Unlike the issues of the morality of torture, abortion, and euthanasia, the death penalty is an issue that Catholics can disagree about in good faith. It must be said from the starting point of any discussion about the death penalty that the Church recognizes the authority of the State to punish the guilty and protect the innocent, and that in the pursuit of this goal the State may sentence a criminal to die, and carry out that awful sentence.
But I think in our deliberations about whether the death penalty ought to be used, and under what conditions, we'd be remiss to ignore the Catechism, which says:
2265 Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility.
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.67
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, nonlethal 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 are 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.NT
That last point, of course, comes from Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelicum Vitae. The death penalty is addressed a few times in that letter, particularly here:
56. This is the context in which to place the problem of the death penalty. On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God's plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is "to redress the disorder caused by the offence". Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people's safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behaviour and be rehabilitated.
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.
In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: "If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person".
I personally struggled to embrace this view of the death penalty. For a long time I saw it only as a matter of meting out to violent murderers their "just desserts." I ignored tales of innocent people being executed (or released from Death Row years after being convicted), and of the disproportionate justice offered to the wealthy, who could afford expensive lawyers, and the poor, who had not these means to defend themselves against criminal charges. I didn't think about that corporal work of mercy which orders us to visit the imprisoned, or consider the impact on the souls of victims' families when they would publicly demand the death of the criminal as a kind of revenge for their suffering and loss.
Death, after all, is irrevocable. If an innocent man is executed, there is nothing that can be done to remedy the matter. But if a guilty one merely lives out the rest of his life in prison--who, exactly, is harmed? Society is not harmed--because we can't execute prisoners merely to avoid the cost of housing them. Society would only be harmed if the incarceration were lacking and the prisoner continued to hurt or kill people while behind bars--which does happen, and must be addressed.
Let's begin the conversation, respecting each other's views. The death penalty is not something that is morally evil--but is it imprudent, often unjust, and at odds, ultimately, with the Christian idea of mercy?