Question: A priest told us that if we approve of the death penalty we are…
Why is the death penalty so bad?
The federal government has announced that it will adopt a more determined recourse to the death penalty for terrible crimes. American Catholic leaders have protested, and these protests puzzle and even annoy many ordinary Catholics. What is the Church’s thinking about the death penalty?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the authoritative synopsis of Church teaching. Regarding capital punishment, it states that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (No. 2267). The paragraph also insists that civil authority has the duty to safeguard its population from unwarranted threats to life and personal rights.
It continues to say that capital punishment is not the way to provide this safeguard; therefore, given the fact that other options exist, the death penalty should not be invoked, as priority should be given to the value of human life.
The late Pope St. John Paul II was one of the most determined opponents of the death penalty in modern times. When John Paul II visited St. Louis in 1999, he learned that a convict, coincidentally, was scheduled to be killed at that same time. The pope publicly asked Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, now deceased, to commute the sentence. The governor obliged.
Following this example, when Pope Francis addressed the United States Congress in 2015, he asked these federal lawmakers to abolish the death sentence. The American bishops have also opposed capital punishment for decades.
Never has this opposition, in the least, excused or downplayed serious crime or violence. Thousands of papal denunciations condemning terrible crimes exist to prove this point.
The core of the Church’s position is that alternatives are at hand to deal with horrendous crimes. Public authority can meet its obligation without killing criminals, and if anything else — given they can accomplish the goal of safeguarding the people — executions should not be applied.
The Church takes exception to capital punishment in general because killing a criminal, even a properly convicted criminal, serves no purpose. Furthermore, it at least subtly leads to more problems for society. It accepts the extreme and downplays the value of life. Laws make the taking of human life all right.
The Catechism refers to the development of respecting human life and gives an awareness that even the lives of condemned criminals are entitled to respect. It also alludes to research among experts in crime prevention and punishment regarding various possibilities.
For example, let’s say someone murders an innocent person in cold blood. It is said that perhaps killing the criminal brings justice to the victims. How? Killing the criminal does nothing to bring victims back to life.
It has also often been assumed that killing a convicted criminal deters others who might contemplate similar crimes. This is disputed.
Another justification for capital punishment, proceeding from government’s responsibility to protect its citizens and its good order, is that killing convicted criminals removes them from society, so they cannot repeat their crimes.
Prisons exist for the purpose of taking criminals out of circulation. Granted, the prison system in this country is in a mess. The answer is to repair it. We supposedly are the most-educated and best-resourced society on earth. We seriously discuss sending humans to Mars. Cannot we put our process of criminal justice in order?
Finally, we come to revenge. Hard as it is to accept tit for tat or settling scores — revolted as we may be by the viciousness of a crime — is far from the Gospel of Jesus.
Capital punishment makes sense for many people who are decent, smart and God-fearing. We all shudder when we hear reports of horrendous crime. We all fear that we may be next. Something must be done. It has to stop. Church leaders admit these horrors. They merely say that killing criminals does not work and to always respect life.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s chaplain.