Should Catholics Oppose the Death Penalty?

Four major Catholic papers have called for an end to capital punishment, but church teaching is more complicated

By John Zmirak Published on March 5, 2015

In a move that the lively Catholic news site Crux has labeled a “rare show of unity,” four Catholic newspapers from across the doctrinal spectrum have issued an agreed statement calling for the end of the death penalty in America. It’s worth a read, and reflects the view that St. John Paul II proposed in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, whose 20th anniversary will be marked on March 25. In that encyclical John Paul suggested a major change in church teaching, and argued that executions can only be justified as a last resort to protect society against criminals, where prisons are too insecure to hold them.

This was quite an innovation, and contradicted the teaching of previous church authorities, which as recently as Pope Pius XII taught that the primary aim of executing criminals was to enact God’s justice on earth and punish the guilty. Pius XII described capital punishment as the state “depriving the offender of the good of life in expiation for his guilt after he, through his crime, deprived himself of his own right to life.”

This 2013 analysis, which appeared in First Things, suggests that the older teaching is more authoritative and better accords with natural law and reason. Many prominent Catholics, including Cardinal Avery Dulles and Rev. George Rutler, have championed the traditional teaching.

What must Catholics believe about this important public policy issue? Since popes have differed, and neither a pontiff nor a council has invoked its infallible authority to settle it, this subject is still open to argument back and forth on the merits. No one should pretend that there is even a consensus, much less a binding teaching, which Catholics must accept and champion in the public square. There simply isn’t, and barring the unlikely event of a infallible statement by a pope or a council on the subject, there never will be.

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