The United States was recently able to experience the presence of Pope Francis. During the Pope’s visit, it seemed that the American public became interested in all things Catholic, even if some people disagreed with Church teaching. The Pope showed that certain teachings of the Church offer practical wisdom on the life issues and the dignity of the human life, not only for the religious, but for the secular world as well.
In his address to Congress, Pope Francis expressed support for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. “The Golden Rule,” Pope Francis said, “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” Since the beginning of his ministry, this conviction has led him “to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.” Francis goes on to say that he is “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 (1)."
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) first called for the abolition of the death penalty about 35 years ago. More recently, the bishops wrote, in A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, that, “Each of us is called to respect the life and dignity of every human being. Even when people deny the dignity of others, we must still recognize that their dignity is a gift from God and is not something that is earned or lost through their behavior. Respect for life applies to all, even the perpetrators of terrible acts. Punishment should be consistent with the demands of justice and with respect for human life and dignity [emphasis in original] (2)."
Pope Francis expressed his support for the American bishops’ efforts, saying, “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 (3)." So both the pope and the bishops of the United States, who know what the Church’s teachings on the death penalty are, advocate for the abolition of this unnecessary, aggressive violence.
To explain the reasons for the pope and the bishops’ opposition to the death penalty, I will discuss what the Church teaches on the death penalty in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, papal encyclicals, and the work of prominent theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas. Both the Catechism and St. Thomas Aquinas say that the state has the right to exact the death penalty, but neither the Catechism, nor Aquinas nor any other text that puts forward Church teaching presumes this gives the state an unlimited right to make laws prescribing capital punishment and to 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.
In article 2267 of the Catechism, it is taught that “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.” But even if a criminal is identified and it is known that the said criminal committed the crime he or she has been convicted of, where does the common good come into play? How does an execution benefit the common good? One will ask those questions since the common good includes the criminal as well.
The Catechism also states, in article 2267, that “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.” Further, there are non-lethal ways of rendering a criminal unable to do harm. This is stated in the Catechism as well as in John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae. Article 56 of Evangelium Vitae says, “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.’”
These statements from the Catechism and Evangelium Vitae provide one basis for Catholic opposition to the death penalty. In addition, the bishops of the United States and people such as Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, assert that the death penalty is a violation of Catholic Social Teaching. This assertion raises the question of which principles of Catholic Social Teaching that are being violated and how these principles are being violated.
There are 10 total principles of Catholic Social teaching, of which three are violated by the death penalty:
The first principle being violated is that of the preservation of human dignity. This principle states that all life is sacred and that the dignity of the person is the core of a moral vision for society. As a USCCB task force noted, “Our belief in the sanctity of the human life and the inherent dignity of the human person is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching (4)." Capital punishment takes away the life and dignity of a criminal. In a complete and total disregard for the sanctity of criminals lives, we kill them, because it seems like the right thing to do to them. The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights includes in its list of the essential human rights that every human being has the right not to be tortured and the right not to be killed (Articles 5 and 3, respectively). The death penalty is just that: torture and killing. It violates one’s rights.
The second violated principle of Catholic Social Teaching is stewardship of creation. Stewardship of creation insists that we show our respect for what/whomever we see as a creator by caring for creation. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith (or lives in general, whatever we might believe), in relationship with all of creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored, and it also applies to the use of the death penalty. Instead of protecting people and the planet by means that preserve life, our use of the death penalty teaches that it is only possible to protect people and the planet by means of killing.
Although some could argue that the death penalty helps protect the rest of society, capital punishment isn’t actually necessary. The prison system in place today, at least in the United States, is more sophisticated than the one we had in place 100-200 years ago, so people aren’t as much of a danger to society anymore once they are locked behind bars. While there is a possibility that the criminals could escape, there are more constructive alternatives to the death penalty. Tougher sentencing would discourage offenders from committing crimes. Longer jail times for felons and first-time offenders would keep them from entering into society until they are rehabilitated. Requiring inmates to pay for their time in prison would reduce the cost to taxpayers. Allocating a portion of a prisoner’s earnings toward facility expenses and programs would force them to “pay” for their crimes, literally and figuratively, making it cheaper to keep a convict in prison for life without parole. A portion of inmates’ wages should also be put into funds for crime victims and their families. Although money can never replace a loved one or completely heal the damage from the loved one’s loss, it could help families establish a new normal and get on their feet again.
The third and final violated principle of Catholic Social Teaching is providing options for the poor and vulnerable. This principle roots itself in Catholic teaching’s proclamation of a basic moral test, which is how we treat the most vulnerable members of society. We must put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. Christ said it himself in the Gospel of Matthew (25:40): “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.”
The vulnerable person in situations where the death penalty might be used is the criminal. We as human beings are just so centered on being vengeful in response to the deaths of the victims and cannot summon enough love to forgive someone for the crime of murder, especially if he is not showing remorse. We already have power over this criminal, so why not use this power for good?
Different responses to murderers have been seen in multiple cases where the death penalty has been dealt. Some victims’ loved ones want the perpetrator to die. Others will find it in their hearts to forgive. But let me ask this: Is it really worth it, watching someone die in front of you, even if that person hurt you and your loved ones? I would have to say no, it’s not worth it.
1.) Pope Francis, “Address to Congress,” Catholic News Agency, September 24, 2015, http://bit.ly/1L8i19B.
2.) United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death (Washington, D.C.: USCCB, 2005), 11, available at http://bit.ly/1ZGUgJu.
3.) Pope Francis, “Address to Congress.”
4.) “Sharing Catholic Social Teaching: Challenges and Directions,” Task Force on Catholic Social Teaching and Catholic Education, United States Council of Catholic Bishops, accessed January 2, 2016, http://bit.ly/1I0xjGC.