The Catholic Church does currently hold that the infliction of capital punishment is not contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church, but in the spirit of Pope John Paul’s II Evangelium vitae, what I offer here is an expressed hope that we can do better, think better, and love each human better in the spirit of the God who became human for our sake and ending being a victim of capital punishment himself. It is my prayer that the Catholic Church moves to express (as recent Bishops have) a more merciful teaching, a higher standard, and a more and a more counter-cultural stance on this very important issue.
In 1995 the late Holy Father wrote:
“Among the signs of hope we should also count the spread, at many levels of public opinion, of a new sensitivity ever more opposed to war as an instrument for the resolution of conflicts between peoples, and increasingly oriented to finding effective but “non-violent” means to counter the armed aggressor. In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of “legitimate defense” on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.”
[[addendum: Concerning Catholics legitimately disagreeing on the use of Capital Punishment, here is a quote from Pope Benedict XVI from Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles when he was the Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith:
- 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.]]
Perhaps Pope John Paul’s II prayer has been efficacious. According to the Death Penalty Info Center (DPIC), 15 states in the U.S.A. and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty, with 3 of them (Arizona, New Mexico, New York) having done so since 2007. According to Amnesty International, 123 countries have abolished the death penalty, with 17 of them having done so since 2000. There are more than 20,000 men and women on death row in the world, with over 3,000 in the U.S. alone. In 2009 there were 51 executions in the United States. Also according to DPIC, since the technology has been accept in U.S. courts, there have been 17 persons released from death row because of the DNA evidence exonerating them.
The United States is keeping some very interesting company in the capital punishment execution race. For the past four years China and Iran has been first and second, respectively, in the number of death penalty executions, Saudi Arabia has been in third place for three out of the past four years, and the United States and Pakistan have consistently battled for the fourth and fifth position during the same time-frame. How is it that the country that many American’s call ‘Christian’ has keeping pace with four the leading violators of human-dignity in the world?
Murder is not the only crime for which a person can be sentenced to death row in the United States. According to DPIC, in a number of states a person who did not directly kill the person, but was somehow associated with the crime can be sentenced to death row. Other crimes that can land a U.S. citizen on death row in some states include; treason, aggravated kidnapping, drug trafficking, aircraft hijacking, placing a bomb near a bus terminal, espionage. In U.S. Federal Courts espionage, treason, trafficking in large quantities of drugs, and attempting, authorizing or advising the killing of any officer, juror, or witness in cases involving a continuing criminal enterprise, regardless of whether such killing actually occurs are crimes that can land a man or woman on death row. Outside of the United States, incest, sodomy, apostasy in Islam, adultery, human trafficking, corruption, in militaries around the world, cowardice, desertion, insubordination, and mutiny.
REASON #1 – Capital Punishment is Never Fool-Proof:
The death penalty is rendered by humans who are quite fallible.
I often hear my fellow Catholics, many of whom consider themselves to be pro-life, say that there are times when capital punishment is necessary. And what they say is completely orthodox according to Paragraph No. 2266 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which reads:
“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.”
I understand the responsibility of the Catholic Church to offer society clear and constructive means to better glorify God, but this paragraph of the Catechism offers little Heavenly good. Basically it is stating that the death penalty is a tool of justice that the state has recourse to. What it fails to address is that the ‘state’ oftentimes fails to render justice in a manner which pleases God. What are these human behaviors that spread and are harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules civil society? In China, North Korea, and other digressing secular and radical Muslim states, ‘harmful behaviors’ could be things that are quite ‘helpful behaviors’ in truly Christian states. Therefore, because the death penalty can never be justly applied in every state, the Church ought not to advance it as a solution for any state.
The next paragraph of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (No. 2267) is much better in my opinion. It states:
“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.”
Let us start from the top, “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined . . .” What the Church is saying here is that you cannot sentence innocent people to death row. Yet, again, just because a jury votes by majority or unanimously that a person is guilty does not necessarily mean that they are truly guilty. Just because a judge or a panel of judges find that by the preponderance or circumstantial evidence that a person is guilty does not necessarily mean that they are guilty and worthy of capital punishment. It has even been found that just because a person admits to being guilty in a police interrogation room does not necessarily mean that they actually committed the crime.
Therefore, because capital punishment is never consistent from state to state; meaning that in one state murder is a death penalty crime and in the next state being a Christian is death penalty crime, it should never been be allowed in any state. The thing about laws is that laws change from generation to generation, so there is no absolute method to ensure that only certain crimes will be subject to the death penalty. It may very well be the case that one day witches will face the death penalty again.
To that point, the Salem Witch Hunt, the death of John the Baptist, the Holy Innocents, Christ Jesus, and Christian martyrs for the past two thousand years, are all good examples of the death penalty never being executed with 100% certainty or righteousness intact. Innocent people are executed throughout the world for crimes of which they are not guilty of. Innocent people are executed throughout the world for crimes that are questionably criminal acts; acts that do not truly harm persons, places, or things. Seventeen people in the U.S. have been exonerated primarily due to new DNA evidence. The number itself, seventeen, seems small until you realize the potential, importance, power, and value that just one human life can have. Therefore, if the death penalty can never be safely rendered with absolute certainty and righteousness in every case, then there is no reason for us to have comfort in it being rendering justly in any case.
REASON #2 – Capital Punishment is Always Unnecessary:
It is never necessary to kill criminals to keep the public safe
Continuing with Paragraph No. 2267 Catechism of the Catholic Church:
“. . . 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.”
Unless a man has superhuman powers and no prison can contain them, there remains to be no reason why killing a criminal is the only way to keep the public safe. Prisons today are more secure than ever and laws can be structured in a manner that parole (i.e., termination of prison sentence) is not ever an option for certain crimes. I challenge anyone to offer me just one example of an instance where killing a person is the only way to keep the public safe. Even if that person has followers or their mere life poses a dangerous ideology, killing them does not kill the follower or the idea.
Even though the Catechism of the Catholic Church, in Paragraph no. 2266, holds that the Church is supportive of the state’s need to keep the public safe, this paragraph is telling the state that sentencing violent criminals to life-in-prison is a better rendering of justice for the greater benefit of the whole society of which the criminal is apart of. In other words, sentencing a person to death row may very well permanently protect society from that one criminal, but sentencing that same person to life-in-prison will not only permanently protect society, but it will also protect the dignity of the criminal himself.
REASON #3 – Capital Punishment Inveighs Against the Desire of God:
To set up our next discussion let us turn to a few texts found in sacred Scripture:
- Ezekiel – 18:21-28
Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked? says the Lord GOD. Do I not rather rejoice when he turns from his evil way that he may live?
Matthew – 5:43-45
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”.
Matthew – 6 :14-15
“If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”
1 Timothy – 2:1-4
“First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.”
Capital punishment inveighs against the will of God, because it never helps to facilitate God’s desire that everyone be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. Capital punishment doesn’t care about salvation; it is only concerned with terminating human life. It is quite similar to abortion in this way. There is much greater good to be achieved in a person who has committed a heinous crime spending their life in prison and turning their heart to God, than there is in killing that person before they have a chance to discover the love of Jesus Christ.
I hear people say that there is some cathartic value in capital punishment for the family of the victim of a violent crime. That, somehow, through the death of the person who killed their loved one, the victim’s family is supposed to find closure. On the contrary, God himself said that catharsis comes through forgiveness. Closure does not come through revenge or ‘get-back’. Healing does not come through an eye for an eye. Terminating the life the person who killed your loved one does not bring your loved one back. The death of Jesus on the cross teaches us that the best thing that can come through death is new life. Therefore, the best hope for a person who wrongly takes the life of another is for them to learn from what they did, repent, turn their heart to God, and then bear witness to his mercy. Is it hard to desire the best for a person who hurt us? Of course, but if forgiveness and love were always easy for us do then there would be a lot more people in Heaven right now.
Ultimately, all capital punishment is, is an easy way out. It takes us off the hook of forgiving, loving, and desiring the greater good for the person and society. It allows us to quit and give up on people. I am so thankful that God did not give up on me; therefore, I will never give up anyone. I deserved death and Christ gave me life.
Of all the things unlike God in the world, capital punishment is one of the greatest. Even God sends no one to Hell. On the contrary, the state of Hell is the just outcome of one’s actions. And Hell is permanent and everlasting – it is the true life sentence. Therefore, if God does not render the ultimate death penalty to any human, then why should we? We should strive to be much more like our loving and forgiving God than unlike him. For, if we love and forgive others for what they have done against us, God will forgive us for the sins we have committed against him.
There is also a component of personal responsibility to this issue as watchmen (Cf. Eze. 33). If we Christians were out there loving one another as Christ commanded us to love (Cf. Jn. 15:12) then there would be much fewer people on death row right now. Yet, because we failed to love when love was easy to offer, let us now not fail to love when love is difficult to offer. Because we initially failed to go out and baptize and effectively teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded us, let us not now give up and quit! Rather, let us be invigorated with an even deeper passion to go into prisons and visit Jesus there in the least of our brothers and sisters (Cf. Mt. 25:35-45). Again, let us not kill them in prison, but let us feed them, clothe them, teach them, and give them water to drink while they are in prison.
I have great hope that one day my Catholic Church will stop giving state governments the licenses to kill sinners and saints alike. When Saint Paul said, “Everything is lawful to me,” but not everything is beneficial” (1 Cor 6:12), he was not talking about capital punishment, but the principle remains the same. At this time in our history the Catholic Church permits state governments to kill sinners and saints, but this practice is not beneficial to anyone. The death penalty circumvents forgiveness, spits in the face of mercy, undermines love, and inveighs against our God who is suppose to be the only one who gives life and takes it away.
I understand that forgiveness is hard. Talking about why the old Mosaic Law permitted divorce, Jesus told his hearers “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt. 19:8). It is my hope that one day the Catholic Church will rejoice in the same good news and call humanity to a higher standard of love and forgiveness. The fathers will say, ‘There was a time when capital punishment was permissible because of the hardness of your heart, but that was not the way it was in the beginning. Only God gives life and only God takes it away.’