Can Catholics approve of the death penalty?

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Question: A priest told us that if we approve of the death penalty we are not Catholics in good standing. Is this true?

Peter Tate, Long Beach, California

Answer: The debate over the recent change in the Catechism’s wording about the death penalty has two dimensions: doctrinal and pastoral.

Many Catholics, including theologians, have expressed concern that the new wording of the Catechism suggests that the use of the death penalty is an intrinsic evil. The new wording, quoting Pope Francis, states: “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (CCC, No. 2267). But if that is the new teaching, without any context or distinction, it implies that previous popes, councils and even Scripture itself are in error.

Frequently in the Old Testament, God himself directs that the death penalty be used. Did God command an intrinsic evil? Surely not. Even if one argues that such Old Testament directives were ameliorated or set aside by Christ’s call to love and compassion, there still remains the New Testament teaching that the state has a right to execute: “But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it [the ruling authority] is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer” (Rom 3:4).

Hence the New Testament acknowledges the right of the state to execute and further indicates, other things being equal, that the state acts as God’s minister of justice in this regard. Thus if the Catechism’s new wording is taken to mean that capital punishment is an intrinsic evil, then we have a problem. These are legitimate concerns.

However, others point out that the new wording of the Catechism does not use the phrase “intrinsic evil” but only calls the death penalty inadmissible within the specific context of our current time. It cites “an increasing awareness of the dignity of the person … a new understanding of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state … and … more effective systems of detention … which ensure the due protection of citizens.”

This interpretation emphasizes a pastoral approach that leaves aside debates on whether inadmissible means that the death penalty is an intrinsic evil. Rather, inadmissible means that it is unthinkable in our times when we are in a great battle against the culture of death that celebrates abortion, physician assisted suicide as well as contraception and other such evils.

The Church’s pastoral stance in times like these is to insist on the inviolable dignity of every human person, even those who are troubled, suffering or beset with many difficulties. We also live in times where national and international laws make it possible to adjudicate crimes and criminals in nonlethal ways and to provide reasonable protection from dangerous criminals.

Give all this, the pastoral approach considers capital punishment inadmissible in the sense that it should be almost unthinkable for us to support its use today, even if it is not intrinsically evil.

This has been a growing consensus for many decades now in the Catholic Church. Five popes and most of the world’s bishops have consistently taught that, in our times, the death penalty ought not to be used except in the rarest situation.

I think the priest you quote went too far if he meant that concerns that the death penalty not be called intrinsically evil are wrong. However, Catholics are encouraged to join forces in the Church’s pastoral approach that the use of the death penalty be rarely, if ever used; its use should be almost unthinkable and inadmissible in our times and condition.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. at blog.adw.org. Send questions to msgrpope@osv.com.

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