The Catholic Church: The Death Penalty
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Published: Wed, 03 May 2017
Capital punishment remains a controversial public issue whose moral complexity has been recently affirmed further by a variety of television shows, movies, talk shows and writings. In the midst of this debate are the victims of assault who, understandably enough, would usually rather see their aggressors dead than alive. One of the most prominent victims in this context is the late Pope John Paul II who, after an assassination attempt, never fully recovered from the gun wounds that nearly killed him. Nevertheless, Pope John Paul II made of the attack an example of forgiveness. Pope John Paul II did not stop here but called also for the abolition of the death penalty on this particular occasion. In other words, Pope John Paul II sought to affirm that the answer to violence is not more violence. On the contrary, the proper response would be in the affirmation of Jesus Christ’s message of hope, forgiveness and reconciliation. It might seem reasonable to conclude in this perspective that since the late Pope was so vehemently against the death penalty, the whole Catholic Church is and has always been opposed to this form of punishment. A closer analysis reveals however that the contrary is true. In the Catholic Church, teachings on the death penalty have changed and developed over time. For example, for many centuries, the Catholic Church accepted the notion that the state reserved the right to take a life in order to protect society. However, over time, and in the light of new facts and realities, the Catholic Church began to recognize that there are other non-violent means through which the state can effectively protect society. (Congressional Records 16751) Today, the Church’s teachings clearly argue against the practice of capital punishment. In short, a historical observation of the status of the death penalty among Catholics and an analysis of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reveal a continuous change and evolvement of perception regarding the practice over the centuries.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly defines the conditions under which a life can be taken and highlights thereby the reasons that support the Church’s convictions. For example, the Catechism specifically states that:
If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority should limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person (Congressional Records 16751).
This passionate defense of the sanctity of life, even a criminal’s, is mainly related to the Catholic belief that all humans are created in the image of God and therefore possess a certain amount of value, dignity and worth which ought to be protected and uphold at any time. In other words, the Catholic Church today regards every individual as a sacred being and strongly affirms that every human life is precious, including the life of those individuals who violated the rights of others. The Church currently defends this position by pointing out that human dignity is not qualified by the individual’s actions as it is inherent and can therefore neither be earned nor forfeited.
In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the conditions under which a life can be taken, even for the purpose of protecting others, have been significantly narrowed over time. Today the Church passionately argues against the death penalty and justifies the stance through a reference to a variety of Biblical scriptures and religious and moral/ethical concepts. However it is interesting to note that Church approached the dilemma from a different perspective for many centuries. According to the excerpts 2266 from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the efforts of the state to curb the spread of harmful social behavior ought to be recognized and supported for the common good. In this context, the Church supported the right of the state to inflict any suitably deemed punishment including the death penalty, as long as it was proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Excerpt 2267, issued by the Vatican on September 9, 1997, suggests at first glance a continuity in the Church’s point of view. The excerpt namely asserts that non-lethal means are preferable to lethal ones but that recourse to the death penalty was nevertheless not opposed by the Church if it was in the defense and protection of a human life. It is thus interesting to note how the Church moved to gradually curb the practice of the death penalty in a subtle but nevertheless very effective manner. For example, excerpt 2267 is in fact, despite its affirmation of the Church’s acceptance of capital punishment, very strict about the act as the death penalty is only deemed acceptable if it manages to protect a human life from an aggressor. Since contemporary states and criminal justice systems already possess a variety of means through which a criminal can be prevented from harming others, “cases where it is absolutely necessary to suppress the guilty are today very rare, if not practically non-existent” (Death Penalty Information Center). It is thus relevant to conclude in the light of the aforementioned that the Catholic Church has gradually evolved to limit the conditions under which a life can be taken, even a criminal’s.
The Catholic Church takes today a pro-life, abolitionist view of the death penalty for a variety of reasons that have especially grown in significance over the last few decades. First of all, the Church affirms that there is no conclusive evidence which supports the belief that the death penalty reduces the homicide rate. Thereby, one of the most inhuman, petty and immoral reasons for retaining the death penalty is related to the idea of retribution, or vengeance, which quite obviously conflicts with Jesus’ message of forgiveness and peace. In the last decade, the Holy Father has affirmed frequently that this purpose undermines the state’s attempts at reform and the protection of its citizens and the common good. Punishment should not be about vengeance but about the defending of public order and the ensuring of public safety while simultaneously reaching out to the offender to correct his or her behavior. Since there are other methods through which the public good can be defended and as the execution of the offender prevents from any chance of rehabilitation, the death penalty consequentially fails in meeting the standards of the Catholic Church’s definition of the acceptable and effective punishment (Congressional Records 16751).
This carefully constructed and well-reasoned opposition of the death penalty has become, as stated, especially outspoken over the last few decades. In the United States, and especially beginning with the 1980s, Catholic bishops began recognizing that Christian tradition has for a long time acknowledged the government’s right to protect its citizens by applying the death penalty in certain cases. However, and as society and the penal system evolved, capital punishment became less justifiable according to the Bishops in a 1980 statement entitled Capital Punishment. The main reasons for opposing the death penalty, according to the statement, are related to the ideas of retribution and deterrence. With regard to deterrence, it was stated that while capital punishment does prevent certain individuals from repeating their crime, others are not necessarily prevented from engaging in similar atrocities. As for retribution, the bishops underlined the previously discussed about the irrelevance of capital punishment as a form of effective punishment if it is a means through which to seek vengeance rather than social security, stability, justice, dignity and rehabilitation (Overberg). All of these reasons are what currently define the Catholic Church’s stance regarding capital punishment; reasons that have only grown in relevance over the last few decades.
Indeed, the acceptance of capital punishment has varied over the centuries in the Roman Catholic Church. Until at least the middle of the twentieth century, it was generally agreed that the state had the right, and sometimes the duty, to impose the death penalty for certain inacceptable offenses. These ideas were justified through a reference to Scripture. It is interesting to note how this teaching was the common doctrine of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, including for instance the two great Doctors of the West, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Pope Innocent III accepted in the thirteenth century the concept of the death penalty as a proper form of punishment for heretics. Even after the Second World War, Pope Pius XII showed clear support of capital punishment; a position that was affirmed by the Catechism of the Council of Trent. It is also interesting to note that while currently, and as has been illustrated, the death penalty is judged to be weak in meeting the basic principles of proper punishment; it was for a long time judged to be suitable for the following four reasons: retribution, defense of society against the criminal, deterrence and rehabilitation. Ironically enough, all of these reasons are presently also cited to underline the immorality of the death penalty. The reliance on these four reasons by Catholics in the past versus now illustrates the evolvement and change in the content of the ideas which contributed to the overall alteration of the Church’s point of view regarding the death penalty. For instance, while retribution is today regarded as a petty reason that should be excluded out of any effective punishment, the Church used to affirm that when justice has been grossly violated, it was acceptable to believe that the restoration of order would require depriving an individual of life itself. This position was defended by Scriptures such as Romans 13:1-4 and Genesis 9:5-6. Thereby, while the Church regards capital punishment today as a failure in providing the offender with a chance of rehabilitation, it used to affirm just a few decades ago that while execution does not reintegrate offenders into society, it prevents hardened criminals from spiritually harming themselves further by sin.(Owens, Elshtain 23-25) It becomes thus clear through these brief comparisons between past and current understandings of concepts and reasons related to capital punishment, that the issue has been indeed gradually, but nevertheless definitely, changing over time in the Roman Catholic Church.
It has become clear that the Catholic Church has been gradually adapting its perceptions of the issue of capital punishment over the centuries. The changes usually came in response to certain social conditions. For instance and as has been noted, Pope Innocent III deemed this form of punishment suitable for heretics which is understandable considering the context of the thirteenth century. Since World War II, opposition to capital punishment among Catholics grew steadily due to the fear that the criminal justice system was abused in the death camps of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia. (Owens, Elshtain 24) It is nevertheless observable that the Church has only cautiously moved towards confining the practice of capital punishment. In 1992, in the first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and specifically in article 2266, the classical position of the Church was reaffirmed. It is however interesting to note that the following excerpt, 2267, laid the first subtle but nevertheless effectively restrictive measures that define the Church’s position today. The rise of Pope John Paul II and his continuous and passionate criticism of the death penalty have undoubtedly strengthened the Church’s position even further. Today, the Catholic Church seeks to send the message that the cycle of violence can only be broken through the application of Jesus Christ’s message of hope, forgiveness and love. Taking a life in response to a criminal act is criticized as ineffective in solving the current social and crime problems rooted in a complex reality that includes social conditions as poverty and injustice. Thereby, the Catholic Church seeks to abolish the death penalty today to uphold the dignity and worth of a human being as man is created in the image of God and it is only HE who is the Lord of life. Humans are therefore by no means entitled to destroy life, which should be taken care of and treated as sacred and worthy no matter what. In the context of these beliefs is indeed no place for the acceptance of capital punishment.
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