Issues for Catholic Voters (2012 edition) – Death Penalty
“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” (CCC 2267).
Capital punishment is probably the most misunderstood moral issue in the Catholic Church. This confusion stems from the change made in the Catechism in 1997 to bring the teaching into conformity with the encyclical Evangelium Vitae (1995).
The change was widely reported in the media and by some Catholic commentators as the Church declaring total opposition to the use of the death penalty. This view is not supported by the words of the revised Catechism or Evangelium Vitae itself.
The Church’s position can be summarized in this way: The Church is not opposed to the death penalty in principle but in practice. To oppose the death penalty in principle would be to remove one of the most basic responsibilities of the common good—to provide defense and security against aggression.
The Church acknowledges that criminals must be punished and leaves open the possibility that alternatives to the death penalty may not be sufficient to protect the common good. However, thanks to advances in the judicial and penal systems, it is becoming more possible for the state to fulfill its obligation to protect the common good by “bloodless means.” Modern penology has made the necessity of capital punishment “very rare, if not practically non-existent” (Evangelium Vitae, 56).
However, what is true in the United States and other developed countries may not be true in less developed parts of the world where prisons provide security for neither those on the inside or the outside. Prudential judgment is required to apply this teaching to circumstances.
Political candidates best represent Church teaching when they recognize the necessity of protecting the common good from aggression and providing the necessary resources for the improvement of prison care, while still upholding the inherent dignity of individuals.
Elected representatives have a threefold responsibility: first, to recognize the preference of bloodless means in treating the worst criminals; second, to ensure judicial sentences are commensurate with the crimes and the threat to the common good; and third, to provide the resources needed to keep prisons secure for inmates, staff, and the public.
We have nothing to lose by ending the practice of capital punishment.
Yet, if we are to rely on life-imprisonment, the underlying sentencing policies must prevent dangerous criminals from returning to general society until the threat they pose is removed. The only way to completely eliminate the death penalty is to ensure that the penal system truly protects society from the most dangerous of its inmates.
Reform and Renewal
The primary purpose of punishment is to prevent further harm, but the Church also holds forth the hope that those being punished will experience moral renewal in the acceptance of a just punishment: “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” (CCC 2266).
The Holy Father and the bishops hope that this view of punishment will itself be a witness to the culture of life. Rather than seeing justice as revenge, in eye-for-an-eye terms, they urge Catholics to understand the cost of violence, even when violence is sanctioned by the state in the name of protecting the common good.
The Church urges us to go beyond the action that is justified to the action that is a better witness to the moral order.
- The Church teaches that the death penalty is acceptable in principle but should be avoided in practice.
- The responsibility of elected officials is to ensure that penal systems and sentencing policies do, in fact, protect society from known aggressors.
- The practical elimination of the death penalty is based upon the strength of the penal system and the commensurateness of the sentencing procedures.
By Deal Hudson, President of Catholic Advocate