6. Capital Punishment
Catechism of the Catholic Church 2267. Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide. [Pope Francis, Rescriptum, 02.08.2018]
Capital Punishment is an unique case because it concerns the intrinsic dignity of human life, created in the image of God, the dignity of a life redeemed by Christ and destined for eternal life, but, unlike the evils of abortion and euthanasia, also concerns the justice of punishment under the natural law for those who themselves take a life. All three of these values have been maintained by the Church throughout her history, with different emphases at different times.
In the early centuries Christians did not participate in Capital Punishment on evangelical grounds. Following the legalization of the faith in 313 A.D., Christians became active in governing, relying upon the natural law for the use of just capital punishment, as also of just war and self-defense. The following quote of St. Ambrose to a Christian judge who must try a capital case, both illustrates the existence of natural and evangelical considerations in the practices of the day, as well as provides an insight into the practice in the age of persecution. Citing the example of Our Lord and the woman caught in adultery, he concludes his letter as follows,
Letter XXVI. To Studius (c. 360 A.D.). . . .Here is an example for you to follow, for it may be that there is hope of amendment for this guilty person; if he be yet unbaptized, that he may receive remission, if baptized that he may do penance, and offer up his body for Christ. See how many roads there are to salvation!
This is why our ancestors thought it better to be indulgent towards Judges; that by the terror of their sword the madness of crime should be repressed, and no encouragement given to it. For if Communion were denied to Judges, it would seem like a retribution on their punishment of the wicked. Our ancestors wished then that their clemency should proceed from their own free-will and forbearance, rather than from any legal necessity. (St. Ambrose, “Letter XXVI. To Studius,” c. 360 A.D.)
In our day, the Papal Magisterium has increasing laid down the sword in favor of an effective return to the position of the early Church, with Pope Francis’ changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church being the strongest teaching of the recent popes. Like Popes Benedict XVI, St. John Paul II and St. Paul VI before him, there is so far no hint of sanctions for judges who consider it a necessity, rather the strongest desire that Christians freely adopt the evangelical considerations which motivated the early Christians to extend to all human beings the fullest opportunity of salvation unhindered by the justice of man.