Monday, July 11, 2005
The Catholic View on Capital Punishment

Capital punishment is derived from the Latin word "caput" meaning "head," indicating that the crime was committed was so severe as to warrant that the criminal deserved to lose his head. 

Current Legal Status of the Death Penalty (as of 2004)

In 2004, there were 3,797 executions in 25 countries with China performing at least 3,400. The United States committed 59. Throughout the world, 89 countries have abolished the death penalty with 74 still using it. All countries in Europe, except Belarus, have abolished the death penalty, as of the time of this writing

In the United States, 38 states allow the death penalty with two of them, Maryland and Illinois, having a moratorium on it. As of Jan. 2005, Texas had 337 executions and accounted for the most in the United States, but California has the most death-row inmates. The United States has a reversal rate of 67% in death row convictions. The most common method is lethal injection at 82% of the total executions. As of February 2005, the United States stopped executing juveniles and now only 7 countries in the world do it. (Source with additional information)

The Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty

"Under what circumstances may human life be lawfully taken? A. Human life may be lawfully taken: 1. In self-defense, when we are unjustly attacked and have no other means of saving our own lives; 2. In a just war, when the safety or rights of the nation require it; 3. By the lawful execution of a criminal, fairly tried and found guilty of a crime punishable by death when the preservation of law and order and the good of the community require such execution" (Baltimore Catechism #3 Q. 1276).

People will often ask how we are supposed to understand war and legal recourse to the death penalty in light of the Fifth Commandment. The Church recognizes that there are times when war is necessary to prevent a grave evil. If undertaken for just reasons, a war is called a Just War. Many wars are not considered just, which compounds the difficulty soldiers face when they are in a situation that requires them to kill. In these cases, it is important to seek the counsel of your priest to help reconcile the Fifth Commandment and the demands sometimes required of the honorable duty of military service.

The Church also recognizes that legal recourse to the death penalty is a legitimate option for seeking legal justice. Capital Punishment helps the person who committed serious and heinous crimes with a means to atone for their sins. The death penalty should only be exercised against a criminal if there is no legitimate doubt that they are guilty of their atrocious crime.

"Even in the case of the death penalty, the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life" (Pope Pius XII, Address to the First International Congress of Histopathology of the Nervous System, 14 September 1952, XIV, 328)

Catholic Teaching (Updated in 2017):

The American TFP does a good job indicating the constant teaching authority of the Church that the death penalty is admissible and that the opinions of Pope Francis to change this are incorrect. Read Is the Death Penalty Contrary to the Gospel?

Work for the Salvation of Every Human Soul

Our ultimate goal is to work for the salvation of every human soul. As Fulton J. Sheen once remarked, "If souls are lost, everything is lost." There is something worse than death - that is eternal death in hell, a death that will go on for all eternity. So let us work for the conversion and salvation of everyone, especially those on death row and those serving prison sentences of any term. The story of the conversion of Claude Newman and the Miraculous Medal from the 1940s is something everyone should read.

5 comment(s):

del_button July 12, 2005 at 10:31 PM
Deacon Mike said...

I posted this on the wrong thread so I am moving it here. Sorry about that

This is a difficult subject for me to reconcile. While the Church's position on abortion and contraception has always been the same teh current stand on capital punishment is a relatively recent development. I am not saying the teaching is wrong but how do we reconcile it with the Church's past history as regards this issue.
I also have to say I find it difficult to oppose the death penalty for certain crimes, especialy those involving children. Maybe it's a sin but I shed no tears over Timothy McVeigh.


del_button July 12, 2005 at 10:56 PM
Jeffrey said...

The Church has actually not changed its teaching on the death penalty. This issue actually parallels the Church's teaching on war. It's not the ideal, but it is necessary in a fallen world in order to protect the innocent.

The constant teaching of the Church on capital punishment is that governmental authority has the power to protect society, effect conversion in the criminal, and gain retributive justice by putting dangerous criminals to death.

However, the power over life has to be exercised with great care (cf. Just War Theory). A society should not use the death penalty if the goals of punishment can be acheived in other ways (cf. last resort), or if retributive justice is sacrificed for revenge (cf. just cause).

The Church's current opposition to Capital Punishment is a prudential statement (not an infallible moral teaching) that most societies in today's world are able to acheive the goals of punishment without putting criminals to death, and should therefore do so.

I believe that the United States uses capital punishment for revenge rather than for retributive justice, which is another reason to oppose its use.

See my blog at We Catholic bloggers need to support each other! God bless!

del_button July 13, 2005 at 9:57 AM
Matthew said...

Thank you for both Mike and Jeffrey for participating here on my blog. I'll be sure to check out your blog, Jeffrey.

del_button July 13, 2005 at 2:11 PM
Deacon Mike said...

Hi Jeff. Thanks for your response. The statements from the usccb and the Vatican do not seem to leave any room for the application of the death penalty and indeed call for an outright ban. The question is to me whether "the goals of punishment can be acheived in other ways" in any meaningful sense. Is it right to feed, clothe, house and provide medical care indefinately for the likes of a McVeigh, a Bin Laden or a Dahmer while others who have commited no crimes are homeless, hungry and have limited or no access to medical care? I'm not making a link between spending in prisons and for the underpriviledged in the context of that expenditure making a difference in the plight of the poor. But from a moral perspective, is it justfiable to provide one morsel of food to a mass murderer while there is a single hungry child on the streets of Manhattan or anywhere else.


del_button July 14, 2005 at 8:53 PM
Matthew said...

"But from a moral perspective, is it justfiable to provide one morsel of food to a mass murderer while there is a single hungry child on the streets of Manhattan or anywhere else."

My personal answer (not necessarily in accordance with the Magesterium) is that yes, we must provide for all of those before us whether they are more sinful or not. After all, we are all sinners.

"I can't help everyone, therefore, I must help those that God has placed before me" (Saint Augustine of Hippo)

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