Rethinking the Death Penalty

Rethinking the Death Penalty February 2, 2015


I can’t really write a massive post about our Christian duty to conform ourselves to Christ through submission to the Magisterium and not take my own medicine. We are all called to struggle with Church doctrine, to let ourselves be transformed by the renewal of our minds, through the Spirit of sonship.

Hence, the death penalty. Years ago I wrote this post in support of the death penalty, and, I guess, I still think it’s valid. There are no absolute rights; prison, particularly life imprisonment, is spectacularly cruel.

And now, as a Catholic, it’s easy to lawyer your way to where you want. After all, Catholic doctrine has long accepted the death penalty; John Paul II and subsequent Popes made it clear that their stance on the death penalty was not dogma.

But, here’s what the Catechism says (§ 2267):

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.

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.”

That doesn’t leave much wiggle room, does it?

In a sense, this is “beside the point”: the Catechism argues on the basis of consequences; which I guess it has to, because Church doctrine allowing the death penalty was also argued on the basis of consequences, which is what the Church does when it wants to commit the apostasies it can. (If we let heretics live, how many poor souls will end up in the flames of Hell!) To me the argument is not about consequences.

But there is also a key phrase here: “the dignity of the human person”. If Christianity really represents, in David Bentley Hart’s phrase, “total humanism”, the belief that each and every human person is of infinite value, then, well, there you go. If each and every human person is of infinite value, there is no value that is commensurable; and civil authority certainly should not kill anyone when there are other available means of protecting the common good.

Another way to look at this is through the Girardian critique of scapegoating. All civil punishment, necessary though it is, is always ultimately an instance of scapegoating. Civil authority accomplishes justice by punishing and excluding an individual from society. It is the restoring of social order through sacrifice, and whether this sacrifice is “just” might be a matter of sheer coincidence more often than we can contemplate. We humans, as the parable of the Grand Inquisitor reminds us, spend our time killing Jesus, and our duty as Christians, as apostles of the Kingdom, is to work towards a world where we do that less and less.

Perhaps a first step towards not killing Jesus is not killing anyone at all.


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  • JohnE_o

    Well it seems obvious to me that the death penalty and torture are evil, but many Best Catholics Ever seem to disagree.

    • Dan13

      Torture is evil, but there are scenarios where the death penalty is a tolerable solution*. These scenarios don’t really exist in modern “first-world” nations so for all practical purposes the death penalty is immoral.

      *Think of a very poor nation that doesn’t have the resources to safely house dangerous criminals.

      • dudleysharp

        Think of a rich nation., as the US, and how common it is for known violent criminals to harm in prison, after release, or after not being incarcerated, to use cell phones in furtherance of criminal activities both in and out of prison.

        Extremely common.

    • dudleysharp

      As they should.

      The Church has never taught the death penalty evil and She could not

      The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation

  • There are still some instances when the state cannot protect individuals from criminals. Gang members, drug dealers, and other criminals who continue to plan and commit crimes while incarcerated are increasingly common. Crimes committed against other prisoners is much more common.

    Solitary confinement with no outside contact is one possible, though cruel, answer. (Even some attorneys participate in such criminal activity.) Ultimately, depending on the harm to society, the death penalty may be the only way to protect the rest of society from those who continue to perpetrate harm. If there are other possibilities, I’d love to learn of them.

  • dudleysharp


    All Catholics May Support Death Penalty
    Dudley Sharp

    1) Any good Catholic may disagree with the Church’s newest teaching (EV and CCC) on the death penalty (1) and remain a Catholic in good standing (1) and can find that (a) the primary and eternal purpose of sanction is justice and/or redress, as confirmed in this latest CCC, and that (b) justice should not be and cannot be subjugated by a secondary purpose of sanction, the important concern of “defense of society” and that (c) the death penalty offers a greater degree of protection for society and individuals than lesser sanctions (2) , that being the protection of the potential innocents harmed, now spared, and potential repeat unjust aggressors, also, now spared, by preventing them from harming even more innocents and , thereby, putting their eternal lives more at risk (3&4), as well as greater degrees of protection through enhanced due process, enhanced incapacitation and enhanced deterrence over a life sentence (2).

    2) This by Kevin L. Flannery S.J., Consultor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, appointed by Saint Pope John Paul II:

    “The most reasonable conclusion to draw from this discussion is that, once again, the Catechism is simply wrong from an historical point of view. Traditional Catholic teaching did not contain the restriction enunciated by Pope John Paul II” (5)

    “The realm of human affairs is a messy one, full of at least apparent inconsistency and incoherence, and the recent teaching of the Catholic Church on capital punishment—vitiated, as I intend to show, by errors of historical fact and interpretation—is no exception.” (5)

    From Canon lawyer Michael Dunningan:

    “Catholic teaching on capital punishment is in a state of dangerous ambiguity. The discussion of the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is so difficult to interpret that conscientious members of the faithful scarcely know what their Church obliges them to believe.” (6)

    Also review “Intellectual dishonesty and the ‘Seamless Garment’ argument” (7).

    1) From Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

    “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

    from paragraph 3, “Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion. General Principles”, part of memorandum sent by Cardinal Ratzinger to Cardinal McCarrick, made public July 2004.

    Cardinal Ratzinger was Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when he made that statement. He was appointed to that position by Pope (Now Saint) John Paul II.

    The “congregation’s sole objective is to ‘spread sound Catholic doctrine and defend those points of Christian tradition which seem in danger because of new and unacceptable doctrines”. The Prefect is the senior voice within that congregation.

    2) The Death Penalty: Do Innocents Matter? A Review of All Innocence Issues

    3) The Death Penalty: Mercy, Expiation, Redemption & Salvation

    4) Catechism & State Protection

    5) Note that Flannery was appointed by SPJPII

    “Capital Punishment and the Law”, Ave Maria Law Review, 2007 (30 pp), by Kevin L. Flannery S.J., Consultor of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (since 2002) and Ordinary Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University(Rome); and Mary Ann Remick Senior Visiting Fellow at the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture (University of Notre Dame.

    6) “The Purpose of Punishment (in the Catholic tradition)”, by Canon Lawyer R. Michael Dunningan, J.D., J.C.L., CHRISTIFIDELIS, Vol.21,No.4, sept 14, 2003

    7) Intellectual dishonesty and the “Seamless Garment” argument, JIMMY AKIN, National Catholic Register, 01/25/2015

    • Thank you for this reminder. However, the goal of my life is not to “get away” with as much dissent with the Holy See as I can; the meaning of life is to know, love, and serve God, and as a Catholic I believe that God communicates faithfully to me through the Magisterium of the Catholic Church, including its authoritative Catechism.

      • dudleysharp

        That is the real problem. The Church has identified Her latest teachings on the death penalty as a prudential judgement, meaning it is most definitely not authoritative.

        Not only is that judgement not prudent, it lacks good judgement, as well.

        There are so many obvious errors, already identified, no one can see it as authoritative.

        This seems to go to the error of putting a prudential judgement into the Catechism, something which I do not believe has ever occurred before, for very good reason and, hopefully will never happen again.

        • Scooter Livingston

          There’s an asshole named Bill Donohue who wants to get rid of the Pope because he’s too liberal. Why don’t you go become his butt-buddy, Dudley?

          • Nice Christian Reply Scooter. Somehow I thnk Dudey is on the narrow way and you are on the broad way. If you get my drift. If you don’t try reading Matthew 7:13 🙁

          • Scooter Livingston

            Hey Einstein…I didn’t give a Christian reply, because…I’m Jewish!

            In fact, my wife is an ex-catholic..because of people like Donohue. On the other hand, my ex GF is a catholic AND a right-wing bigot…just like Donohue. Found out the hard way what a catholic bigot she is.

            And what you’ve just read is (looks at clock) Scooter 5:37

          • Dagnabbit_42

            Please do G_d a mitzvah, and refrain from bringing dishonor to His name in this fashion.

          • Scooter Livingston

            Dagnabbit..can you translate that into English for a secular Jew such as myself?

            (looks at clock) Scooter 5:30

      • dudleysharp


        Francis is telling us that EV and CCC could be in error and only because of that we may disagree with the newest death penalty teachings.

        Flanney and others have found factual errors within Church teachings within EV and CCC, in the newest death penalty writings. Not only have they not been rubutted, even worse, the Church is acting as if those errors don’t even exist, as far as I have been able to gather.

        It is not a matter of dissent, but a matter of correction, for which we are all obligated to provide, if we have concern for truth, which, I believe, Francis described as all important.

        We correct one another not out of dissent, but out of caring.

  • William Lanigan

    I am ambivalent about the death penalty but it has always fascinated me that had there never been a death penalty Jesus wouldn’t have been able to die for us.

  • philip brett

    I have a question. You make a case for the death penaltu being difficult to support as in line with catholic teaching. The church is clearly against euthanaisia and abortion. To be consistent in a pro-life stance shouldn’t there be a declaration against military service either universally or in almost all cases unless it is legally unavoidable? Without that consistency isn’t it reasonable that all these prohibitions against unnecessary death are matters of conscience as the principle behind does not seem to be absolute?

  • BTP

    I’ve always found that part in the CCC to be weird: this idea that nowadays we have the ability effectively to prevent people from getting out of jail, so everything is good. It’s just completely apart from reality, like it took the invention of aircraft aluminum to discover how to build an effective prison. Or, worse, an ignorance of the fact that future governments might find that releasing dangerous criminals to be a policy of which it approves.

    Like I said, odd.

    • dudleysharp

      Neither the EV nor CCC considered the reality of known unjust aggressors harming again, which occurs countless times, every day, worldwide, as all know, who know the world.

      Had they considered reality, neither of those writings, with regard to the death penalty, would ever have seen the light of day.

      All this at the exact time when SPJPII and the Church were embroiled in one of the most horrific moral tragedies in Her history, the priest sex scandal, so, clearly, exposing gross human frailty in protecting the innocent, forgotten in both EV and the CCC.

      Incomprehensible, but reality.

  • “P.S. This is one of those days where I’m glad I
    closed the comments.”

    While this comment is in your earlier post, you may still
    read it.

    Somehow since you are quoting Paul. I would like to think
    Paul would not have closed the comments but would have welcomed the dialog with his “weaker brethren”. Not so much so in your case.

    With the death penalty, I can go either way in general.
    What I find infuriating is the liberal catholic stance when it comes to the
    details. While they thump their chests and say “what a good boy/girl I
    am”, they never ponder the more deviling questions. What about the prisoners
    that kill guards or prisoners while serving a life sentence? Will the threat
    of another life sentence cause the lifer to stop and think? Guess it is easy to turn
    the other cheek when it is not your cheek being slapped.

    My bigger problem with these liberals in Catholic clothing is that they have no problem imploring the court to take action in a way that they could not get the general population to go along with. Would you agree with me that the legislators would not go along with a universal no death penalty law?

    So being the good liberals they are, they take “the means justifies the end” strategy and ask the courts to step in. What they fail to understand is that the courts were there to adjudicate the law, not write the law. And for a long time in this country’s history the courts tended to strictly limit their actions to dealing with what the laws said when they were written.

    Although these liberal publications profess their
    Catholic Faith and teaching, and the “rightness” of their petition, I will
    offer two examples of “Activist Judges” that they may not agree with but it is
    the same coin, just a different side. And in my opinion these liberal letter writers carry a more intense flame for the elimination of the death penalty than either of these catholic ideas. Why? I don’t see where these actions of the courts have moved them to write a joint letter. By their fruits you will know the tree.

    The Federal Judges that have determined Gays are being discriminated
    against and are overturning the same-sex bans that the general populations of
    the states have voted into law- Good or Bad?

    The Federal Judges that are deciding under Obama Care
    what organizations are “Catholic” enough to permit a ban of the law that
    requires abortions and contraception be provided in health plans.

    The Roe v Wade decision by an activist Supreme Court that has resulted in the deaths of millions of innocents?

    So tell me, is it better to have activist judges or judges that follow the law? I prefer to leave the lawmaking to the clowns in congress instead of the black robed clowns. Here is a quote from the movie “A Man for All Seasons”. Perhaps the dialog between one that desires activists judges and one that understands the dangers of activist judges better states my concerns.

    William Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

    Sir Thomas More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

    William Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

    Sir Thomas More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!