Why Change the Catechism on the Death Penalty?

Why Change the Catechism on the Death Penalty? August 2, 2018

If a man breaks into my house to murder me, I may apprehend him at the window and push him back. If he dies in the fall, I didn’t murder him– he died as a side effect of my act of self-defense. It was his attempt at murder that killed him. I’m not required to feel sad at his death, since feelings aren’t sins, and it might be quite understandable for me to feel relieved. But his death would absolutely be a bad thing. Catholics are supposed to strive for the best thing rather than tolerating the worse tolerable thing. But at minimum, I didn’t sin.

If Canada declares war on the United States and invades by way of Marblehead over Lake Erie, solemnly declaring they’re going to murder any Ohioans they take prisoner, I may fire up the cannons that stand in the memorial park at Lakeside and try to sink their ships. If anybody drowns in that battle, I didn’t kill them– they died as a side effect of my act of self-defense. It was their attempt at genocide that killed them. But it’s better if they all swam to safety after the ship sank, because death is always bad. Better still that I get in my rescue boat to save them and take them to the hospital after I’ve neutralized their threat. Better still that they repent of their crimes when they get to shore. Even better yet that they never tried to do such a thing in the first place. Best of all to work for a world where killing is unthinkable. But if someone is already trying to kill you in a war, you do not sin by trying to stop them by fighting back.

Of course, you don’t have to defend yourself. This is a topic I’d rather not bring up because it scares me. But the example Christ left was to go ahead and allow your enemy to kill you, if that’s what he’s determined to do– to stretch out your arms on the cross in meekness and forgiveness, because you value your enemy’s life and wouldn’t want to take part in anything as terrible as an act of deadly force, even though you would incur no guilt by doing so. A number of saints have followed His example.

I am not saying what I would do if my life were in danger. I don’t know what I would do if my life were in danger. I’d probably give a very cowardly example, so don’t imitate me. I’m saying that, as far as I can tell from Church teaching, from the Gospel and from the examples of the saints, those are our choices. It is always a sin to kill people. It is not a sin to respond to a deadly attack with proportionate force in defense. But the most Christ-like thing, the very best thing you can do in a tragic situation, seems to be to refuse to take part in violence– to give up your own life rather than respond with deadly force.

That’s how serious death is.

And that’s my point here. Death is always serious and terrible. Direct killing is something that a Catholic must not do.

The Church has refined her teaching on certain practices we are to avoid so we don’t directly kill anyone. In one sense it’s quite new, but in another it’s not new at all. And by the inner logic of Catholic teaching, it’s long overdue. The things that are wrong are still wrong. The things that are best are still best. Our Holy Father has shown us a new way to be in line with the Commandments of God.

That’s a very good thing, believe it or not.


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