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But flee from these things, you man of God, and pursue righteousness,

godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. ~ 1 Timothy 6:11

Saturday, June 1, 2013

What is the Catholic view on the death penalty?

The results of the Gosnell trial  have sparked lots and lots of discussion about Catholic teachings, pro-life sentiments, and the death penalty.  So what does the Catholic Church teach about the death penalty?


Well to start with, we have the Fifth Commandment of the Ten Commandments given to man straight from the mouth of God in the Old Testament in Exodus 20:2-17 and Deuteronomy 5:6-21: Thou shall not kill.

While that seems relatively straight forward, the Mosaic Law between Exodus 19:1 and 24:18 also lists numerous instances in which killing is acceptable or even called for.  And from there, as usual, we humans made quite a mess of things following the technicalities of the law.

Fortunately, in the New Testament, Jesus came to set us straight.  He preached the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law.  (A great example is the parable of the good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37).  He also led by example, saving numerous sinners from their executions, such as the adulteress in John 8:3-11.  The Catechism summarizes all of this with:
In the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the commandment, "You shall not kill," and adds to it the proscription of anger, hatred, and vengeance. Going further, Christ asks his disciples to turn the other cheek, to love their enemies. He did not defend himself and told Peter to leave his sword in its sheath. ~ CCC 2262
In short the deliberate murder of an innocent person is gravely contrary to the dignity of the human being, to the golden rule, and to the holiness of the Creator. (CCC 2261)

Self Defense

So we have established that murder is bad, however the Catechism goes on to address a specific situation that arises all too often: self defense.
Love toward oneself remains a fundamental principle of morality. Therefore it is legitimate to insist on respect for one's own right to life. Someone who defends his life is not guilty of murder even if he is forced to deal his aggressor a lethal blow. ~ CCC 2264
Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another's life. Preserving the common good requires rendering the unjust aggressor unable to inflict harm. To this end, those holding legitimate authority have the right to repel by armed force aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their charge. ~ CCC 2265
I find the distinction for self defense to be logical.  And while I do find relief in the fact that I am called to protect myself and my loved ones, this may also open the door to justification for the death penalty.

Capital Punishment

Skipping the intricacies of the relationship between Church and State, let's focus on whether we Christians should support capital punishment or not.  Well, starting with the basics, the Catechism states:
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. ~ CCC 2266
To re-emphasize, it is the duty of a just State to protect human rights by penalizing crime.  But to what end?
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 2266
Fascinating.  The punishment is not only for the safety of society, but also for the rehabilitation of the criminal.  That is a beautiful concept.  So with this premise established, is capital punishment ever called for?
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. ~ CCC 2267
So yes, the Church acknowledges the potential need for the death penalty.

That could be considered the end of the argument.  However we would be repeating the mistakes of our Old Testament brethren if we only followed this technicality and did not give due diligence to the qualifiers listed: CERTAINTY of the offender and NO OTHER WAY to protect the innocent.
"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.  ~ CCC 2267

Practical Application

Those two qualifiers (certainty that you have the right guy and no other way to protect innocents) seem to be rarely, if ever, met.  Look at how many people are freed from wrongful imprisonment by modern DNA testing.  In addition, today we have the most advanced penal systems the world has ever known.

It appears that I am not alone in my reasoning either.  Blessed Pope Jean Paul II wrote similarly in EV 56.  In addition, I called Father Simon at Relevant Radio and you can listen to his answer in this broadcast between 18:14 and 20:25.

Given this, I can't see ever justifying the use of the death penalty today.

But we can still go further.  We also established that the punishment should be, whenever possible, aimed towards the rehabilitation of the criminal.

Just as a parent punishes because they love their child and hopes to correct ill behavior so their child can be a better person.  So to should we strive for correctional measures that help an offender to no longer commit crime.  This beautiful concept is very much in line with "love the sinner, hate the sin".  

And loving the sinner leads me to my final point.  That we, as Catholics, do not want ANYONE to be damned to an eternity in hell without God.  Rather, our mission in this life is to evangelize and lead as many souls to salvation as possible.

If that is true, then how could we ever wish for the death penalty for someone who is obviously in a state of mortal sin?  Given our calling, doesn't reason dictate that we always want to grant the criminal the opportunity to meditate on wrongdoings, obtain a penitent heart, and seek absolution?

Given this logic, and given the capabilities at the disposal of modern society, I don't think we should ever support capital punishment.

Closing Thought

In Luke 15:4-7 we learn that "there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance".  In opposing the death penalty we might allow millions of sinners a second chance to come back to Christ.  If only one sinner repents and comes back, won't that be worth it?

Keep Pursuing,

1 comment:

  1. Congratulations on the 1 year anniversary of your blog!

    This is a great post. You've taken a topic that looks controversial and complicated, and spell it out very clearly.

    The audio clip from Go Ask Your Father was a nice touch. Too bad you weren't on the line to dialogue with Fr Simon about it!