Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Death Penalty and The Church

Q - How can an Catholic stay in communion with his/her faith if they support the death penalty? This has been a personal struggle of mine for years. If I place myself in the shoes of the victim especially when it relates to young children or purely innocent I find myself siding with the arguments for capital punishment even though I know what my faith teaches.


A - Thank you very much for your question! It is a difficult thing to struggle with an issue. I hope that after reading this response you can be somewhat comforted by the fact that God is pleased with your desire to do the right thing. I hope that you will be patient with my response as I give some background information first.
The Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty is widely based in Scripture and Sacred Tradition and has deepened over the years. Many believe that we are currently undergoing a development of that teaching presently. Before I go any further into the teaching on the death penalty, I need to talk briefly about what is called doctrinal development.

Doctrinal development does not mean that the truth contained in the teaching of the Church changes. What is true, by definition, cannot change. But rather, doctrinal development means that our understanding of that truth grows. For instance, the Church didn’t immediately understand the nature of the Trinity in the early Church as we do today. It took centuries of arduous, and sometimes contentious, struggle with the issues surrounding the Trinity (two-fold nature of Christ, origination of the Holy Spirit, etc.) to figure out what the details of the truth given in God’s Revelation to the Church were. So, based on this we should know that our understanding of the death penalty is developing presently.

Now, the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church is that the state has every right to defend itself and to punish those who violate what justice demands up to and including the death penalty. Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says in paragraph 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.
Thus, the death penalty is not evil or wrong in and of itself. In fact, it is based upon the application of justice. There is no intrinsic evil in the death penalty, as is the case with abortion. Now, we must also understand that the development of the teaching which is now happening is expressed in the rest of paragraph 2267 when it says:
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 with 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 non-existent."
In other words, in the judgment of the Church and based upon our modern situation, there are better ways of punishing and protecting than by killing others.

Based upon this teaching, how should we react? Hopefully if this challenges us, we try to do what God is calling us to do.

We are certainly justified in being angry at those who would kill and hurt others, especially those who are innocent. There are horrible crimes that are committed and even as the Church calls for an end to using the death penalty, it is in no way trying to diminish the evil that is committed.

Every Catholic has the freedom to (after properly forming their consciences according to the teachings of the Church) apply these principles to individual circumstances, because the right of the state to defend itself still stands. But, the Church wants us to honestly ask the question, “should we use it considering today’s world?”
We live in a world surrounded by death. Abortion, murder, suicide, war, genocide, etc. Horrible atrocities abound in some parts of the world. Considering these circumstances, we must ask ourselves if killing anyone (even those guilty of the horrible crimes above) is witnessing to the value of every human life. Revenge never helps anyone, ever.

Now, Pope John Paul II addresses the issue of the death penalty in his encyclical “The Gospel of Life” – Evangelium Vitae. In it he answers the question of whether those who commit the most heinous of crimes qualify for the “rare” occasions that warrant the death penalty. He writes:
The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offence". 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 behavior 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.
Here he tells us that the extent of the crime does not answer the question raised. Rather, it is answered by whether or not it is necessary to use the death penalty in any circumstance.

This teaching is challenging, but I want you to know that you are still in communion with the Church if you are at a point where you believe that application of the death penalty should apply in some cases. Continue to educate yourself on what the Church teaches, pray for God to open your heart to receive His Truth, and then when and if He does challenge your conscience, be open to change. You should have no fears of your relationship with the Church in this matter. It is not the same as if you disagreed with the Church on a teaching of an intrinsic evil, such as abortion or euthanasia.

The US Bishops wrote the following in Living the Gospel of Life:
Our witness to respect for life shines most brightly when we demand respect for each and every human life, including the lives of those who fail to show that respect for others. The antidote to violence is love, not more violence.
With that, I would have to agree.
For more on this topic, I highly recommend:
-Pope John Paul II's Evangelium Vitae
-The US Bishops on the Death Penalty