The Death Penalty (A Catholic Perspective)
By: Louis Figueroa
The death penalty remains a controversial issue for religious and secular minded alike. There are many who feel that the death penalty is essential to the maintenance and order of society, but there also exists who hold to the belief that capital punishment is contrary to the inherent dignity of the human person and is essentially anti-life. While there may be many perspectives by which I can approach this topic, I will be focusing on the Catholic perspective, and even though some disagree with the views I present, I ask that you keep an open mind and do not come a decision until the end.
In discussing the death penalty from the Catholic perspective, it should be noted that capital punishment does not stand on the same level of evil as abortion and contraception, as abortion and contraception are considered intrinsically evil; however, Holy Mother Church has held to the belief that capital punishment is a licit form of punishment that may be administered by the state. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament is capital punishment outlawed and has been reinforced by many important church figures. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas made a defense of capital punishment and reasoned “if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good”(Summa Theologica II, II, 64, 2). Essentially, the Church holds that there are two reasons for inflicting punishment: “medicinal” and “vindictive”. The medicinal purpose is to prevent the criminal from repeating his crime and to protect society, while the vindictive is done to expiate the wrong doings of the offender[i]. There is little doubt that carrying out capital punishment is indeed medicinal, as the individual will never carry out their offence again, and the vindictive nature of the punishment is also apparent, but is it in keeping with the dignity of the human being, especially in this modern age?
While Holy Mother Church recognizes the right for the state to protect itself and maintain order, it should also be noted she also has a calling to protect human life at every stage, and to promote the freedom of all people to live “under just and dignified” conditions[ii]. To begin to understand this point, we should look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.
2267 Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.
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.”
By viewing CCC 2266-2267, we can see that the Church is not against the exercise of punishment against an offender; however, she is of the belief that in this day and age methods exist that can render a criminal incapable of doing harm, while at the same time preserving their life, dignity and allowing the possibility of redemption, and that capital punishment should only be used in the most extreme of circumstances; ultimately, non-lethal means of punishment should be sought. In fact, this was the position that was put forward in Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae.
Taking into consideration Evangelium Vitae (EV) paragraph 9, we are asked to consider the story of Cain and Abel, and Abel’s murder. Without a doubt, what Cain had done was wrong and sinful and he deserved to be punished, yet our Lord, in His mercy, placed a mark upon Cain so that he would not be killed. “He gave him a distinctive sign, not to condemn him to the hatred of others, but to protect him from those wishing to kill him, even out of a desire to avenge Abel’s death”. This is an example of “the paradoxical mystery of the merciful justice of God”, and it is in this circumstance that we do indeed see the sinner punished, as he was cast out into the wilderness and the desert, but our Lord “preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner. [He] did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide.”
Pope John Paul II does not stop at the story of Cain and Abel when discussing capital punishment, but deals specifically with in EV 56:
56. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. 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. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”.46 Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except 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 improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: “If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must 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”.48
We can once again see that the medicinal and vindictive concepts are present in the Pope’s position, yet we see that he is also adding a redemptive/rehabilitative aspect to the equation, which again falls into line with his earlier reference to Cain. The Church seeks the redemption of people not merely their punishment, and while it is of great importance to protect society from evil doers, we now live in an era where there are better means by which to address criminals, their deviant behavior and their shortcomings.
It must again be reiterated that capital punishment falls within the boundaries of legitimate defence.[iii] However, capital punishment model is considered under the deterrence theory model of crime control, which is based in rational choice theory and is used with the presumption that it will prevent others from committing the same crime as those executed or committing a crime which carries a capital offence, but it has not often proved as an effective deterrent[iv]; nevertheless, it may also be considered that a lengthy sentence, to include life in prison without parole, may possess a significant deterrent value without replicating the homicidal act on the part of society.
When considering capital punishment, the fallibility of legal systems should also be taken into account, in that, there have been occasions where people have been wrongly accused and sentenced to criminal punishments, including death, and are later found to be innocent[v]. There should also be an acknowledgement that there is an absolutism which exists in death; it is an error that cannot be retracted and that no monetary amount can repair; therefore, if other recourse is available, it should be sought. Further, there often exists a presumption that killing a murder is reparative, yet it has been found that the execution of a murderer does not take away the pain of loss or bring back a loved one,[vi] the only way true healing can ever take place is through forgiveness. Ultimately, “we are [all] called to serve through a higher moral road of mercy and restraint”.[vii]
To forgive can be a torturous task for those who have been the victims of violent crimes and vengeance is often the emotion which transcends all others after such a horrendous encounter, yet, as Catholics, we are called to forgive and it is quite easy to look at biblical verses like Exodus 21:23-26:
But if her death ensue thereupon, he shall render life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. 26 If any man strike the eye of his manservant or maidservant, and leave them but one eye, he shall let them go free for the eye which he put out
and think to one’s self that a person should be punished with death for committing murder; however, verses like this were written to prevent excessive punishments upon people.[viii] Additionally, in the practicing of Christianity, we should be mindful of what our Lord said “You have heard that it has been said: An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you not to resist evil: but if one strike you on your right cheek, turn to him also the other” (Mt. 5:38-39). We are called to forgive and seek the return of fallen brethren, as our Lord desires not the death of a sinner.
The Holy Roman Catholic Church has and always will acknowledge the right of the state to protect itself in a manner by which its citizens are kept safe and order is maintained, but it holds fast to the inherent dignity of the human person and desires the protection of human life from its natural conception to its natural death. Recognizing that there are circumstance by which society may have to exercise its option to execute the licit punishment of death for crimes, she reminds all that it should be used sparingly if at all; instead, society should strive to use other means by which to protect its citizens and seek the rehabilitation of criminals and healing of those affected by heinous criminal acts. As Catholics, we should, as Holy Mother Church does, advocate for more progressive forms of punishment and seek the return of our fallen brethren whenever possible. As the Church continues to battle the culture of death, it should be remembered that violence begets violence and that we should not support nor contribute to that cycle but seek the higher moral road keeping in mind the words of the Holy See spoken at the world congress on the death penalty in Paris, France:
The Holy See takes this opportunity to welcome and affirm once more its support for all initiatives to aim to defend the inherent value and inviolability of human life, from conception to natural end. In this perspective, it is worth noting that the use of the death penalty is not just a negation of the right to life, but also an affront to human dignity.[ix]
Therefore, let all of take steps to make capital punishment scarce and preserve the sanctity of life in all its forms and ensure that if the death penalty is ever used that it is for the most heinous and dire of circumstances of which there is no other recourse.
- [i] Capital Punishment, Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
- [ii] Pope Asks Europe to End Death Penalty, CWNews.com
- [iii] Death Penalty Is Cruel and Unnecessary, Cardinal Renato R. Martino
- [iv] Ibid.
- [v] Death penalty adds to culture of violence, should be stopped: Archbishop Chaput, Catholic News Agency
- [vi] Death Penalty Is Cruel and Unnecessary, Cardinal Renato R. Martino
- [vii] Death penalty adds to culture of violence, should be stopped: Archbishop Chaput, Catholic News Agency
- [viii] Death Penalty Is Cruel and Unnecessary, Cardinal Renato R. Martino
- [ix] Death penalty “difficult to justify” in modern age, Church reaffirms. Catholic News Agency
- Church in Guatemala calls on Congress to abolish death penalty. Catholic News Agency
- US bishops launch campaign against death penalty. Catholic News Agency
- Fr. Lombardi urges all to make death penalty nonexistent. Catholic News Agency
- Capital Punishment. New Advent
- Opposition to the Death Penalty. Dr. Jeff Mirus
- Capital Punishment: Drawing the Line Between Doctrine and Opinion. Dr. Jeff Mirus
- Capital punishment can’t bring back loved ones. Megan Smith