Religion Magazine

Is the Death Penalty Just? – Response to a Question

By Apostolate Of The Divine Heart @DivineHeartGod

The question has been repeatedly asked, “Is the death penalty just?” Here is the response from the mind of the Church.

YOU SHALL NOT KILL

Pope Blessed Paul VI

“Go out into the world and make every effort possible in every way to restore the dignity of man, and all that it implies! I stand foursquare with modern theologians who hold that prudentially and historically capital punishment does not fit into the greater contemporary theological awareness of the worth of each individual on earth” (Speech to the Bishops at closing of Vatican Council II, Vatican City, 1965).

Note: Paul VI removed capital punishment from the fundamental law of Vatican City in 1969.


Pope Saint John Paul II

“On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society. The primary purpose of the punishment which society inflicts is “to redress the disorder caused by the offence”.46 Public authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime, as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way authority also fulfils the purpose of defending public order and ensuring people’s safety, while at the same time offering the offender an incentive and help to change his or her behavior and be rehabilitated. 

“It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: ‘If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must 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’” (Encyclical, Evangelium Vitae ¶56, 1995). 


“May Christmas help to strengthen and renew, throughout the world, the consensus concerning the need for urgent and adequate measures to halt the production and sale of arms, to defend human life, to end the death penalty, to free children and adolescents from all forms of exploitation, to restrain the bloodied hand of those responsible for genocide and crimes of war, to give environmental issues, especially after the recent natural catastrophes, the indispensable attention which they deserve for the protection of creation and of human dignity!” (Christmas Day Message, Vatican City, December 25, 1998).


“Nowadays, in America as elsewhere in the world, a model of society appears to be emerging in which the powerful predominate, setting aside and even eliminating the powerless: I am thinking here of unborn children, helpless victims of abortion; the elderly and incurably ill, subjected at times to euthanasia; and the many other people relegated to the margins of society by consumerism and materialism. Nor can I fail to mention the unnecessary recourse to the death penalty when other “bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons. Today, given the means at the State’s disposal to deal with crime and control those who commit it, without abandoning all hope of their redemption, the cases where it is absolutely necessary to do away with an offender ‘are now very rare, even non-existent practically.’ This model of society bears the stamp of the culture of death, and is therefore in opposition to the Gospel message. Faced with this distressing reality, the Church community intends to commit itself all the more to the defense of the culture of life.

“In this regard, the Synod Fathers, echoing recent documents of the Church’s Magisterium, forcefully restated their unconditional respect for and total dedication to human life from the moment of conception to that of natural death, and their condemnation of evils like abortion and euthanasia. If the teachings of the divine and natural law are to be upheld, it is essential to promote knowledge of the Church’s social doctrine and to work so that the values of life and family are recognized and defended in social customs and in State ordinances” (Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Ecclesia in America ¶83, 1999).


“The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary” (Papal Mass, St. Louis, MO, USA, January 27, 1999).


“May the death penalty, an unworthy punishment still used in some countries, be abolished throughout the world” (Papal Mass, Regina Coeli Prison, Rome, Italy, 2000).


Pope Benedict XVI

“Prisoners are human persons who, despite their crime, deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They need our care. With this in mind, the Church must provide for pastoral care in prisons, for the material and spiritual welfare of the prisoners. This pastoral activity is a real service that the Church offers to society, and it is one that the state should support for the sake of the common good. Together with the Synod members, I draw the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty and to reform the penal system in a way that ensures respect for the prisoners’ human dignity. Pastoral workers have the task of studying and recommending restorative justice as a means and a process for promoting reconciliation, justice and peace, and the return of victims and offenders to the community (Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Africae Munus ¶83, 2011).


“I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order” (Papal Address, Community of Sant’Egidio, Rome, November 30, 2011).


Pope Francis

“It is impossible to imagine that States today fail to employ a means other than capital punishment to protect the lives of other people from the unjust aggressor. St John Paul II condemned the death penalty (cf. Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae, n. 56), as does the Catechism of the Catholic Church (n. 2267) as well. It can be established, however, that States take life not only through the death penalty and through war, but also when, in order to justify their crimes, public officials take refuge in the shadow of State prerogatives. So-called extra-judicial or extra-legal executions are homicides deliberately committed by certain States and by their agents, often passed off as clashes with criminals or presented as the unintended consequences of the reasonable, necessary and proportionate use of force in applying the law. In this way, although among the 60 Countries that sanction the death penalty, 35 have not applied it in the last 10 years, the death penalty is applied illegally and in varying degrees throughout the planet.

“The same extra-judicial executions are performed in a systematic way not only by States in the international community, but also by entities not recognized as such, and they are genuine crimes. There are many well known arguments against the death penalty. The Church has duly highlighted several, such as the possibility of judicial error and the use made by totalitarian and dictatorial regimes who use it as a means of suppressing political dissidence or of persecuting religious and cultural minorities, all victims who, in their respective legislation are termed “delinquents”. All Christians and men of good will are thus called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also in order to improve prison conditions, with respect for the human dignity of the people deprived of their freedom. And I link this to life imprisonment. A short time ago the life sentence was taken out of the Vatican’s Criminal Code. A life sentence is just a death penalty in disguise” (Address to the Delegates of the International Association of Penal Law, Vatican City, October 23, 2014).


“The Church’s Magisterium, based on the Sacred Scripture and the thousand-year experience of the People of God, defends life from conception to natural end, and supports full human dignity inasmuch as it represents the image of God. Human life is sacred as, from its beginning, from the first instant of conception, it is the fruit of God’s creating action. States kill when they apply the death penalty, when they send their people to war or when they carry out extrajudicial or summary executions. They can also kill by omission, when they fail to guarantee to their people access to the bare essentials for life. … On some occasions it is necessary to repel an ongoing assault proportionately to avoid damage caused by the aggressor, and the need to neutralize him could lead to his elimination; this is a case of legitimate defense. However, the presuppositions of personal legitimate defense do not apply at the social level, without risk of misinterpretation. When the death penalty is applied, it is not for a current act of aggression, but rather for an act committed in the past. It is also applied to persons whose current ability to cause harm is not current, as it has been neutralized — they are already deprived of their liberty.

“Nowadays the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed. It is an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, which contradicts God’s plan for man and society, and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance. For the rule of law, the death penalty represents a failure, as it obliges the state to kill in the name of justice. … Justice can never be wrought by killing a human being. … With the application of the death penalty, the convict is denied the possibility of to repent or make amends for the harm caused; the possibility of confession, by which a man expresses his inner conversion, and contrition, the gateway to atonement and expiation, to reach an encounter with God’s merciful and healing justice. It is furthermore frequently used by totalitarian regimes and groups of fanatics for the extermination of political dissidents, minorities, and any subject labeled as ‘dangerous’ or who may be perceived as a threat to its power or to the achievement of its ends”.

“The death penalty is contrary to the sentiment of humanitas and to divine mercy, which must be the model for human justice . . . There is discussion in some quarters about the method of killing, as if it were possible to find ways of ‘getting it right’ . . . But there is no humane way of killing another person. On the other hand, life imprisonment entails for the prisoner the impossibility of planning a future of freedom, and may therefore be considered as a sort of covert death penalty, as they deprive detainees not only of their freedom, but also of hope. However, although the penal system can stake a claim to the time of convicted persons, it can never claim their hope” (Address to the International Commission Against the Death Penalty, Vatican City, March 20, 2015).


“In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities.  The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us.  The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.  I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.  Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty.  Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation” (Address to the Joint Session of the US Congress, Washington, DC, September 24, 2015).


“The commandment ‘Do not kill’ holds absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty. I propose to all those among them who are Catholic to make a courageous and exemplary gesture: may no execution sentence be carried out in this Holy Year of Mercy” (Speech after the Angelus, Vatican City, February 21, 2016).


“The Church not only feels that urgency to assert the right to a natural death, without aggressive treatment and euthanasia, but likewise firmly rejects the death penalty” (Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia ¶83, 2016).


“One sign of hope is that public opinion is manifesting a growing opposition to the death penalty, even as a means of legitimate social defence.  Indeed, nowadays the death penalty is unacceptable, however grave the crime of the convicted person. It is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person; it likewise contradicts God’s plan for individuals and society, and his merciful justice.  Nor is it consonant with any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to victims, but instead fosters vengeance. The commandment “Thou shalt not kill” has absolute value and applies both to the innocent and to the guilty.

“The Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is an auspicious occasion for promoting worldwide ever more evolved forms of respect for the life and dignity of each person. It must not be forgotten that the inviolable and God-given right to life also belongs to the criminal. Today I would encourage all to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, but also for the improvement of prison conditions, so that they fully respect the human dignity of those incarcerated.  “Rendering justice” does not mean seeking punishment for its own sake, but ensuring that the basic purpose of all punishment is the rehabilitation of the offender. The question must be dealt with within the larger framework of a system of penal justice open to the possibility of the guilty party’s reinsertion in society. There is no fitting punishment without hope! Punishment for its own sake, without room for hope, is a form of torture, not of punishment” (Message to the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, Vatican City, June 21, 2016).


“Slavery is a mortal sin; today we say this. Back then, some would say that this could be done because these people did not have a soul!” he said. The number of people enslaved today is “even more, but at least we know that it is a mortal sin. The same goes for the death penalty; for a time, it was normal. Today, we say that the death penalty is inadmissible” (Homily, Vatican City, May 11, 2017).


“Along these same lines, I would like now to bring up a subject that ought to find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church a more adequate and coherent treatment in the light of these expressed aims.  I am speaking of the death penalty.  This issue cannot be reduced to a mere résumé of traditional teaching without taking into account not only the doctrine as it has developed in the teaching of recent Popes, but also the change in the awareness of the Christian people which rejects an attitude of complacency before a punishment deeply injurious of human dignity.  It must be clearly stated that the death penalty is an inhumane measure that, regardless of how it is carried out, abases human dignity.  It is per se contrary to the Gospel, because it entails the willful suppression of a human life that never ceases to be sacred in the eyes of its Creator and of which – ultimately – only God is the true judge and guarantor.  No man, “not even a murderer, loses his personal dignity” (Letter to the President of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, 20 March 2015), because God is a Father who always awaits the return of his children who, knowing that they have made mistakes, ask for forgiveness and begin a new life.  No one ought to be deprived not only of life, but also of the chance for a moral and existential redemption that in turn can benefit the community.

“In past centuries, when means of defence were scarce and society had yet to develop and mature as it has, recourse to the death penalty appeared to be the logical consequence of the correct application of justice.  Sadly, even in the Papal States recourse was had to this extreme and inhumane remedy that ignored the primacy of mercy over justice. Let us take responsibility for the past and recognize that the imposition of the death penalty was dictated by a mentality more legalistic than Christian.  Concern for preserving power and material wealth led to an over-estimation of the value of the law and prevented a deeper understanding of the Gospel.  Nowadays, however, were we to remain neutral before the new demands of upholding personal dignity, we would be even more guilty.

“Here we are not in any way contradicting past teaching, for the defence of the dignity of human life from the first moment of conception to natural death has been taught by the Church consistently and authoritatively. Yet the harmonious development of doctrine demands that we cease to defend arguments that now appear clearly contrary to the new understanding of Christian truth. Indeed, as Saint Vincent of Lérins pointed out, “Some may say: Shall there be no progress of religion in Christ’s Church?  Certainly; all possible progress.  For who is there, so envious of men, so full of hatred to God, who would seek to forbid it?” (Commonitorium, 23.1; PL 50). It is necessary, therefore, to reaffirm that no matter how serious the crime that has been committed, the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person” (Address for the 25th Anniversary of the Promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Vatican City, October 11, 2017).


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