Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Death Penalty

This is a topic that shows how Catholic Faith and Reason really go hand in hand.  The death of any person is always a grave matter.  If someone is involved in bringing about that death, then it is a very serious matter indeed.  Most societies throughout history have each had their own policies on capital punishment and the United States, with its heritage from Western European civilization, is no exception.

The Church would state that the State has a legitimate right to maintain order.  

Attorney Robert Hutton gives several legitimate motives for a criminal justice system
  1. Protect citizens
  2. Rehabilitation of criminals
  3. Restitution
  4. Deterrent
However, there is one motive that is never a legitimate motive for a criminal justice system: Retribution.  By that, I am referring to revenge.

Capital punishment can be invoked using motives 1 and 4.  A dead criminal will never threaten another citizen again and there is some likelihood that other criminals will not commit capital crimes due to the penalty.   The efficacy of motive #4 is in dispute for at least two reasons.  The first is that studies have shown a low statistical correlation between the commission of capital crimes vs non-capital crimes.  The second is a consequence of a situation where a criminal has committed a capital crime (whether on purpose or by accident) and may decide that he has nothing further to lose in committing even more crimes.  

In 1995, Pope John Paul II published the encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” in which he states that execution is only appropriate "in cases of absolute necessity, in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvement in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically nonexistent."   

This is echoed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church #2267: “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.  Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’"

Here he shows the balance between the goods of the protection of society and the good of the dignity of the human person.

So, as the ability of society changes to be able to better protect citizens though non-lethal means, capital punishment which had been the lesser of two evils is no longer so.  Again, since it had been very difficult to detain a dangerous criminal for life, capital punishment was tolerated for the sake of the greatest good of the innocent.  As it is now possible to preserve the lives of both the guilty and the innocent (and make possible the engagement of rehabilitation, motive #2), that is the preferable course.

How Reasonable is that Faith?


  1. Is it fair to say that the highest value you can place on human life is to say that if you take someone's life you forfeit your own?

    1. I think the highest value you can place on human life is to say that a human shares the image and likeness of God.

  2. People often confuse justice and revenge. They are not synonyms.

  3. The Church has always supported capital punishment.

    I wrote a book about it, "Capital Punishment & Catholic Social Teaching: A Tradition of Support"

    An excerpt is here

    1. Thank you David for your comment.

      I am not sure of the point you are making. Are you agreeing or disagreeing with the post?

  4. For years the Church, in Papal statements, Doctors of the Church, Catachisms---alll supported the right of the state to execute guilty murderers as a PROPORTIONAL reponse to the taking of innocent life !! Whether the guy would escape and kill again had lkittle to do with the right of the state to do justice had little relevence. This was new with Pope J P 2. Capital punishment is pro life !!!!

    1. That was a unique article. It seemed to say that one can be both pro-life and pro-death penalty. Indeed you can. My post does not say that you cannot be both but simply states why life-in-prison is a preferred option over the death penalty.

      What is your objection to the current, more balanced view between justice and mercy?

    2. To me, and as it was officially with our Church for centuries, "justice" for example, for Hitler , if he had been captured, and after a trial , would have been to execute him. Justice, for the father who blows up his house to kill his wife and 2 kids, is the death penalty. Anything else is to fail to re-order society, and to show disrespect for the life of the 6 million Jews he killed. What do we do with those who are in prison in a "life without parole" sentence who kills a prison guard...give him another life without?? Get real! For many people,they believe "mercy" is NOT to keep someone in prison for life without the possibility of parole. I have heard meny say that life without is worse than the death penalty,and would be a stronger punishment than the death penalty--- so would "mercy" for them be to have a term lf years and not life?? Mercy is from God---fairness and justice is from government. It's not fair or just to have Hitler be a hero in the pen--interviewed--fed by us--allowed to publish his writings--be adored--rally his followers. No---the death penalty is just and moral!!!

    3. Quick question for you. Should they have executed Saul when he first met the Christans as Paul?

    4. You seem to think I am saying that the Church says that it now disallows the death penalty. It does not. It is clearly teaching that today we can better uphold the balance between justice and the dignity of people by not resorting to the death penalty in all capital cases.

      You do assert that it is somehow always the right answer. This is not and never was the church's stand. In the extreme cases it's easy to make the point, but in other capital cases, mercy is and was always a viable option.

      I hope this helps.

    5. I certainly don't need any "help" from you. First, no one says that ALL capital cases result in the death penalty, nor should they. Most dont result in the death penalty or even a charge that would allow the death penalty. Its a decision of the prosecutor whether to ask for the death penalty. I was a prosecutor and most capital cases were pled out to life without, life or a term of years, or a jury found the same. Only those with overwhelming aggravating circumstances result in even being CONSIDERED for the death penalty. Second, you missed the point. The church always allowed the state to execute someone, and it was considered the DUTY of the state to do so, through the jury, WHEN THE JURY FOUND THE APPROPRIATE EVIDENCE. It was a matter of proportional justice.This teaching was a matter of Catachism up to about 1980. read Aquinas and Augustine. The Vatican had the death penalty as possible punishment up to about 1969.It is a matter of prudential judgement when, in a specific case, "justice and the dignity of people"(your words) allows the jury to hand down the death penalty. There are cases when, after considering the facts, "justice and the dignity of people" require the death penalty. You are troubled by the "extreme cases?" Good, you should be. What is "extreme" to you, like the Hitler example, where you cant realistically argue that he should have been kept alive, or Osama bin Laden, is only one example of "extreme." But to the family of the convenience store checker who gets her guts blown against the cigarette cases for $30, (in a case I had)..THAT is an "extreme" case....and can deserve the death penalty. Even the Pope says that the death penalty is not like abortion when it comes to whether Catholics may disagree with the current trend. Read this...and I hope it "helps"
      """"3. 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."""

    6. I would like very much for you to help me (no sarcasm intended) to understand you.

      Much of what you say seems to imply that I am trying to say the church is saying something the church isn't actually saying. I am not and I provided quotes. Did I misunderstand your position? Can you provide the quotes you refer to so that I can see your position?

      For example, the church allows the death penalty. You give examples where the church allows the death penalty. I agree with you. I never said it was no longer allowed.

      Killing Hitler is a gross travesty of "proportional justice" since he has only one life to give and he was the cause of so much death. However it may be preferable for other reasons to sentence him to the death penalty without doing it for "revenge." That makes sense too.

      In the vast majority of cases, however it is no longer as preferable as it once was.

      Your 3rd point about disagreeing with the Pope was never raised by me, so your defense of it is surprising. Now that you have raised it, let me simply say that you are not placing me at odds with what you say the church has always taught, but Pope John Paul II. Is that the point you wish to make? That Pope John Paul II is wrong?

      Thank you for your post.

  5. I’d take exception to a few of the ways that you’ve characterized JP2′s statements on the death penalty. He didn’t consistently condemn it. He certainly didn’t condemn it when he promulgated the original edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which took a more positive line regarding the use of capital punishment than the later edition.

    He also didn’t condemn it in the strongest possible terms. He never said that it is intrinsically evil, as he did with abortion and euthanasia. His statements on the matter frequently include qualifiers and nuances and reservations, because he knew that it is a settled part of Catholic moral teaching (and biblical teaching) that capital punishment is legitimate in principle. It’s only a question of when it should be used (i.e., under what conditions and do they exist today), not whether it is legitimate to use it at all.

    Also, while JP2 was a man of enormous intellect and thoughtfulness, he was still a man, and thus could speak unconsidered words (particularly when reading the text of a speech prepared for him by someone else–there are examples of things that had to be corrected in the official editions of speeches he gave that weren’t delivered orally in the way the official edition shows; the most likely explanation here is that he ordered the official edition changed to add or remove a nuance that was in the draft presented for him to read).

    Even if he superhumanly never said an unconsidered word, though, and even if he had consistently condemned the death penalty and even if he had done so in strong, unnuanced terms, this would not amount to a ex cathedra statement.

    None of the things JP2 said on the death penalty used anything like the language popes traditionally use when making ex cathedra statements (the giveaway language for that is "I/we define . . . ," usually buttressed by a direct appeal to his authority as the successor of Peter).

    The most authoritative thing JP2 wrote on the death penalty was the brief discussion he gave of it in Evangelium Vitae 56, and there he loaded up what he said with qualifiers and with an acknowlegement of the death penalty in principle.

    While he expressed great reserve about the use of the death penalty in this passage, it is (a) a fallible statement and (b) expresses elements of the pope’s prudential judgment rather than matters that belong properly to the deposit of faith given to the Church by Christ and the apostles.

    Thus, as Pre-16 noted: "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."

    1. Anonymous,

      Thank you for your post.

      There was one quote of JP2 in the post. The terms "absolute necessity" and "practically non-existent" seem pretty extreme to me, but let that pass. I did not mis-characterize any statements. I did not state that his quote was ex-cathedra.

      His opinion does not absolutely prohibit the death penalty, nor does it prohibit Catholics from disagreeing with it.

      However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church quote echoed his statement. In Fidei Depositum, Pope JP2 did state that the CCC is a "sure norm for teaching the faith." That carries some weight.

      Again, you are not arguing with me, but the the Pope and the Magisterium.

      Can you show me where the church today disagrees with this teaching in some other place?

    2. I've previously cited this and more. Plenty of Popes, Doctors, Catachisms etc have stated with equal emphasis that the death penalty was totally permitted, and in fact PREFERRED, for centuries. Prudential judgment is just's his opinion. We are required to give it serious consideration. I have...and I reject it, as I can do, according to the current Pope. Its not the same as abortion and euthansia. We cant reject those, as Catholics.We can disagree on the death penalty. What pisses me off is that these light weight Parish "organizers" cant even restate the history of the death penalty as I have here.They personally oppose it so they lie about it. Marginalizing my opinion and the centuries of support of the death penalty by the Church is something I wont toleralte.Since no one is reading this but you and I, on to other fish.

  6. rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm...
    #2267 CCC (as quoted by Joe above)

    Ahh, such faith in technology!

    However, amputating all the offender's limbs is considered cruel and unusual punishment in backward places such as the United States of America.

    Get back to us Joe, when recidivism drops to zero and there are no more prisoner assaults on anybody. Notice that I'm not insisting on penal system perfection, something which would require that - oh, to pick one example - the divorce rate among prison guard families fall to no more than the rate of the public generally.

    1. Hi Micha,

      I am not sure I understand. Are you seriously saying that, after removing the offender from society (rendering him incapable of doing harm to society), in order to prevent any and all in-prison offenses, it would be best to kill him?


  7. I'm amazed by the willingness of certain posters here to discount the Magisterium of the Church on the death penalty simply because they oppose "the right stuff": abortion and euthanasia. I'm also stunned by the level of anger expressed in the pro-death penalty posts. Anger and hatred are sins. Opposition to abortion does not simply give a person cover to reject the legitimate teaching authority of the Pope and bishops on the death penalty. Oftentimes "liberal Catholics" are charged with being "Cafeteria Catholics" who pick and choose what doctrine they will follow; the posters here show that this phenomenon does not simply apply to "liberals." I am a Catholic who is pro-life (including anti-Euthanasia, anti-stem cell research, anti-in vitro, etc.), pro-Social Justice, anti-Gay marriage, anti-HHS mandate, AND anti-death penalty. I believe that my positions are correct, and they happen to conform to Church doctrine.

    I find it shocking that we follow a God who was subjected, unjustly, to the death penalty, who preached mercy, forgiveness, and against retaliation, and we have popes and bishops who teach that the death penalty violates the fundamental principle that all men are created in God's image, and therefore have inherent dignity, no matter what they do, AND that some Catholics feel that they can ignore all that. So what if some in the Church OKed the death penalty in the past. That was wrong, just as when the Church approved of slavery. Now we know better. The Church teaches that doctrine develops over time. Or is this teaching rejected too?

  8. ..."some " in the church OKed the death penalty?? You gotta be kidding. Those "some" are Popes. Catachisms, St Thomas Acquinas, St Augustine, and OH by the way, the VATICAN had the death penalty until 1969! So...why the change?? I have the right to support it, and so I do !! Sorry if that was too "mean" for you.