Capital Punishment - The Pope's Position


The Church's teaching has not changed, nor has the Pope said that it has. The Catechism and the Pope state that the state has the right to exact the death penalty. Nations have the right to just war and individuals have the right to self-defense. Does that means that any and all uses of force to defend oneself against a criminal, or a criminal nation, are justified? No, and  most people understand that.

To be good every moral act must satisfy three elements
1) The act itself must be good.
2) The intention of the one doing it must be good.
3) The circumstances must be appropriate.

1. Capital punishment is the right of the state. This is the principle taught by the Church. The Pope does not deny it, but neither St. Thomas or any Magisterial text presumes this gives the state an unlimited right to make capital laws and carry them out. It is inherent in a just capital punishment law that there be proportion between the taking of the life of the criminal and the benefit expected to the common good. A law, for example, that takes no account of factors such as repentance, mental age and so on is unjust. States have  executed the mentally retarded, who could be of no conceivable future threat to society, and in one case a woman whose evident conversion even the state admitted. Thus, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

2267  Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against an unjust aggressor.

2. Intention. The motive of the state is good when it follows a just law, that is, its decision is motivated by the requirements of the common good and not by motives of vengeance. This is probably not usually a problem of the state, though some officials evidence it, but it is clearly the mind of many in the public, a fact every execution seems to bring out.

3. Circumstances. There are, of course, individual circumstances related to the particular capital case which, as I noted, a just law takes into account. Here I want to consider, however, certain general circumstances. The Pope has noted that in the developed countries the possibility exists to incarcerate criminals for life, removing definitively any threat to society. Thus, the Catechism continues in paragraph 2267, 

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority should limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person. 

Another circumstance, and one related to "the concrete conditions of the common good," is the nature of our society. We have become a culture of death. The question really arises as to whether we have just laws, and whether we can execute those we do have justly. Abortion has worked a truly horrible corruption of our country, for which we are beginning to pay the price, not just in demonic violence but in the "corruptio mentis" (corruption of mind and heart) of people in general. This is manifested in the malfeasance of justice, by police, juries, prosecutors and judges at all levels of the justice system. In the early Church a similar situation existed. During the time of pagan Rome, Catholics could not hold civil or military office if they could be obliged to judge capital crimes or execute capital punishment. Only after the Church was legalized and the state influenced by its teaching would Catholics be allowed such offices. As the state becomes less influenced by the truth the Catholic finds himself returning to the quandary of the early Christians. Thus, while the state may have the right, all other factors being respected, to execute the criminal it also has the opportunity for mercy. If the greater good of the society is protected adequately then the Church argues for mercy, both so that the respect due to every life is restored and so that the unconverted might convert and save their souls. Thus, in Evangelium Vitae and the Catechism (2267) the Pope concludes,

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent." (EV 56)

So, in the end is the Pope changing Church teaching by arguing against capital punishment? Absolutely not! It fact, it would be contrary to Church teaching to say that  capital punishment is per se immoral, as some do. Rather, the Pope states that the conditions of modern society argue against it's use in all but rare cases. It is simply becoming harder and harder to argue that a particular act of capital punishment is circumstantially necessary (the third element of a good moral act). The Pope is NOT substituting his judgment for the political prudence of those who must make decisions about when to use capital punishment. He is teaching principles and making a general evaluation about modern circumstances. Ultimately, the laity who are responsible for these judgments in political society must make them in the individual cases. In doing so, however, they have a grave obligation to apply all the principles taught by the Church to the cases before them, as taking a human life is always grave matter if done unjustly.


Answered by Colin B. Donovan, STL

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