Church Teaching on Death Penalty Hasn’t Changed

News: Commentary
by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  •  April 26, 2017   

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI: "It may still be permissible to have recourse to capital punishment"

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Catholic discussion on the death penalty was recently sparked by Arkansas' executions of inmates, beginning last Thursday with Ledell Lee. Before his execution, Lee refused the customary last meal and chose to receive communion in accord with his Protestant beliefs.

U.S. bishops, while quoting statements from Pope St. John Paul II, have asked that the death penalty be commuted to life imprisonment for such criminals, leaving Catholics to wonder if the Church has changed Her teaching on capital punishment.

As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cdl. Joseph Ratzinger in 2004, one year before becoming Pope Benedict XVI, said the Church hadn't changed Her teaching on the death penalty and that Catholics can disagree on certain principles pertaining to it.

Ratzinger wrote a wrote a letter in 2004 to the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops that reads:

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.

Catholics, therefore, can disagree on the prudential application of certain moral principles pertaining to capital punishment. Some of those considerations include:

  • Effective rehabilitation in prison vs. undergoing the death penalty
  • Effective deterrence to crime in prison vs. execution of criminals
  • Justice of modern life in prison as retribution for heinous offenses vs. capital punishment

Catholics can't, however, equate abortion and euthanasia, which are intrinsic evils, with capital punishment, not an intrinsic evil, and which involves the application of moral principles in particular circumstances.

Watch the panel discuss these issues in The Download—Death Penalty.


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