recourse to penalise them with death to save the lives of others – a paradigm which is virtually non-existent in modern times. End of story

  • Anonymous

    Excuse me – Do you want the facts or prefer the illusion?
    Aquinas & Pius XII got the dogma wrong – it’s plain and simple – they said the crimes made the perpetrators bestial/inhuman…and that’s anti-dogmatic.

    Cardinal Ratzinger said Capital Punishment when he [axiomatically must have] meant to say Death penalty – there is a huge gulf separating the two moral principles – just because modern society or dictionaries or academia finds them interchangeable doesn’t mean to say we can or should. Death is not a valid form of punishment but an unjust lethal aggressor may validly be penalised with death in self-defence.

    Hence the use of Death Penalty in the Catechism.

  • tcreek

    See the AEI/Brookings Death Penalty Study linked from here –

  • Joel Pinheiro

    Of course the Church oficcially endorsed the death penalty throughout most of its history. It is almost an insult to it to say that it was opposed to the death penalty in past centuries, when each and every Catholic State practiced it openly and in a large number of cases, eliciting not one rebuke from any religious authority whatsoever. On the contrary, every single theologian, moralist and casuist (including St. Thomas and St. Liguori) defended the right of the State to kill convicted criminals, and sometimes also heretics.

    Now the teaching is changing. But one thing is clear: even though the death penalty may fall short of a truly Christian social teaching, it is still something much less immoral than abortion. After all, the one being killed is (presumably) guilty of a serious crime against human dignity; whereas the baby in the womb is innocent.

    It is not the first time that the Church, slowly but surely, changes its teaching on some moral point. Usury, slavery, the use of periodic continence as a form of birth control, the moral status of sexual relations (from a necessary evil, never done without at least venial sin, to a beautiful and even spiritual expression of love between spouses), were all cases of notable development and reversal of teaching. Perhaps we are seeing another instance of that in the death penalty. 

  • Bob

    So, let’s be rational here.  Our countries, and the Church, agrees that it is acceptable to send the best self sacrificing young men in just causes to save civilization.  In less than a hundred years, this meant millions of young men died in warfare, in the trenches, and on the battlefield.  All agree it was necessary to end the threat of Facism and Communism, for the sake of mankind, for the sake of civilization, for the sake of our freedom, especially religious freedom and freedom of speech. 
    So, here is the double standard you are proposing:  It’s Ok for our best young people to sacrifice themselves, and get the death penalty in warfare.  But, it’s not OK for less moral people, say violent serial killers, to be sacrificed for the cause of mankind.  A bit inconstent, no? 

    In fact, it is not rational.  Our Society should hold violent criminals to the same standards that it expects of our best young people.  And, that is really the best approach – for one thing, it is not condescending to criminals, that is, it isn’t treating them like children.  Society should insist that better should be expected of them, and they must expect to pay for their crimes.  It really is difficult to understand – every day, we accept the deaths of Police, Firemen, and Soldiers, as being necessary.  We know that soldiers are under the death penalty, and this is accepted.  So, why all the angst, this public hand wringing, over criminals?  If you can accept the deaths of military people everyday, without comment, what is so difficult about accepting the death of a criminal?

    I’m very sorry to hear of your friend’s death.  Almost every single person in my FAMILY, and some friends, has been the victim of a violent crime.  It can be very difficult at times, and may you not experience this. 

    Jesus and Mary save you and your family from violence. 

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  • Bob Hayes

    Google translate isn’t very good, is it?