What the church teaches about capital punishment

Special to The Record

On the topic of capital punishment, the “Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “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.”

It goes on to say, “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.”

Cardinal Avery Dulles considered the history of church thought on the death penalty in a presentation he first offered at Fordham University and then published on First Things.

Cardinal Dulles begins with the early church and touches on the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and other highly regarded theologians. He explores the purposes of punishment and weighs whether or not capital punishment fulfills them. He also discusses how the use of the death penalty might actually be harmful to society. Finally, after pointing out how St. John Paul II, bishops in many nations and our own bishops have spoken against the use of the death penalty, he concludes:

“The United States bishops, for their part, had already declared in their majority statement of 1980 that “in the conditions of contemporary American society, the legitimate purposes of punishment do not justify the imposition of the death penalty.” Since that time they have repeatedly intervened to ask for clemency in particular cases. Like the Pope, the bishops do not rule out capital punishment altogether, but they say that it is not justifiable as practiced in the United States today.

“In coming to this prudential conclusion, the magisterium is not changing the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine remains what it has been: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes. But the classical tradition held that the State should not exercise this right when the evil effects outweigh the good effects.

“Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied. The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good. I personally support this position.”

Catholics in Kentucky have an opportunity to promote a true pro-life ethic by including opposition to the death penalty and the repeal of the law that allows it in their legislative advocacy
efforts.

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