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Mike Hayes
Our readers asked:

Can the Death Penalty Ever Be Justified in Catholic Teaching?

Mike Hayes Answers:

Almost never. It is very rare that the death penalty is ever permissible in Catholic teaching. Only when grave danger is imminent and a society is unable to protect itself from a perpetrator can the use of the death penalty be applied as a moral justification.

What does this mean? It means that all other means of keeping a prisoner at bay have been exhausted or are unable to be made available. As an example, prisons are readily available and criminals are easily detained in them. As a result the death penalty in the United States and other places that have the ability to construct a criminal justice system to maintain law and order and detain and incarcerate criminals would not be allowed to employ the death penalty as a morally licit punishment.

There is a huge scriptural misinterpretation that often confuses people with regards to the death penalty.

The Bible states in Exodus 21:22-23:
When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage (to the woman) ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

This actually suggests LIMITS, not vengeance as a moral operative. People were often killing others as retribution unjustly. The law was essentially saying that you can’t enact a punishment greater than the crime that has been committed. NO MORE THAN and eye for an eye is the measure used at this time.

We’ve come a long way since then. We do believe that criminals can be rehabilitated but we also believe in keeping others safe. And so incarceration is our measure of justice.

See the movie Dead Man Walking and hear the inspiring story of death penalty abolitionist Sr Helen Prejean and if you ever get to hear her speak, take that opportunity.

The Author : Mike Hayes
Mike Hayes is the senior editor for the Googling God section at BustedHalo.com.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • A Man in Kansas

    What about Exodus 21:22?

  • Padre

    I find the Catholic discourse on the death penalty dishonest. What you/and the Church are arguing for is a prudential decision. If the death penalty is almost never licit then it is in se licit and the morality of the act depends on the intentionality and particulars of a situation.

    But if we are talking prudential then we need to be prudent. No one who touts the modern position of the Church realistical considers the burden being placed on society by their simplistic solution to lock them away. First of all if you lock someone away you now have a moral duty to care for them. This duty to care poses a whole host of questions but ultimately the prudential question is how much of societies resources do you devote to warehousing murders? Do you deprive some members of society of health care or education or emergency services to provide for those who in justice ought to die for their crimes?

    An what about your duty to protect other inmates? When you have the worst of the worse bars only change the venue for their offending. What do you do to defend the life of those incarcerated with them? Do you lock them up in solitary for ever? Is this truly more humane than the death penalty, or does it just make us feel more progressive and modern. If the arguement is prudential these REAL LIFE questions should be answered.

  • Chris

    What about Exodus 21: 12-14?

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