A person might conclude that if all human life is sacred according to the Church, then no one should ever be put to death, not even those who have been sentenced to death by the government. After all, if it is wrong to kill a baby in the womb or murder someone or to commit “euthanasia” on someone, why would it be looked at any differently with regards to the death penalty. What does the Catholic Church teach with regards to Capital Punishment? Is it or is it not okay?
There are some people who will confuse the issue. For some, they would have you believe that the death penalty should always be opposed, just like abortion should always be opposed. They want to put both instances on the same level. But the two issues are actually not on the same level, especially with regards to the innocence of the human life at hand. The innocence of an unborn baby is unquestionable and therefore always intrinsically evil, but that of a convicted prisoner is different. How is it different?
Unlike the taking of an innocent life of an unborn baby, capital punishment by definition involves the assumption of guilt on the part of the person being executed. For example: In a lawful country where there is an equitable system of laws governing such things, where there is due process in court and after a trail and all means of defense has taken place and the person is proven beyond a reasonable doubt he is guilty, and then that person is sentenced to “death row.” I give this example to say that we are not talking about a country like communist China killing someone who is demonstrating in the streets for freedom or something equivalent to that, but we are talking about someone that has been given due process. And just to be fair, I will mention that even with this example, there is always the chance that a grave injustice could happen where an innocent person could be sentenced to death.
“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 more in conformity with 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 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 nonexistent.” (CCC #2267)
So yes, the death penalty is permissible, but should be done sparingly. Pope John Paul II spoke directly to this when he said, “It is clear that, for the [purposes of punishment] to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and [the state] ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae 56, emphasis in the original)
Until next time, God bless.