Hi Father! I've found your blog to be quite interesting and enlightening, as a cradle Catholic. In light of the Aurora shootings and ensuing trials, are we as Catholics against the death penalty in all circumstances?
We, as Catholics, have never been against the death penalty in all circumstances. The reason for this is that such a stance would contradict God’s Revelation in Scripture and the received teaching of 2,000 years of Apostolic Tradition.
The Catholic Tradition overwhelmingly supports the use of the death penalty for various circumstances, people, and crimes. However, in the last 20 years, the Holy Father, with the support of most bishops, has made a practical decision that the use of the death penalty should be practically non-existent.
In Catholic theology, it is understood that the Holy Father, in his practical and prudential decisions, is teaching with the least amount of certainty and therefore Catholics have more right to come to a different practical conclusion. His prudential teachings are the least binding of all teaching of the Magisterium, equivalent to when he also said that it was wrong to go to war with Iraq. The voice of the Holy Father should still be listened to with great respect.
When certain people argue against the death penalty, they often refer to a definition of justice as the restoration of right relationships, and point out that a right relationship cannot be restored to a criminal after execution. What they leave out is that in the Catholic tradition of justice and its many definitions, present throughout the ancient Fathers of the Church and taught by Thomas Aquinas, there is also the element of “right punishment” and sometimes the punishment which you deserve and which is due to you should be willingly accepted as the rightful expiation of your crime/offense. The Good Thief on the Cross, explicitly, said to Jesus that he deserved to die for his crimes and Jesus did not correct him or say, “No, no you don’t.”
Like the issue of voting pro-life, the death penalty teaching is an attempt to give practical application, with prudence, to the precepts of the Natural Law concerning the good of human life balanced against the rights of the community. As a practical counsel, we should always vote pro-life, especially because it concerns innocent and defenseless life. Nonetheless, in the specific circumstance, we may not be able to vote for the specific pro-life candidate.
As a practical counsel, we should not execute a person, for they are the image of God even after they commit a heinous crime, and they possess a right to life. However, this right is only absolute in the case of an “innocent life.” An innocent person may never be killed for that is intrinsically evil. But a heinous criminal may have to be killed according to the greater good of the community, and this is determined by the complicated application of the science of penology, which is outside the competence of the Church to determine with exactitude.
So it is truly the Catholic instinct, as taught in the new catechism, to advocate for the life of all criminals and to appeal for the reversal of their death penalty. We do not see, practically speaking, that we ever need to execute a criminal. Yet as a Church we are not all-seeing and all-knowing of every circumstance and need.
The prudential judgement of the Church cannot be certain on every need of the community and so, even against our instinct, the State may ethically and morally decide a criminal must die. And a Catholic is permitted to accept those rights of the State, as they have been unanimously held in the Catholic Tradition.
This article by the late Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles sums up these principles and I very, very highly recommend it:
God bless and take care! Fr. Angel