Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More fun with the death penalty

Mark posts over at Inside Catholic on the death penalty with predictable results.

Here's the skinny:

  1. The Church teaches, as she has always taught, that a legitimate government has the authority to execute a criminal

  2. The Church teaches, as she has always taught, that the government has the responsibility to use capital punishment rarely, when a criminal's sure threat posed to the common good cannot be otherwise met

  3. John Paul II and the Catechism teach that such circumstances under which the death penalty may be justly and prudently imposed are so rare as to be nonexistent, for practical purposes

  4. However, neither JP2 nor the Catechism impose the burden of sin on any governmental officers who impose or enforce a sentence of capital punishment - given that the process is imposed and executed as justly as possible

Mark calls this position "death penalty minimalism" which seems a good enough moniker to me. It is consistent with the philosophical principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and with the ancient tradition of Catholic moral teaching. It is consistent with scripture and with all the saints I know of.

Some go further, calling for an all-out abolition of the death penalty; this is acceptable under Catholic teaching, so long as they do not oppose the State's obligation to defend the common good.

Some argue strongly to retain the legal option of the death penalty; this is acceptable under Catholic teaching, so long as they recognize that capital punishment is a tool that poses dangers as great or greater than those it solves, and must be used with extreme caution.

I don't have strong opinions on the issue myself, except to maintain clarity that Catholic moral teaching does not necessarily map to party policy, and may have a variety of practical implementations.


  1. I like this, Robert--glad you posted it! :)

    I used to be rather in favor of the death penalty. I saw it as being pro-life, in that we only executed people who were a serious threat to innocent life (and had proved it by multiple murders, etc.).

    My opinions started to change when JPII wrote about it (though not immediately); I also read a book by the late Erle Stanley Gardner called "The Court of Last Resort" detailing the efforts of a group of lawyers, of which he was a part, to review death penalty convictions when the convicted criminal had good grounds to insist on his innocence.

    That book was a real eye-opener. There were men on death row simply because they were the same skin color as the criminal, even though they had strong proof that they weren't anywhere near the scene of the crime, had no motive, and were not connected in any way to the victim (physical evidence/CSI-stuff wasn't what it is today, alas). And they would have been executed if the Court of Last Resort hadn't gone to bat for them.

    We don't take the risk of executing innocent people anywhere near seriously enough. But even if we know a criminal is guilty (e.g., he has confessed) we should be hesitant to resort to capital punishment in situations where it's not necessary.

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  3. Thanks for this post, Robert, and the link to the Mark Shea piece. I have long been in favor of abolishing the death penalty in the United States, but you make the important point that this position is merely permissible for Catholics, not mandatory. In his article, Mark Shea touches on another key aspect of this point, that I think is worth mentioning (the following are my words, not Shea's):

    As I understand it, the Catechism's statement that the death penalty should be avoided if less violent means of protecting society are available is an authoritative statement on morals that is binding on Catholics. The Catechism's statement that occasions in which less violent means of punishment are not available are "practically non-existent" is not authoritative, however, but is a prudential judgment on sociological questions. Thus, a faithful Catholic can accept the principle but disagree as to whether particular circumstances in a society permit the death penalty.

    Red's comment on "The Court of Last Resort" is interesting, because I think this is a (relatively) rare way to change one's mind about the death penalty. According to some opinion surveys, the majority of Americans support the death penalty even though they understand that innocent people might be executed (see http://www.publicagenda.org/citizen/issueguides/crime/overview, the section on the death penalty). This suggests that those of us who favor death penalty abolition should emphasize other criticisms of capital punishment--although some people, such as Red, will be convinced by arguments about the innocent being executed, so that critique should not be abandoned altogether.