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Capital Punishment

Catechism of the Catholic Church

2266 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.

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.

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."

The Catholic Church teaches that the proper civil authority has the right -- sometimes the duty -- under certain circumstances to directly end the life of a criminal found guilty of a particularly-serious crime (CCC 2266). However, some priests, bishops, bishops' conferences, and even recent popes have suggested that such action, at least in wealthy countries with effective prison systems, is practically unnecessary and should be ended altogether. Some suggest that it is inconsistent to simultaneously believe it is wrong to kill an unborn child, but acceptable to kill a murderer. Others propose that there has been, in fact, insufficient utilization of the death penalty, and that society should more frequently use capital punishment. The purpose of this paper is to explore common, reasonable arguments for and against recourse to the death penalty in an attempt to honestly arrive at a single solution that is (1) in keeping with Catholic Tradition, and (2) in keeping with public statements by authentic Church spokesmen... assuming that these can be reconciled.

The Definition

For the sake of this discussion, capital punishment is the State-execution of a human being convicted for a crime that the society believes deserves the most severe of penalties, the execution to be performed in a way that causes the least suffering, considering available alternatives.


Before continuing, some statistics are in order, especially those that show the proportion of the two issues most commonly linked by those from the above-mentioned groups; abortion and capital punishment.

 USAWordwide Estimate
Abortions in 2002~900,00014 - 46 million
Executions in 2005~60Unknown

If capital punishment is genuinely wrong, then the execution of 60 people is not to be taken lightly, but it is important to show these figures. 60 executions per year is slightly below the total average for the period from 1930 to 2005. Executions prior to 1960 generally exceeded 100 per year.

Against Capital Punishment

Thou shalt not kill. Catholics who oppose capital punishment, if they are well-read, generally refer to themselves as having a "consistent ethic of life." They propose that there is an underlying principle that all (human) life is sacred, regardless of the actions and choices of the individual in question, and that any violence against life intrinsically evil. For example, they believe that it is inconsistent to hold that abortion is wrong, but the death penalty is okay; both involve killing.

A nearsighted reading of the above religious commandment supports this position; there really is no getting around four simple words "Thou shalt not kill," and when one asks "why?" the answer must be that there is something of intrinsic value to human life. However, the command not to kill is sandwiched within a history of God-mandated killing, complete genocide in some cases. In addition, the same set of laws that command the people not to kill or limited the degree to which one might seek retribution also proscribes a variety of situations in which killing was lawful, even required.

Some attempt to sidestep this inconvenient reality by stating "yes, but we are not under the old law." But they just used the old law to say that killing of any kind is wrong. One cannot simultaneously appeal to the law when it is convenient, then disregard it when it is not. We cannot "have it both ways." If the Pentateuch is to be disregarded, then any appeal to human beings being sacred, created in the image of God, etc., should also be questioned. In other words, the same truths that ground our belief in the value of human life simultaneously temper that value with the reality that any "right" to life -- a particularly modern concept -- can be forfeited under special circumstances.

Generally Unnecessary. Pope John Paul II, the USCCB and others have stated that, given an otherwise healthy society and advanced criminal justice system, the death penalty is simply unnecessary because even the most dangerous of criminals can simply be separated from society indefinitely. There may very well be individual cases where this approach would work, but the general reality of prison life in advanced countries where the death penalty seems the most unnecessary demonstrates otherwise. Even in extreme cases of isolation, determined criminals find ways to attack each other, guards or social workers in the most innovative (and sometimes grotesque) ways. There is little that can be done to stop the person who is determined to do violence to others... short of killing them.

As a purely hypothetical solution, however, it can be theorized that an evil person could be completely isolated from direct human contact such that they are rendered incapable of harming others again. The material reality rarely meets the theoretical; either some human interaction is going to occur, placing additional persons at risk, or complete isolation from direct contact is (likely) going to devolve the prisoner to an animal-like state, or worse. Such a situation would almost certainly be determined to be "cruel and unusual," but if execution is off the table, there really is no other alternative.

Execution does not allow for Reform. The argument goes that ending a person's life does not allow the person the opportunity to reform or to make amends for his actions (if that is possible). It is argued that the death penalty may even cut short the opportunity for the person to seek God's forgiveness. Perhaps, but the truth is that we simply don't know. First, the average time spent on "death row" is approximately 10 years. If ten years is not long enough to come to recognize the errors of one's ways, then how much time is necessary? Second, those who argue that the death penalty does not allow time for reform or contrition routinely fail to recognize that seeing our death coming might actually bring about contrition that otherwise might never happen. Someone who knows the end is coming in twenty months, weeks, days or hours, is more likely to seriously consider his life and come to a point of genuine repentence than those of us for whom the end will come unannounced. There is no way for us to know, as limited human beings, whether the death penalty prevents or prompts genuine contrition; to assume otherwise is to assume a personal knowledge one does not possess.

But the actual text of the Catechism does not speak so much of contrition as it does "the possibility of redeeming himself." And in this, it is simply inarguable; one has a better chance of redeeming himself over a greater period of time than he has over a shorter one.

Erroneous or Flawed Implementation. Certainly some have been executed who might have been innocent of the crime for which they were convicted, or who lacked the capacity necessary to be fully culpable for their crimes. This is a tragedy, but at the same time our courts require approximately 10 years of investigation and appeals after conviction in a genuine effort to avoid execution of an innocent. Since the mid-1970's, over 200 of the approximately 1300 death sentences have been commuted, and over 100 have been completely exonerated. Of those that proceeded to execution, it was later concluded that perhaps six executed may have been innocent of the crime for which he was tried, or lacked culpability due to mental or emotional defect. There may be more.

The argument that capital punishment should be banned because it may result in an erroneous execution has, as a fundamental premise, the assertion that capital punishment is a valid exercise. But like any valid exercise, there may be situations in which it should be avoided or ended altogether, the argument here being that the execution of an innocent person warrants the termination. There are cases where policies are abandoned when the possibility (or reality) of accidental death of innocents exceeds a certain margin. Life-improving or life-saving medications, for example, are abandoned if it is discovered that a significant number of people react in ways that cause harm or death. Certain actions in times of war are avoided if the possible civilian harm is too great. But there are many examples of practices and policies that continue despite tens of thousands of unintentional deaths every year. For example, hundreds of thousands of innocent people are killed every year (and many more injured) in auto accidents, but we do not do away with automobiles -- well, some people would like to, but it isn't going to happen. Almost 40,000 died in traffic accidents in the US alone in 2004. This is about eight times the number of people executed not this year, but in the last 75 years in the USA (~4860), and almost 700 times as many as were executed in 2005 (~60).

It is worth noting, as well, that the "flawed implementation" argument swings both ways. In fact, given all of the possible escapes, it is many times more likely that people who may have merited the death penalty received lighter sentences or none at all, than it is likely that innocents were executed. We will never achieve a perfect human system that is able to make the necessary determinations without any possibility of error.

Abusive recourse. This is not far removed from the above objection. It is possible that overly-aggressive district attorneys or similiar parties might actually seek the death penalty not because there is simply no other suitable alternative, but because they have the power to do so. It is also possible for state officials or others to conspire to set up an innocent person to appear to be guilty for a crime he did not commit. Of the ~1000 executions since 1976, at least six are clearly questionable, involving fabricated testimony, evidence, or worse that, combined with aggressive prosecution, resulted in the execution of a likely-innocent person. There may be more. At the risk of sounding callous, the question is the same as the above: If the death penalty is justified in the first place, and granting that the execution of any innocent person is a tragedy, at what point does the loss of innocents warrant complete termination of the policy?

For Capital Punishment

It is a deterrent to crime. It is true that when we cannot do things for the right reasons, we can sometimes bring ourselves to avoid certain actions because we fear the consequences. Those who argue for deterrence face two serious problems. First, it clearly was not a deterrent for those who end up on the death row (or close to it). Apparently it doesn't work very well. One can't really know, though, how many might have murdered but did not because they feared the consequences. Secondly, a fundamental moral rule is that the end does not justify the means. If capital punishment is actually evil, that evil cannot be justified by saying that it brings about some other good.

An eye for an eye. Just as those who lift the command "Thou shalt not kill" out of its surrounding context, so do their opponents who cite other passages -- sometimes ones from same or adjacent pages. Whether "an eye for an eye" and similar passages were a restrictions upon excessive retribution, or a mandate to keep people accountable, the reality is that the Old Testament (and much of the New) undeniably support the idea that the consequence for some actions can be death.

However, it is proper to the Christian tradition to show mercy and forgiveness to the contrite even when justice might demand otherwise. Consequently, if a guilty party shows remorse for his action and a genuine desire to reform, and if means are available to prevent further violence, then mercy should prevail.

Let God sort them out. When we are confronted by some of the evil that men do to each other -- and I will not go into detail -- we sometimes simply don't know how to respond. No discipline is just. Nothing can "right the scales" or repair the harm that has taken place. We don't know what to do except to deliver the person to God (and end their presence here).

To prevent more killing. (not to be confused with the deterrence argument). Some prisons are horrible, horrible places. The criminals are sent their as a consequence of having committed unthinkable crimes, but the crimes do not stop at the prison gates. They continue to inflict violence upon each other within prison. If the State lacks the ability to completely isolate a person in such a way as to make him entirely incapable of harming others, and if that person continues to harm others, then the State has little choice except to execute him. This is not far removed from the rationale behind justifying going to war, or just defending one's self, family or home with deadly force.


The voices on both sides of this argument are sincere... if sometimes a little shrill. But sincerity does not make one right, nor does it resolve the tension between the Church's traditional teachings regarding capital punishment and statements by some modern priests, bishops and popes. Nor does it solve the apparent-contradaction between those who propose increased recourse to the death penalty, and a Christian tradition that values human life and offers hope of reform.

Like so much in the Catechism, the brief paragraphs on capital punishment -- situated within the section on "legitimate defense" and "respect for human life" -- are well-stated. But even they have been changed in the last few years. Earlier editions of this same catechism did not include the final paragraph in which it reads that cases that absolutely require execution are rare, if not non-existent.

Catholic Tradition is made up of many kinds of things. Two of the most common are doctrines and disciplines. The doctrines are the substantive teachings of the faith. If they are true -- and the Church believes that it is protected from error in matters of faith and morals -- these cannot change in a self-contradictory way, but we may deepen in our understanding of them, or they may end up being articulated differently in different times and places. For example, the doctrine that "Outside the Church there is no salvation" has, contrary to many teachers' statements, not gone away. It is simply articulated differently today than it was some decades (and centuries) ago.

Disciplines are the material, physical ways in which doctrines manifest themselves in the world. A useful example of this is the recent discipline of eating no meat on Fridays. It used to be that meat was a luxury, and to abstain from meat represented a denial of luxury -- a giving up -- in recognition of Christ's sacrifice on the cross. Over time, however, meat ceased to be a luxury. In fact, fish and other seafood is much more a luxury now than meat. I can buy a hamburger or a taco for under a dollar. A good fish sandwich or lunch costs much more. Today, going without meat on Friday is an inconvenience, not a sacrifice. Recognizing this change in the culture, the Church changed the discipline regarding abstinence from meat on all Fridays, recommending some other abstinence of one's choosing. Of course, many of us forget to abstain from anything at all now, but the point is that disciplines express doctrines, and that disciplines adapt to the culture.

The "consistent ethic of life" -- the actual doctrine from the Church -- is that it is intrinsically evil to intentionally end an innocent human life. But there is more: Because innocent life is so valuable, not only are we not to take it, but we are to take just steps to protect it from being taken by others. In other words, it is also evil to allow innocent human life to be taken when you have the ability to save it. It is evil to murder someone, but it is also evil to allow someone to be murdered, even if this means you must use deadly force to stop the unjust aggressor. The "consistent ethic of life" groups generally fail to make this connection, a connection that is the justification for any legitimate self-defense or defense-of-the-innocent, including the Church's teachings regarding just war and capital punishment.

But there have been significant cultural changes. It is conceivable, today (but not always possible), to isolate a violent criminal nearly completely. If that is achievable, then it is conceivable that capital punishment may be rendered unnecessary. Consequently, the Church's discipline -- the way in which the Church's teachings regarding capital punishment are actually enacted in the world -- can change. But this is mostly a "hypothetical." The large-scale reality continues to be that violent inmates are a constant threat to other inmates, to officers, and to the civil population should they escape. In situations where the State is unable to prevent a criminal from inflicting further violence upon others, it continues to be justified in its exercise of its duty to protect the population, even if that means utilizing execution of the guilty as the means of protection.

Assuming that guilt is certain, and the crime calls for the most severe of penalties, our first recourse should be life in prison. We do not know if the death penalty brings about or prevents actual contrition, but when in doubt about such matters, we should err on the side of caution, hope and life, and allow the person the opportunity to redeem himself. But to be truly consistent in our belief that life is precious and to be protected, we must take one additional and unfortunate step; if the criminal justice system is incapable of preventing the inmate from harming others -- even other inmates, guards or nearby civilians -- then it is duty bound to execute him.