Hey, Father! Aren’t Catholics Supposed to Oppose the Death Penalty?

Hey Father, Aren’t Catholics Supposed to Oppose the Death Penalty?

– Mike in Springfield

As the Church, which is entrusted with handing on what Christ taught, Catholics find themselves discerning how to live the radical call of forgiveness which was a hallmark of Christ’s teaching and life.  His Sermon on the Mount is a clear call to live differently than the world around us, realizing the challenge that this is, “You have heard it said, love your kinsmen and hate your enemy, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5: 43-48).

The Church also has stood for the right and duty of a society to protect its members from those who hurt others, who commit crimes which endanger others, and who pose a risk to those around them.   Throughout the centuries, this has included the right for societies to utilize capital punishment for those offenders who have committed the most serious crimes which endanger the lives of others when this is the only way to protect the innocent. For the majority of the history of the world, such a punishment would be the only way to secure the peace and of those convicted of the most heinous crimes.   However, while upholding the right of society to inflict capital punishment in theory, as societies have developed and methods of securing prisoners away from the general population are available, the question has been revisited.

Pope Francis’ October 3, 2020 encyclical, entitled Fratelli Tutti, rejected capital punishment as a “false answer that … ultimately does no more than introduce new elements of destruction in the fabric of national and global society.” Citing centuries of death-penalty opposition by leading Catholic scholars and clergy and calling attention to the possibility of judicial error and the misuse of capital punishment as a tool of persecution by autocratic regimes, Francis called upon “all Christians and people of good will” to work for “the abolition of the death penalty, legal, or illegal, in all its forms.”

The Pope presented his decree as a direct and inevitable successor to St. John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, condemning capital punishment “except in cases of absolute necessity … when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” Those circumstances, St. John Paul said, “…are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

“Saint John Paul II stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice,” Francis declared. “There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.”

Father Peter Harman is pastor of St. Anthony of Padua in Effingham and holds a Doctorate in Moral Theology from the Catholic University of America