Father I have a question: I know that in the US, the question of death penalty is still present. I know you posted an article by a theologian on the subject, but I admit I disagree. If the criminal isn't extremely dangerous for society or even his co-prisoners, shouldn't imprisoning him for the rest of his life be sufficient ? Maybe he would be able to, after a certain time, repent. Also there is sometimes many flaws in the system.
Yes, I think that putting the person in prison is sufficient. I don’t see a need for the death penalty. And yes, there are always going to be flaws in the legal system. In fact, innocent men are sent to prison also, not just condemned to death (see the case of the New York kids accused of raping a jogger 14 years ago).
However, a government has not only the right, but the solemn duty, to prevent innocent people from being harmed. They have to set up the security structures needed for the prevalence of law and order, and when this fails because some people are heinous beyond reform, they have to make a prudential judgment.
“Prudential judgment” means the state, and the church also, do not have easy answers and yet someone has to make a decision, and something has to be done to address even complicated problems. That goes for the death penalty, welfare, immigration, controlling greenhouse gasses, public education, and money and market regulation. Because the issues are so complicated, the Catholic Church provides general principles of moral guidance and allows Catholics a lot of freedom in coming at the solutions. Very good and devout Catholics can come to completely different solutions and the Church cannot force the right answer on a matter which is a practical and prudential (exercising virtue of prudence) decision.
The state has more responsibility, and usually more competence, to deal with these issues, than the Church, which is usually caught up in general preaching and evangelization, but does not handle the knitty gritty of society’s security.
In some cases, the state may decide that executing a criminal is the more just and prudential or practical way of bringing closure and resolution to violent crime and a continuing threatening situation (with the criminal still being alive). You and I would say that this is not the proper method or right way for making us more secure, and our Church would side with us. At the same time, our Church cannot force that conclusion onto other Catholics who are pro-death penalty because we do not know, for 100% sure, that the death penalty never contributes to a more secure society and the protection of the innocent, which is a greater moral good than the protection of those who are a threat to society or their fellow prisoners inside incarceration. God bless and take care! Fr. Angel
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