Capital Punishment

There is a long Catholic tradition in favour of Capital Punishment for those convicted of terrible crimes, but there is a reluctance today by Pope John Paul II to have the Death Penalty inflicted on anyone, except when absolutely necessary. In the encyclical Evangelium Vitae the Pope said the following: ' … as a result of steady improvements in the organisation of the penal system, such cases (ie execution of offenders in extreme cases of absolute necessity) are very rare if not practically nonexistent.'

HOW COULD THE CHURCH EVER SUPPORT THE DEATH PENALTY?

Pope John Paul's reluctance as regards the Death Penalty does not remove or reduce the Church's constant approval of Capital Punishment in principle at least. The Church has always believed that the expiation represented by undergoing Capital Punishment may have a powerful salvific effect on the culprit: 'The primary effect of punishment is to redress the disorder caused by the offence' (see CCC 2266).

ON WHAT AUTHORITY IS CAPTIAL PUNISHMENT SUPPORTED?

The right to the Death Penalty is based on passages in the Old (eg Gen 9:6) and New Testaments (Rom 13:4), the teachings of St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas, it has been reiterated in the Catechism of the Council of Trent ( '… for as the proposed end of this law is to provide for the life and safety of men, to the same end also tend the punishments [executions] inflicted by the magistrates, who are the legitimate avengers of crimes, giving security to life by punishing and thus repressing audacity and outrage'), by successive popes (eg Pius XII in 1952 wrote: '... it is reserved to the public authority to deprive the criminal of the benefit of life, when already, by his crime, he has deprived himself of the right to live'), and in the present Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 2266).

DID JESUS HIMSELF EVER APPROVE OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT?

It has been suggested by proponents of Capital Punishment that Jesus upheld the Death Penalty in St Matthew's Gospel. In Matt 15:4 Jesus upbraided the Pharisees for transgressing the Commandment of God for the sake of their tradition. The law was: 'whoever curses father or mother shall be put to death (Ex 21:17)'. That law was permitted by Jesus because He is God, the same God of Israel who permitted the Old Jewish Law. Pharisees were causing people to believe it was better to pay money as offerings to the altar rather than looking after elderly parents financially.

WHAT ARE THE MAIN ARGUMENTS FOR CAPITAL PUNISHMENT?

Two of the main arguments for upholding Capital Punishment are given below:

1. The Death Penalty as a deterrent - The most common reason given in the Bible for the Death Penalty is 'that others may fear and not dare to do such things. [Opponents of this argument claim that increasing crime statistics disprove the deterrent value of Capital Punishment.]

2. The Death Penalty protects society from malefactors - Capital Punishment is regarded by its proponents as a potent assertion of the unique value and dignity of human life. Only when it is applied for trivial misdemeanours does it demean humanity. By reserving it for the crimes of murder, treason and such offences as may cause the deaths of many innocent people, the state testifies to the importance of life, by exacting the supreme sanction from those who have deprived others of their existence. It is a public implementation of natural justice which proclaims the censure of society, eradicates private vendetta and testifies to the authority of the state. [Opponents of this argument say that the Death Penalty only serves to further erode the respect for life in our society by preventing the possible conversion of a criminal.]

BUT THE DEATH PENALTY CONTRADICTS THE 5th COMMANDMENT.

'Thou shalt not kill' (the 5th Commandment) does not prevent just and lawful killing if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor. And in Scripture we notice how God Himself sanctioned war when other means did not avail to secure justice. Those whose crimes gravely threaten the well-being of society may be put to death by social authority when lesser penalties prove inefficacious as a control upon them. God sanctioned this law in Hebrew society, and it is entirely reasonable. If the extreme penalty could not be lawfully inflicted by the state upon enemies of the common good, much greater and more widespread evils would ensue.

NO MODERN NATION ALLOWS THE DEATH PENALTY ANY LONGER.

The very Bible which gives us the 5th Commandment also records God's authorisation of death as a penalty when inflicted by lawful authority. In Australia, for example, the Death Penalty still applies. Sedition and treason remain offences under the Commonwealth Crimes Act and the WA Criminal Code.

WHAT ARE THE ARGUMENTS AGAINST CAPITAL PUNISHMENT?

Two of the main arguments against Capital Punishment are as follows:

1. Today, because of widespread government legislation authorising immoral practices such as abortion, it is difficult to find any 'lawful authority' that is legitimate as regards the implementation of the Death Penalty. [Opponents of this argument say that some moral inadequacies of a government do not disqualify every aspect of its authority, were that to be so, anarchy would ensue.]

2. Capital Punishment is not an infallible system in actual practice because fallible human beings are involved in the process of finding the guilty party, and as such, they are susceptible to human error. A conference at North-Western University Law School in Chicago highlighted that since 1976 (the year the Death Penalty was reinstated in the USA) 75 people have been convicted of capital crimes, sentenced to death, and later found innocent " roughly one for every seven prisoners who have been executed. [Opponents argue that one would have to abolish all laws to avoid completely the punishment of innocent people.]

In summary, there is a long Catholic tradition favouring Capital Punishment, but a reluctance today to inflict it on anyone (for more on the development of doctrine, see Dei verbum, 8 of Vatican II). The Church teaches that a public authority should limit itself to bloodless means wherever possible (CCC 2267). But, apart from self-defence, protecting the life of an innocent, a just war, or Capital Punishment fairly administered, taking a human life under any other circumstances is a serious sin.

References:
Drummey, Catholic Replies Navarre Biblical Commentary Watt, D. Heresies I Have Known

* Please note that this text should be read in the context of the whole work and in recognition of the appropriate paragraphs of the Catechism of the Catholic Church highlighted in the index.