Can the death penalty ever be justified in Catholic teaching?

Connecticut’s recent move to ban the death penalty has renewed our national debate over this contentious issue. Although Catholic teaching recognizes that under extreme circumstances capital punishment may be permissible, these circumstances are very, very rare in today’s world. Only when the community has no other way to prevent serious harm than executing the would-be perpetrator can the death penalty be permitted. In the United States today, where incarceration or other means can effectively neutralize such a threat, the death penalty cannot be justified. (See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2266-7.) Thus Catholic voices have been prominent in denouncing this cruel and dehumanizing form of punishment.

Proponents of the death penalty often cite the instruction in Exodus 22:24 to take “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” But in its time, this was meant to curtail a common pattern of escalating violence by establishing in law that the penalty exacted could not be greater than the harm inflicted. Furthermore, Christians read this law in light of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5:38-39: “You have heard the commandment, ‘An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’ But what I say to you is: offer no resistance to injury. When a person strikes you on the right cheek, turn and offer him the other.” Jesus is not telling his followers to be doormats; rather he challenges them to a higher form of response and resistance to injustice. “My command to you is: love your enemies, pray for your persecutors” (Matthew 5:44). Even though society has the right and duty to protect its members from harm, we have the means today to offer an effective and loving response without resorting to capital punishment.

from Neela Kale and the Busted Halo Question Box


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