EWTN Catholic Q&A
Death Penalty
Question from Yvonne Provencher on 05-14-2001:

I recently saw Pat Buchanan on television saying that the authority of the Catholic Church is derived from the Holy Bible and Tradition both of which support the death penalty. I have read and understood the Catechism on this issue, that is, "if bloodless means are sufficient" to defend society against a criminal then public authority should limit itself to those means. Mr. Buchanan stated that Pope John Paul changed the Church's view on the death penalty. He said John Paul should be respected but his viewpoint should not be adhered to. I would like to know where to find John Paul's writings on this subject.

Answer by Fr.Stephen F. Torraco on 05-15-2001:

You can find Pope John Paul II's writings on this topic in his encyclical, "Evangelium Vitae." As for whether Pope John Paul "changed" the Church's teaching on this matter, this needs to be understood accurately.

It is unfortunate that in recent times the Church's teaching on capital punishment has been presented so unclearly, both by members of the Church as well as of the media and other sectors of society. The Church's teaching on this matter is governed primarily by the natural law, and secondly by the principle of double effect. The Church's teaching on this matter remains fundamentally the same. The Church has always taught that it is the right and responsibility of the legitimate temporal authority to defend and preserve the common good, and more specifically to defend citizens against the aggressor. This defense against the aggressor, by virtue of the principle of double effect, can resort to the death penalty. The point here is that the death penalty is understood as an act of self-defense on the part of civil society.

In more recent times, Pope John Paul II has taught that the need for such self-defense to resort to the death penalty is "rare, if not virtually nonexistent." The important point here is that the Pope has not, as he cannot, change the constant and fundamental teaching of the Church on this matter, based as it is on the natural law, namely that it is the right and responsibility of the legitimate temporal authority to defend citizens against the aggressor. What the Pope IS saying is that, in modern society, the modern penal system, along with an intense anti-life culture, makes resorting to the death penalty *disproportionate* to the threatening aggression. (According to the 4th criterion of the principle of double effect, the unintended evil effect of the act of self defense has to be proportionate to the intended good effect of that act.)

The first point to be noted here is that it is not the Church's teaching that has changed. Rather, it is society that has changed; and to this societal change, the Church has adpated her constant teaching.

Secondly, while the Pope is saying that the burden of proving the need for the death penalty in specific cases should rest on the shoulders of the legitimate temporal authority, it remains true that the legitimate temporal authority alone has the authority to determine if and when a "rare" case arises that warrants the death penalty. It would, by the standards of the natural law and the principle of double effect, be morally irresponsible to rule out all such possibilities a priori, just as it would be morally irresponsible to apply the death penalty indiscriminately. For these reasons, the Church cannot possibly embrace EITHER a totally PRO-capital punishment teaching OR a totally ANTI-capital punishment teaching.