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What does the Catechism of the Catholic Church Teach about Capital Punishment?

Updated on August 25, 2015

If you are a devoted Catholic who has sought out the church's teaching on capital punishment in order that you might form your own view in accordance with that of the church, you may now be more confused about what she teaches than you were before. On the one hand, you have some folks who are in total support of the death penalty as a means of enacting justice upon those who commit capital crimes. This, they say, is what the church has always taught. On the other hand, you have the folks who say that capital punishment as such is abhorrent. In other words, they claim that the death penalty is an intrinsic evil which could never, even in theory, be justified. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, however, we find a view different from both of those mentioned above. Here's what it says:

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."

This passage from the Catechism is packed with content, and worded very specifically. It is not a passage that one can just skim over if one wishes to know what is really being said in it about capital punishment. It is with hesitation, then, that I pull out just three points from the passage for the sake of this article. However, I find them to be of great importance for understanding its meaning:

  1. The Catechism's reasoning behind its allowance of capital punishment emphasizes the protection of society against an unjust aggressor. Its emphasis is not on enacting justice upon such offenders.
  2. Capital punishment is not an intrinsic evil. In theory, but almost definitely not in practice, the state could be justified in carrying out the death penalty.
  3. It is highly unlikely--"if not practically non-existent"--that, in today's world, sufficient reason would be found for capital punishment to be carried out with moral legitimacy.

These above three points drawn from the Catechism will help me to make three concluding points that I desire to convey to the reader. First, those who without any qualifications support capital punishment for capital crimes are over-zealous in their desire for enacting "justice" upon unjust aggressors. They are either ignorant of, misunderstand (I don't know how, the Catechism is pretty straight forward), or just flat out reject a principle that can be clearly seen in the Catechism. It is the principle that capital punishment is primarily about the defense of society. Second, the folks who claim that capital punishment is an intrinsic evil wrongly equate the death penalty as such with murder. You may be sympathetic to this view, but it is ultimately incorrect. The theoretical justification for capital punishment is similar to the theoretical justification for self-defense--which, even if it results in the death of an aggressor, is not murder, though one must use the minimal amount force necessary to defend oneself. Finally, if we take seriously the third point drawn from the Catechism, there is certainly no place for capital punishment in the United States. That being said, our prison systems and laws are not perfect. Given the recent escape of prisoners David Sweat and Richard Matt--who escaped from a New York prison with the help of a prison employee--it is absolutely essential that we do our best with background screening and other means to try to ensure that upright people are working in our prisons. And changes in the laws of our justice system could be made as well. Capital punishment, though, is not the answer. All conscientious voters of good will in the United States must convey this message to the politicians who are in the running for the 2016 election.


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