A Proposal for the Catechism on the Death Penalty

A Proposal for the Catechism on the Death Penalty June 13, 2015

A while back I posted a complete transcript of remarks by Pope Francis on the death penalty.  While a speech is not as authoritative as an encyclical or apostolic letter, a prepared text such as this seems to give a pretty concrete summary of his views on the death penalty.    I had hoped to follow up on this post with further ruminations on the death penalty, a topic I have talked about before (see here and here). Alas, I never got around to it.

But today I found an short article in America Magazine by Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M. proposing that the language of the Catechism be revised to give a much more black and white statement on the death penalty:  that today it is never justifiable.  Let me quote him at length:

The truth is that in many places around the world, including the United States, there are effective means to protect citizens from “unjust aggressors” like Tsarnaev. Secured in a supermax federal prison, an inmate sentenced to life without parole poses no actual threat; therefore the death penalty is, according to church teaching, completely off the table. Yet those seeking vengeance demand retribution instead of restorative justice and seem indefatigable in their clamoring for state-sanctioned killing, claiming justification from the catechism because it leaves open the smallest possibility for a justifiable circumstance.

My proposal is that church leaders give these people exactly what they want: a black-and-white answer to whether or not the death penalty is acceptable. The catechism should be updated to clearly state, in light of the criteria already established, that capital punishment today is never justifiable. This would not only bring the catechism more in line with the teaching of recent popes, including Pope Francis, who earlier this year said, “the death penalty is an affront to the sanctity of life and to the dignity of the human person; it contradicts God’s plan for humankind and society and God’s merciful justice,” but it would also bring the catechism in line with itself.

I fully support this proposal:  leaving aside the question of whether the death penalty is an intrinsic evil (which has become something of a red herring in these discussions), I believe that there is no prudential grounds for applying the death penalty today, under any circumstances.   Furthermore, it is clear from the  writings of Popes John Paul II, Benedict and Francis (most particularly Francis) that they felt this way.  So why should the language of the Catechism be written in such a convoluted fashion?

Resolved:   Church teaching, particularly in a summary document such as the Catechism, should make it crystal clear that in the modern world, the death penalty is not an acceptable option.

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