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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I think an obvious problem with the argument as Horan states it is what counts as ‘the modern world’ and ‘today’. We see exactly this problematic slippage, which moves from “in many places around the world” to “never”, as if the Catechism were somehow written only for places like the United States and Europe. This is through-and-through bad argument. (I don’t know if I just have bad luck with what I end up reading by him, but I have yet to read anything by him that does not make an illicit slide like this.)

    But one could no doubt formulate it in other ways. The reason the Catechism “leaves open the smallest possibility for a justifiable circumstance”, however, is that there is a small possibility for a justifiable circumstance: the explicit reason that is always given for its being unacceptable does not deal with the death penalty itself but with social circumstances extrinsic to it: the availability of other options, and so forth. Thus a major part of the whole issue is that one must build and work to maintain a society that provides these circumstances, not lazily fall back on black-and-white statements as if that were the primary point of Catholic opposition to the death penalty. (Francis tends to be quite strong on the latter, but one of the things that he also does is always make quite clear that the primary point is building the right kind of society; this is pointed out as clearly as a bell in the transcript you give by his linking it directly with societies failing to provide the minimum required for life.) That this gives sophists an extra loop to treat as a loophole is irrelevant, since people will find loopholes in a summary document no matter what. The Catechism does perfectly fine summarizing the actual status of the question.

    I also think it’s very dangerous to try to use the Catechism as a propaganda tool, even for a genuinely good cause, which is what this proposal sounds dangerously like it’s doing; the Catechism is not a bat to beat opponents with, even when they are wrong.

    • The Catechism already condemns abortion and other polarizing issues. Ultimately, the question is whether the death penalty should be condemned. If so, no political or economic reasons should get in the way. An accompanying encyclical could explore the issue in depth. Unfortunately, I doubt a clear condemnation will happen anytime soon because the Catholic Church has been complicit in executions in the past and condemning execution would require a conversation that I don’t see the leaders having anytime soon. What would that mean for the canonization status of individuals like Thomas More? If the Catechism condemns execution then the Church will be seen as a hypocrite and it will her her image. But I agree with Pope Francis that we need to be less concerned about self-preservation more about the Gospel.

      • Polarization does not seem to be relevant, since people can get polarized about anything. Abortion is condemned for intrinsic reasons and, despite your suggestion otherwise, the Catechism does in fact condemn the death penalty under most conditions. It’s just that these conditions constitute extrinsic reasons — much the same extrinsic reasons Pope Francis himself gives, in fact (which is not surprising since close attention to Pope Francis’s comments on most subjects shows that he often echoes the Catechism, even verbally, without necessarily confining himself to it). The only issue that can be at all on the table with the proposed resolution is whether these extrinsic conditions for the death penalty’s being unjustifiable should be treated by a general teaching document of the Church as applying universally.

        • I know that the Catechism condemns the death penalty for most cases but the last few popes have made it clear that the death penalty has no place in the world today. The reason why I gave abortion as an example is because it is a polarizing issue and there may be extreme cases where abortion is necessary. However, the Catechism condemns it as it should. Why not the death penalty then? I think it’s partially because the Church would look like a hypocrite. There will always be exceptions to everything but if something is evil then it should be condemned. I think the way forward would be to have a conversation about it. An encyclical would also be a good next step. But in the end, the Catechism should just condemn it as an evil contrary to the Gospel.

          • Julia Smucker

            There will always be exceptions to everything but if something is evil then it should be condemned.

            So then wouldn’t not condemning it make the Church look hypocritical?

          • That’s true. Yes the Church would also be hypocritical if she did not condemn the death penalty. The Church as the Body of Christ should condemn evil, otherwise she would look hypocritical. But because of our history, condemning the death penalty will also make her look like a hypocrite. I think the death penalty should be condemned but that will require humility. It will be good for the Church, and I think this is the pope to do it.

  • I am in some disagreement with you, although I, too, despise the usage of the death penalty by governments in the United States. I’ve explained my highly qualified disagreement with you and Father Horan on the comments thread at his article.

    • Dismas, I can’t find your reply or its not readily available…but I would like to know what your ‘highly qualified disagreement’ is…can you post it here? Thanks

      • Father Horan,

        Although I feel that I am almost as much against the death penalty as you are, and find it to be an almost-pagan deification of the State, as well as a much too-influential symbol of the sanguinary character of contemporary American culture, I am slightly more reluctant than you to see it removed from the tool-box of the State. I agree that it should almost never be used, and I agree that permanent incarceration is a more appropriate and “balanced” response to heinous crimes such as murder. However, I should still not wish to see this particular punishment removed as a symbol of the State’s perquisite of protecting civil society. That means that I’d take it away from local governments, away from all American states and reserve its use to the central government of the United States and of all other countries. The reason is that there are some criminals–terrorists, mafiosi, etc.–who can, from inside prisons and jails, CONTINUE to threaten public safety. I suppose it’s because of them that successive popes have declared that the sanction should almost never be imposed, but should not be ruled out absolutely and statutorily.

        However, I thoroughly respect your own and other Roman Catholic clerics’ revulsion against this punishment, and suspect that your animus against it is largely due to the discriminatory, promiscuous and highly politicized manner in which it is applied and promoted inside the United States, and to the way it has been used to actually forestall criminal investigations that would have embarrassed law enforcement agencies–the most famous example of this being the precipitous execution of Timothy McVeigh, before he could have been compelled to reveal the accomplices of his who remain at large, and, now, the proposed execution of Dzokhar Tsarnaev, before the true extend of his involvement with his brother’s nefarious project, as well as his brother’s extensive association with the FBI and whatever connection that had to do with the Boston Marathon bombing, could be properly investigated. Too often, the death penalty becomes a sop to throw to the public to prove that law enforcement is actually serious about protecting John Q. Public when they are really only concerned to promote their political careers as well as to protect capitalist investment and enterprise.

        • My AP Language and Composition students conducted a debate the other day, as their final exam. (They had already had their AP exam, and it’s always difficult in high schools to come up with an exam project after these “high stakes” examinations have been completed.) Our debate was on the subject of “capital punishment,” and those in favour of the “affirmative proposition” to ban capital punishment narrowly won the debate. Here are the results, as filled in by me, after marking the rubric, which I think might interest you:

          “The Proposition won the debate based on two unarguable points that the opposition were never able to satisfactorily respond to: a) the overwhelming evidence that errors are being made in ascertaining guilt, as well as the equally compelling proof that the justice system has not been able to correct for errors, even with the use of scientific testing (e.g. with a 4.1% error rate in determining guilt, Ghali asked if we’d accept those chances of not surviving an airplane trip); and b) the challenge to the opposition’s allegation of “proportionality” in seeking “retribution” with the perfectly logical rhetorical question by the proposition as to whether, if this is true, we don’t seek “balance” in “retribution” by requiring that a rapist be raped. This suggests the futility of seeking a death in reparation for the taking of another’s life, and it COULD have led to a discussion of a more appropriate punishment, such as a lifetime of real reparations, although, in the instance of this debate, it didn’t. (A thoughtful consideration, however, of the lesson of the absence of “closure” in the film “Dead Man Walking” might have led to this conclusion.)

          All the questions regarding “deterrence” and “discrimination” were well and easily mooted by both teams, in their rebuttals, and, so, in terms of listening carefully and responding in a timely fashion to opponents’ “points,” this was a better debate than the previous one, and it was closely won by the proposition ONLY on the basis of the two points above. The question of a “cruel and unusual punishment” never came up, and that was a good thing, because it’s spurious, when there exist ways of euthanizing criminals painlessly. It has nothing to do with the ethical appropriateness of the sanction itself.

          All things considered, the arguments against use of the death penalty are generally so overwhelming that there was only one way that the opposition could have won this debate, but I did use it and win against the proposition, when I debated them, and I was hoping that the opposition team would discover it.

          The opposition team might have won against the proposition by conceding that the sanction should almost never be used, but that it MUST remain on the books as a sanction available to the central government (not states or localities) , as a symbol of the state’s right to protect civil society, and to insist on the sanctity of human life.

          Consider the actual language of the affirmative proposition: “ “The death penalty should be abolished as a LEGAL punishment for the following reasons:..”etc. The necessary qualification resides in the word “legal”—that is, that whether the punishment should or should not be erased from the law codes might have been made the sole subject for discussion. The opposition might have conceded every single objection that the proposition would raise, but still insist that the legal sanction should be available to the state, to protect society against those criminals— treasonous spies, terrorists, Mafiosi, etc.—whom permanent incarceration does not always “incapacitate.” It would follow the same formula spoken by those who are against abortion but do not wish to see it criminalized: “rare, almost never used, but legally available for the most extreme cases.”

          The members of the Proposition team are awarded an “A+” as their exam grade, and the members of the opposition are awarded a “C+.” There will, however, be individual grades, reflecting such matters as “eye contact, rebuttal points and formality of language, and those individual grades will be averaged with the “group grade,’ to yield a final exam grade which counts 20% of your semester grade. Those who sat out the debate get only the “group grade” as the grade for their final.”

  • Chris

    I think David’s proposal is sound. I do not see any circumstances justififying the death penalty anywhere.

    The sad history of Catholic collaboration with violence, killing, and war is a departure from the gospel and one we need to correct back to a consistent ethic of life.

    God bless

  • Julia Smucker

    I have to grant that Brandon’s caution against using the Catechism as a propaganda tool, or “a bat to beat opponents with, even when they are wrong,” is well placed. However, I am also in wholehearted agreement with Chris about the need to return to a consistent ethic of life, although I’d also say that would be – and is – going as much forward as back. I’m a bit hesitant to put it that way as I’m generally wary of the sort of chronological moralism suggested by “forward/backward” language, but in my reading of Catholic social teaching I’ve seen a continuous narrowing of allowances for violence; that is, of exceptions to the fundamental assumption against taking life. So I would have to support any development that continues that trajectory, not (on my better days) for the sake of winning an argument, but for the sake of consistency with this crucial principle.

    • Response to Julia’s …I am also in wholehearted agreement with Chris about the need to return to a consistent ethic of life […] for the sake of consistency with this crucial principle.

      Yes, indeed this is so. But isn’t it also true that the reasoning has to be consistent? Are we allowed to construct flawed premises that support our position now and later recoil upon us when they become more apparent? Br. Horan took some positions that are more than progressions (forwards or backwards) toward a more tightly knit seamless garment. Horan simultaneously affirmed and contradicted Cardinal Joseph Bernardin . He proposed that we do away with the concept on ‘innocent human life’. Here are some remarks taken from Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s 1984 lecture on this topic:

      First, at the level of general moral principles, it is possible to identify a single principle with diverse applications. In the Fordham address I used the prohibition against direct attacks on innocent life. This principle is both central to the Catholic moral vision and systematically related to a range of specific moral issues. It prohibits direct attacks on unborn life in the womb, direct attacks on civilians in warfare, and the direct killing of patients in nursing homes.

      Now I think I understand why Br. Horan calls for this change, namely because it fails to include capital punishment and the death caused by war to combatants. But Cardinal Bernardin continues as follows:

      A second level of a consistent ethic stresses the distinction among cases rather than their similarities. We need different moral principles to apply to diverse cases. The classical distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means has applicability in the care of the dying but no relevance in the case of warfare. Not all moral principles have relevance across the whole range of life issues. Moreover, sometimes a systemic vision of the life issues requires a combination of moral insights to provide direction on one issue. I found Cardinal Bernardin’s lecture remarks here: http://www.priestsforlife.org/magisterium/bernardinwade.html

      Br. Horan’s attempt to link all human life as ‘Sacred’ is noble. But it doesn’t serve the ‘pro-life’ cause to throw the concept of ‘innocent life’ under the bus simply because it makes one’s task harder. In fact, the operative theological category we refer to is that all human life is ‘fallen’ and in need of redemption…thus the Cross…and the need for Baptism…and the need to give and receive mercy. This is true even though all life is sacred and regardless of whether an individual is innocent or guilty in specific moral actions.

      Personally, I would not get upset if the language of the Catechism were changed. But I think it would cause general confusion and dissension precisely because it abandons the distinctions that Cardinal Bernardin had in mind. The murderer and the unborn child do deserve the protection of life. But the principle of innocent human life is being sacrificed and the issues of innocent and guilt, conversion/repentance, mercy and vengeance are all swept under the table as irrelevant and unimportant in David’s proposal backing Br. Horan’s position. Doing so is a sort of ‘crap shoot’ in which we give opponents (our brothers and sisters) black and white “take it or leave it” explanations of the truth.

      • Julia Smucker

        I don’t think it would be throwing the innocent “under the bus” to affirm that the lives of the guilty are also inviolably sacred, however marred and fallen. That seems a harsh zero-sum game to play. On the contrary, how can we apply with any consistency the Church’s teaching on human dignity and the imago Dei as universal and intrinsic, without insisting that the sanctity of life cannot be erased by guilt?

        • Ugh…dear Julia, when it comes to the sanctity of life you are preaching to the choir.

          Peace and good.

        • I apologize for my ‘Ugh’…very poor choice of interjections…mea culpa.

        • Julia Smucker

          Yes, my understanding was that we were merely quibbling over details. I’m sorry if I’ve given the impression of thinking otherwise.

  • Paul Connors

    Your proposal (and Horan’s) is, at least, quite ambiguous. The Catechism (#2267), quoting from Evangelium Vitae, says that “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.'” Whereas you say there are no such circumstances. This seems to be a flat contradiction. (One says ‘in some circumstances’, and the other says ‘never’.) How do you propose to resolve this?

    Both Francis and JP2 allow that there is a case for death to be inflicted where, although the guilty party has been imprisoned, there is somehow, despite this, still an ongoing proportionately severe attack on the common good. (They both disallow the death penalty in all cases when there is no such threat. And in Western society there is nearly always no such threat.)

    Now it may be difficult to imagine circumstances in which someone in prison can still be making an attack on the common good. But it is not impossible. (The case of Pablo Escobar is quite relevant here.). You seem to be claiming that there are no conceivable circumstances in which this can ever be possible. Why would anyone believe such an extreme claim?

  • I do agree that the death penalty should be abolished, but not in the manner that Horan proposes. The difficulty with your proposal [and Horan’s argument] is that it ‘short circuits’ the reality of what is being expressed in the Catechism. If you disagree with the premises taken in the Catechism, then say so. But if you wish to claim the conclusion (opposition to the death penalty) without defending the underlying argument then other unintended consequences are bound to occur.

  • It occurs to me that what really needs to be clarified about this issue in the Catechism is the use of deadly force by a state. My understanding of the Catholic position is that what is prohibited according to the gospel is the taking of life as a penalty for crime or execution as a mode of justice. Thus, for various crimes the state may, as an example, seize property, retract a license, collect money and force a criminal to lose his liberty proper penalty. But it never has the right to extract a life, per se as a true penalty or just form of punishment.

    But what the state must do is protect innocent life which under extreme circumstance may result in the use of deadly force. This may even be intentional if there are no other options. This surely did occur in the past prior to modern penal institutions and may exist today in truly rare circumstances. It’s this circumstance that the Catechism is referring to when it allows for ‘exceptional and rare circumstances’.

    In other words, in the past there has been a conflating of two principles of the death sentence…the element of protection for the common good…and the element of justice. What is proving difficult is to separate these two principles. When and where the protection aspect is resolved (the public is safe), then we must acknowledge that death as penalty in a system of justice is never justified and contrary to the gospel.

    • Paul Connors

      I think you are correct in what you say. A quite common reason claimed in support for imposing the death penalty is:

      (a) if an appropriately serious crime has been committed, the death penalty can be imposed as a matter of justice.

      Additionally there has been the claim that:

      (b) if the common good cannot be protected against a specific criminal, then the death penalty can be imposed as a means of protecting society from his active and proportionately serious harm.

      It seems pretty clear from papal teaching of recent decades that (a) is false. However, nothing has taken away the truth of (b).

      The current difficulty is that many people are unreasonably convinced that (a) is obviously true, and, moreover, something that the Church has always taught. But this is not so. If one looks back, for example, at what Aquinas said, or the Catechism of Trent, it is (b) that they use as justification for the death penalty. Prior to the development of the modern penal system, it was difficult to distinguish between (a) and (b), because it would have appeared to be only a theoretical difference, not a pragmatic one. But not now.

      • Your formulation is better than my narrative. Thanks.

  • Also, Ron Paul’s opinion matters, because, whether you agree with him or not on economic matters, he’s a consistently ethical individual regarding what he understands, which is war and foreign policy:


    • I admire Ron Paul for many reasons though I have come to distance myself from ‘Libertarian’ thought (and I do think there is a strong Catholic case against libertarianism.) For our purposes here, the size and wastefulness of big government is immaterial. And Paul’s moral claim is somewhat weakened because it rests primarily on the possibility of ‘mistaken’ executions (or the flaws of big government) rather than the moral limitations demanded by the gospel. Still, I’m aware that he is writing for a secular audience in a political forum and it is refreshing to hear his opposition to the death penalty.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    I am coming late to the discussion: I posted this while I was on the road in Portugal, and when I got home I really wanted to write about the resignation of Archbishop Nienstedt. Let me throw out a few thoughts her and below.

    I agree with Brandon that the Catechism should not be used as a weapon to bludgeon ones opponents, but I also think, that as a teaching document, it needs to strive for clarity and to revisit passages that are being misinterpreted as I believe supporters of the death penalty are doing. If it is going to mention the possibility of exceptions, it needs to develop this more carefully and make very, very clear the Church’s belief that there is no place for it in the modern world. And by this I mean anywhere in the world at the present time. (The Catechism is not an ageless document: to be meaningful it must be instantiated, even if it tries to speak to multiple co-existing cultures.)

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Paul, I like your careful distinction in the discussion with TauSign for the two reasons for the death penalty. However, I want to make one point: in my opinion, reason (a), the death penalty is a matter of justice, was part of Church teaching until Pope JP II changed the rules of the game in Evangelium Vitae. The original edition of the Catechism said

    “The traditional teaching of the church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty.”

    My sense is that if you tease apart the classical arguments in Augustine and Aquinas, your reason (b), protection of society, is the main one, but (a) still played a role.

    • Paul Connors

      “…in my opinion, reason (a), the death penalty is a matter of justice, was part of Church teaching until Pope JP II changed the rules of the game in Evangelium Vitae.”

      I think your opinion is not correct.

      Let me again split things into two aspects, one false and one correct, in an attempt to further illustrate what people think the Church taught, as compared with a more accurate assessment.

      Once someone has, for example, murdered someone, we can apply the death penalty to them as a matter of justice:

      (1) and it’s legitimate to apply this penalty to them without having to take into account other reasoning or circumstances.

      (2) but there are other conditions that must also be fulfilled.

      Here statement (1) is believed by many people — some Catholic, some not. And it’s also thought to be an accurate statement of what the Church taught prior to Evangelium Vitae. But it’s not.

      There have been numerous appeals, from the time of the earliest Fathers of the Church, to avoid the penalty of bloodshed and allow rehabilitation and repentance. The Church has always indicated that it is the secular world that has the power of the death penalty, and thus kept the Church itself from using this penalty. This can’t be made consistent with the simplistic reasoning of (1). How could the Church have anything against a simple application of justice?

      In fact, as I pointed out, when it comes to the death penalty, the Church (e.g. Aquinas and the Catechism of Trent) has pointed out that it is specifically the defense of society against the guilty offender which is the basis for allowing the death penalty. And this is the condition that (2) includes.

      All that Evangelium Vitae then does is to follow the logic of such prior teaching. If the guilty party can be imprisoned in a modern penal setting, then (almost always) society is defended. In which case, the justification for the death penalty has gone.

      Your quote from the first edition of the Catechism is correct, but that passage does nothing to clear things up sufficiently. It uses the phrase “extreme gravity”, and omits any explanation of exactly what that means. Likewise, your sense that the arguments of Augustine or Aquinas can be used to support something like (1) lacks pointers to the exact texts which allegedly would show this.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Paul, thanks for taking so much time on this. Unfortunately, I am proceeding on the memory of things I learned years ago when I was more active in the death penalty movement, so I cannot find the exact quotes from Augustine, Aquinas and others to buttress my case that you are separating two things that were always treated as two sides of the same coin. I spent a bit of time on the internet and found one more quote from Pius XII that frames the DP in terms of justice and not defense of society.

        “Even in the case of the death penalty the State does not dispose of the individual’s right to life. Rather public authority limits itself to depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt, after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.”

        The problem is that I am proof-texting as I do not have the time to make the kind of argument I would like. Feel free to challenge this quote if you want, however.

        • Paul Connors

          The quote you supply from Pius XII comes from a 1952 address to the First International Congress on the Histopathology of the Nervous System. In that address the pope was aiming at explaining the limits placed on what kinds of treatments medical practioners and their patients can choose when dealing with psychiatric problems. (At the time some practioners were often choosing severe radical treatments — even such as lobotomies. Hence the need for the address.)

          The two sentences you supply are the only two sentences from that address that relate to the death penalty. I.e. two sentences out of an address of a couple of hundred sentences. The death penalty was briefly introduced as an example of a point the pope was making, pointing out that society has no arbitrary right to kill people, even when society will benefit from the death.

          In what way does the pope’s point contradict Evangelium Vitae? In no way whatsoever. Evangelium Vitae has not taken away the ability of society to impose a death penalty. It has only more carefully specified the occasions on which the death penalty can be imposed.

          When society does choose to impose the death penalty, it can only do so as an unavoidable response to currently being attacked in a deadly way. If someone doesn’t first attack in some way, then society has no right whatsoever to use deadly means. It’s the attacker’s actions that have led to the possibility of society responding with deadly force. As the pope says, the attacker has “already disposed himself of his right to live”. This is a just response to the attack. So, justice is still involved; but it is not merely a matter of justice.

          Everything that Pius XII says is still true.

          Evangelium Vitae really hasn’t introduced any contradictions into Catholic teaching.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Paul, you are shifting the grounds of your argument. My point in quoting this (and while it is interesting to learn the context, it does not undermine my point) is that Pope Pius XII was making an argument about the death penalty in terms of justice. You have argued twice that the Catholic Church has always taught that the death penalty is for the defense of society and that believing that it an appropriate punishment as a matter of justice is incorrect.

        For more on this point of view, I refer you to the lengthy article by Cardinal Avery Dulles in First Things, reprinted here:


        Let me reiterate my point again: both strands, self defense and the imposition of justice, have been intertwined in Catholic teaching until EV and it is an over-simplification to claim otherwise.

        • “…you are shifting the grounds of your argument.”

          Lol. I attempted to describe my single position in two different ways. (Also, since I probably haven’t fully grasped what your position is, I have likely been making points that may seem off-target from your point of view.)

          “Let me reiterate my point again: both strands, self defense and the imposition of justice, have been intertwined in Catholic teaching until EV…”

          I would agree with that except that I would certainly not include the words “until EV”. All I see that EV did is to clarify that society’s self-defense was a necessary component in deciding whether the death penalty was appropriate; and EV also made it clear that if less extreme methods (“bloodless”) were sufficient to protect society, then those methods should be used. Neither of those two features are particularly surprising (they wouldn’t surprise Aquinas), and the reason they didn’t clarify earlier in history is because the modern penal system did not exist. A change in historical circumstances led to a clarification in teaching — a clarification that was not needed before.

          We can’t go back in history and ask Aquinas, or the theologians at the time of Trent, “Say, how would you clarify your teaching if the penal system of the 20th century actually existed today?”

          The death penalty is a matter of both self-defense and justice. Each of those components has to be there.

          The difficulty (and the thing that I have mainly been aiming at) is that some people still consider that the death penalty is — and always has been — only a matter of justice. “You murdered someone, so you should be killed.”

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    TauSign brings up the concept of “innocent human life” which I must confess has always made me uncomfortable. I guess the term has a place in Catholic moral theology, and JP II uses it frequently in Evangelium Vitae. However, in my own experience I have run into it not as a theological category so much as a bludgeon in the culture wars about abortion, particularly from those in the pro-life cause who rejected any attempt to link it to the broader goals of Catholic social teaching.

    The term seems to introduce an invidious distinction: we teach the inviolable dignity of all human life, but somehow, some lives are more equal than others. As I was thinking about writing these comments, the following example came to mind. It may be flawed, but I hope it is worth discussing. Consider the following crimes:

    1) A man (somehow) enters a prison and begins shooting prisoners, all highly violent criminals, in their cells.

    2) A man wanders through a urban neighborhood shooting prostitutes and drug addicts.

    3) A man goes into a suburban shopping mall and begins shooting people.

    4) A man goes into an elementary school and begins shooting the students.

    Certainly as reported in the press and in popular sentiment, our emotional outrage will increase as we go from (1) to (4), and (4) will certainly be decried because he is killing innocent children. But, morally is there any distinction between these crimes as we proceed from (1) to (4): does the increasing innocence (however defined) have any bearing on our understanding and assessment of these crimes?

    • When we are commanded not to slay the innocent, the word ‘innocent’ is intended to include everybody except those that are in the process of unjustly attacking us personally in a sufficiently physically violent way, or those whose death is being imposed as a legitimate action of society in response to a serious injustice (e.g. in a just war, or as a legitimate death penalty). In these cases the slaying is in direct response to a sufficiently grave injustice.

      So all your examples (1), (2), (3), (4) are slaying the innocent.

      Could the terminology be clearer? Perhaps; perhaps not. It’s not as easy as it might seem.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I don’t think this is correct. Here, for example, is a passage from Evangelium Vitae which contrasts murderers on death row with “the innocent”:

        “If such great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, the commandment “You shall not kill” has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person.”

        • You quote: “If such great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, the commandment ‘You shall not kill’ has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person.”

          I think that the pope is using ‘innocent’ here to refer to people where there is certainly no just cause for killing them. In the case of criminals and unjust aggressors, we may ponder whether or not responding with deadly force is permitted or not.

          The term “innocent” is being used in a particular context. To try to stretch it outside that context is to risk making it into some kind of absolute category that simply doesn’t exist.

    • David, your point is well taken and I agree that ‘innocence and guilt’ or even ‘gravity of the offense committed’ are virtually unimportant to the argument against the death penalty. But that doesn’t render it a moot point in other areas. If you revisit Br. Horan’s specific proposal, you will notice that it was to remove the qualifier ‘innocent’ from the discussion in that section of the Catechism. He cited No. 2258. That paragraph is the introduction to the entire chapter regarding the Fifth Commandment: You Shall Not Kill.

      That chapter not only discusses the ‘hot-button’ issues, but it also deals with broader issues. Relying on Cardinal Bernardin’s reasoning, it seems that it’s necessary to hold different (though not inconsistent) moral principles in play when discussion varying aspects of a consistent ethic of life. All life is sacred regardless of innocence or guilt, but when it comes to the protection of life the innocent do trump the guilty. Keep in mind that innocent does not imply a judgment of one’s character. In a fundamental sense it might simply represent the distinction between being an aggressor and a victim at a certain place or time. A convicted murder in jail might be ‘innocent’ when he is the target of murder by an inmate who is convicted of a lesser crime. Innocence may have a variety of interpretations, but it cannot be a meaningless concept.

      We cannot limit the discussion of the Fifth Commandment to one aspect; naming the direct taking of life. We must incorporate the duty and grave responsibility of protecting life (and ultimately nurturing it). If we can speak of ‘a preferential option for the poor and weak’ then we can certainly hold that the innocent deserve a priority of protection. Unfortunately, in too many real life situations human lives are pitted one against the other and held in a contest. Can one speak of the reality of war without referring to innocent victims? Can one wrestle in the abortion debates without defending the innocence of the unborn? And even if we could, the arguments would become theoretical, technical and clinical with little resonance in real life situations.

      Finally and perhaps most importantly, do we really want to drop the overall concept of ‘innocence’ in order to try and eliminate, what amounts to obstinate resistance to a ‘consistent ethic of life’? It seems to me that a proposal to eliminate the reference to ‘innocent human life’ is really an unwitting Faustian bargain. All for the unlikely hope of quieting a persistent opposition with the authority of the Catechism (i.e. ‘give ‘em what they want…make it black and white’).

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        TauSign, the ground seems to be shifting under me. Is “innocent life” a universal category or is it a contingent descriptor that applies to a person in some circumstances (a convicted murderer being gunned down in cold blood in his cell) but not in others (the same convicted murderer when considering his crimes)? I agree that “innocent” is a useful contingent category, particularly when sorting out moral claims. See my post and the long discussion in the comments about ectopic pregnancy,


        and also the interesting discussion about “innocent aggressors” linked to at the beginning of the post. Looking again at Br. Horan’s suggestion, I think he is suggesting that when laying the foundation on the fifth commandment, the universal category of “innocent” is not applicable: all life is sacred. My guess is that he would agree that when resolving particular claims in particular circumstances (abortion, the death penalty, ectopic pregnancy, self-defense, the legitimate defense of others) that we need to weigh the relative value of different lives and determine which are more important. In this case “innocent” can play a role, though as the discussion of ectopic pregnancy reveals, the innocence of the unborn is not a universal trump card. Maybe I am reading too much into his argument, but this is what makes sense to me.

  • I would like to think out loud about the term ‘innocent life’. Please feel free to challenge any portion of this formulation. I’m actually trying to tackle David’s comment and question above regarding whether ‘innocent life’ is a universal category or contingent descriptor. To the extent that I understand these terms, here goes.

    I think most contention on the death penalty and other pro-life causes hinges on what is being referred to with the term ‘innocent life’. It may be that ‘innocent’ can be used both as ‘universal category’ (UC) and a ‘contingent descriptor’ (CD). Furthermore, there may be two distinct ways of discussing this universal category: one as noun and the other as adjective. Thus UC1(a noun), UC2(an adjective), and CD.

    Let me quickly dispose of the contingent descriptor (CD) understanding. The contingent descriptor (of innocence or guilt) is particular to the persons, time and event. In this sense innocence is contrasted with guilt as a form of judgment. In and of itself, it has little to do with the DP debate since the appropriate punishment is a related but distinct matter. Now, onto thinking about the concept of ‘innocent life’ as a universal category.

    In the UC1 sense ‘an innocent’ might refer to anyone who is a non-aggressor and a victim. The victim’s character is not brought into question (the murderer shot in his cell is ‘an innocent’). The ‘innocent one’ is simply the object of the aggressor’s malice (the counterpart to the aggressor). If we use this specific meaning (UC1), then ‘innocent aggressor’ is an oxymoron (like cold heat) with one possible exception…suicide. I think UC1 is the most common (or largest, overall) and most appropriate sense to understand innocent life in Sacred Scripture and perhaps the Catechism. I say this because Man is not generally regarded as innocent or blameless after ‘the fall’. That you [God] may be justified when you give sentence and be without reproach when you judge. O see, in guilt I was born, a sinner was I conceived. (Psalm 51) Mankind is regarded as blameworthy of sin and in need of redemption.

    UC2 might describe a universal category that is based on a characteristic thought of as blamelessness(an adjective). Most may think of this category first when encountering the term and perhaps it is the most common understanding. Here the descriptive concept is generalized over groups and not assigned to individual behavior. Thus, ‘the sweet innocence of childhood’ (all children) comes to mind. This categorization plays a role in social acceptance or discrimination; as women are generally thought of as more innocent than men, white men more innocent than black men, and black male youths the least innocent. This can be very problematic because both the relative degree of innocence can vary AND assigning a hierarchy of who is ‘more and less innocent’ is seldom agreed upon in a diverse culture. Actually, it has become a source of division; witness the clash over presumptive innocence and guilt with white police and black youth. Both UC1 and UC2 are generalized constructs for thinking about potential situations; they predispose certain attitudes and behaviors and they are fundamental in forming biases; healthy and unhealthy.

    The UC2 sense of ‘innocent life’ really causes havoc to the death penalty debate since it actually has little relevance to the Church’s position on the death penalty. In speaking of ‘the innocent’ the Church is generally referring to UC1, while some supporters of the DP maintain that the Church is referring to UC2. Unfortunately, this is where most death penalty opponents pull out the ‘sacredness of all human life’ argument, which of course proves futile, since the meaning of ‘innocent life’ is constantly shifting back and forth. The ‘sacredness of all human life’ position seemingly fails (though not really) when dealing with a true UC1 understanding. This is because the ‘sacredness of all human life’ imposes a ‘grave duty’ to defend innocent life (as referred to in UC1, not UC2) to the point on taking life if unavoidable in certain extreme and rare circumstances. To convince supporters of the DP that it is ‘Never Justified’ is only possible if one is able to shift the qualifier ‘innocent life’ from a UC2 understanding to UC1 AND persuade them that one takes the ‘defense of life’ seriously; which necessarily means being able to actually defend the UC1 ‘innocent life’ to the point of death, if no other means exist.

  • Tanco

    One problem with the United States’ inability to end the death penalty is Evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals, since they lack systematic theology, see the application of lex talonis in the Torah as a straightforward matter. Nevermind that most rabbis today do not believe that the death penalties of the Mosaic Law are binding. Evangelicalism, because it cannot connect together discrete pericopes of the Bible into chains of systematic thought, merely sees discrete chapter-verse examples as proof that the death penalty is just.

    I take the radical view that all life-taking is mortally sinful, without degree or distinction, save for very specific instances of self-defense. I understand this conflicts with Cdl. Bernadin’s concept of “innocent life” [see Tausign (June 15, 2015 10:05 am)]. I do not believe that one situation of unjust taking of life has priority over another. Guilt is a matter of repentance, and not the value of a human life. Guilt should not decide whether a unborn or born person is more worthy of attention or safety. The concept of “innocent life” strikes me as a political dodge for bishops who wish to remain attached to conservative politics. The “innocent life” distinction allows a Catholic to acquiesce to the death penalty and oppose abortion, when the unjust taking of life knows no distinction.

  • I understand this conflicts with Cdl. Bernadin’s concept of “innocent life” [see Tausign (June 15, 2015 10:05 am)].

    I’m not entirely sure that I understood Cdl. Bernardin’s concept of ‘innocent life’ and it is possible that I assigned an alternative meaning to what he had in mind. See my later comment for a more nuanced view: [Tausign: June 21, 2015 4:00 pm]

    • Tanco

      After reading your last post, I would say that you have the mens of the Church on this issue down well. However, I must disagree with Holy Mother Church and side with Br. Horan.

      We know well today that innocent inmates have been put to death for crimes which they did not commit. In other cases death row inmates have been railroaded into a capital sentence by inept representation in court against a determined prosecution. In a few cases, persons with intellectual disabilities have been sentenced to death and executed. The latter question of intellectual disability is actually a subset of the first question, but with different premises. Also, you are right to point out Tausign the reality of the race-income valence. More people of color than white people remain on death rows. It’s not a stretch to say that the death penalty system is in many cases little more than the sacrifice of persons for the vindictive satisfaction of some people’s warped understanding of “justice”. Oftentimes the death penalty provides political gain for politicians, which is scandalous.

      Even if one innocent person is put to death, then the entire death penalty system has crossed over from retribution to murder. In this case, an innocent inmate put to death is no more or less innocent than an unborn child. In some states more than a few inmates have been executed, only later to be posthumously vindicated. Because of this, it is fair to say that all death row inmates are contained within the universal category of “innocent life”. A system which sacrifices innocent persons for ephemeral gain, frequently without regard to even the integrity of a death row inmate’s conviction, knows not innocence or guilt but the unjust taking of life indiscriminately.