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Abortion vs. Capital Punishment
Question from Josh on 11/5/2003:

I agree with Church teaching on this matter, but I wondered if you could clear up for me why capital punishment can be acceptable in certain cases if murder is considered a mortal sin if committed with full knowledge and consent.

Also, how might one counter the argument that since the Church considers capital punishment to be acceptable, then abortion could be acceptable too.

Thank you very much Father.

Answer by Fr.Stephen F. Torraco on 11/6/2003:

It is not correct to think of abortion and capital punishment as the very same kind of moral issue. Direct abortion is an intrinsic evil, and cannot be justified for any purpose or in any circumstances. Capital punishment, on the other hand, is not necessarily evil in principle, but can become evil by a bad intention or by the circumstances. Let me explain further. The Church's teaching on capital punishment 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, as you point out, 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.) Thus, 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. And here is the specific point relevant to your question: if such a rare case does arise and requires resorting to capital punishment, this societal act of self-defense would be a *morally good action* even if it does have the unintended and unavoidable eveil effect of the death of the aggressor. Thus, 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.


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