The Difference Between the Death Penalty and Abortion

By Deacon Keith Fournier Published on March 12, 2015

A recent joint editorial calling for an end to capital punishment by four Catholic publications has caused quit a stir, perhaps because of the diversity of the journals. The National Catholic Reporter and Jesuit-sponsored America are considered quite liberal, while the National Catholic Register and Our Sunday Visitor are generally more conservative.

But the issue is not one that disperses neatly across the left-right political spectrum. There are conservatives who oppose the death penalty and liberals who support it.

As a Catholic and former prosecuting attorney, I oppose the death penalty in our contemporary context. The advance of the science of DNA proves we have convicted innocent people. The stories from the Innocence Project convince me that the human cost of execution outweighs whatever benefits it may have.

As a result, I agree with the conclusion of the joint editorial. Unfortunately, it still reflects a troubling trend in Catholic circles of treating Church teaching on the death penalty as morally equivalent to Catholic opposition to abortion. And — not to put too fine a point on it — this seems to be part of a larger effort to minimize the difference between politicians who defend and those who oppose abortion.

While the Catholic Church has recently begun to oppose capital punishment, She has never taught that capital punishment is an intrinsic evil. Recent Church teaching expresses a prudential judgment that the death penalty is rarely necessary in modern societies. The Catholic Catechism of 1992 was amended to reflect the view of then-Pope John Paul II. The paragraph at issue is #2267:

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 the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

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 definitely 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.”

Historically, and in other circumstances, the Catholic Church has not opposed the death penalty and has treated it within the purview of the state’s proper jurisdiction.

Does that mean the Catholic Church has changed its fundamental teaching? Not at all. In fact, a faithful Catholic can disagree with the prudential judgment expressed in the Catechism. In 2004, Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, wrote that there was a legitimate diversity of opinion among Catholics on the subject. A faithful Catholic, Ratzinger wrote, could even be “at odds with the Holy Father [then Pope John Paul II] on the application of capital punishment. . . .” In light of this, several thoughtful Catholics (see here, here and here) have criticized the editorial by these four publications for implying that all Catholics must oppose the death penalty.

Abortion is another matter entirely. Procured abortion is intrinsically evil, always and everywhere wrong because it is the taking of innocent defenseless human life in the first home of the whole human race, the womb.

We already know this at an intuitive level. We surgically operate on our pre-born babies in the womb. We send their photos on social media. We write scholarly articles about the merits of playing music to them and speaking words of warmth over their first home while we await their arrival. Medical science confirms what our consciences long ago attested to: there is no justification for taking the innocent life of our most defenseless neighbors.

I appreciate the joint editorial of America magazine, the National Catholic Register, the National Catholic Reporter and Our Sunday Visitor, in standing together in their prudential judgment to oppose the death penalty. However, I have a request. What about another editorial from the four publications, opened up to many more signers, making clear the difference between capital punishment and abortion, and utterly rejecting procured abortion as always and everywhere wrong and calling for an immediate end to the legal murder of children in the womb? Now that would be a sight to see.

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