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June 13th, 2012
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

homework


Today’s homework assignment: Read our article on Sr. Helen Prejean or watch the film "Dead Man Walking," then discuss themes that come up with your friends or family.


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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.
  • MM

    How about St. Alphonsus Ligouri, Catholic Doctor of Moral Theologians: “It is lawful to put a man to death by public authority: it is even a duty of princes and of judges to condemn to death criminals who deserve it; and it is the duty of the officers of justice to execute the sentence; God himself wishes malefactors to be punished.”
    (Instructions to the People)

  • catholic

    God bless you, Mike Hayes!

  • Dudley Sharp

    Christine:

    There are many Catholic statements, here, in support of the death penalty.

    Pope Pius XII: “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.” 9/14/52.

    Pope (and Saint) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

    All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.

    “Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars”
    http://prodpinnc.blogspot.com/2009/07/death-penalty-support-modern-catholic.html

    Christianity and the death penalty
    http://www.prodeathpenalty.com/DP.html#F.Christianity

    Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty,
    http://homicidesurvivors.com/2006/10/12/catholic-and-other-christian-references-support-for-the-death-penalty.aspx

    The current Catechism confirms within CCC 2260: “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning…. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.”

    “This teaching remains necessary for all time.”

    Just as:

    Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey confirms: ” . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none. It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect.” (p. 111-113). Prof. Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer: “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” (p. 116).”A Bible Study”, Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992.

  • dudley sharp

    Mike:

    Please.

    Jesus was unjustly executed because it was God’s plan.

    The salvation of man, required the perfect, innocent Lamb of God, which is why the Perfect Innocent Lamb of God, His Son Jesus, was CHOSEN as that Sacrifice.

    Are you unaware that the teaching is that man’s salvation is, exclusively, based upon that Sacrifice?

    That is the Primary, Paramount Christian teaching which you wish to minimize as the secular execution of an innocent.

    Oh my.

  • dudley sharp

    MIke:

    Yes, the Pope forgive his attemnpted assasin.

    But note that forgiveness did not and should not remove the proper sanction for the crime.

    Proper sanction never conflicts with forgiveness.

    All of us, those saved and those not, all suffer an earthly death for our sins.

  • dudley sharp

    Mike:

    It is well known that the women caught in adultery is NOT an anti death penalty passage.

    John 8 and the death penalty: The Woman Caught in Adultery
    Compiled by Dudley Sharp

    1) Anti-death penalty activist Sister Helen Prejean, often inaccurate, get this right: “It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical proof text in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition “Let him without sin cast the first stone”, when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) – the Mosaic Law prescribed death – should be read in its proper context. This passage is an entrapment story, which sought to how Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment . Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking.

    2) What about the woman caught in adultery? From “Why I Support Capital Punishment”, by Andrew Tallman, sections 7-11 biblical review, sections 1-6 secular review See Part 11
    http://andrewtallmanshowarticles.blogspot.com/2008/05/why-i-support-capital-punishment-part_07.html

    “the Pharisees wanted to make Jesus a heretic for opposing capital punishment, but He evaded their trap. The tremendous irony is that now, two thousand years later, people who claim to love Jesus teach that He was precisely the heretic His enemies wanted to paint Him as.”

    3) “Sanctity of Life & the Death Penalty: Flip sides of the same ‘Divine’ coin”, Richard Eric Gunby, Quodlibet Journal: Volume 5 Number 2-3, July 2003
    ISSN: 1526-6575 John 8:2-11 (NRSV)

    “Therefore their motives (to entrap Jesus) were nothing but evil. They were not seeking to follow God’s Law-Word in godly fashion; rather, they were attempting to employ surreptitiously what Moses said, towards their own evil ends of trying to trip Jesus up. What a foul thing.”

    “This cannot be read as an example of Jesus doing away with the law. Far from it! This is an example of Jesus, again, going by the clear unencumbered dictates of the law and not allowing it to be used towards evil ends in His presence. It is Jesus together with the Law triumphant over His enemies and their tradition. This is clearly an upholding of the law.”

    http://www.quodlibet.net/articles/gunby-sanctity.shtml as of 4/24/10

    4) John 8: The Woman Caught in Adultery – Dealing with Capital Offenses Lawfully
    http://reocities.com/CapitolHill/lobby/3562/adultry.html

    “John 8 in no way sets a precedent that would eliminate the penalties for committing capital crimes such as adultery, murder, rape, sodomy, abduction, etc. Instead, it re-establishes them and demonstrates the continuity of Theonomic Law into the New Testament era initiated by Christ. It is only the ceremonial elements of O.T. Law like instrumental music during worship, blood sacrifices, avoidance of certain meats and food/fabric mixtures, New Moon celebrations etc. that were done away with at Christ’s crucifixion. These things are made clear in the Epistles of Paul (Galatians 2-3) who re-establishes the old principle that “obedience is better than sacrifice”.

    “The Pharisees, upon hearing Christ condemning them by quoting the context of the Law and knowing that they were without witnesses (v.17) turned their accusations against him as a true witness of the Law. (v.13) Jesus responded to their “fleshly” accusations (v.15) by revealing to them that he was not only a true witness of the Law but rather the author of it. (vs.16,58) He was one of the three witnesses of Heaven, the second person of the Triune God. (1 John 5:7) Let us not fall into the same error as the Pharisees by circumventing the Law. Let us rather honour it by demanding that our ministers of the Law enforce it. Doing so will enhance the proclamation of the Gospel and sinners will understand that if the temporal punishment of sin is so great, how much more the eternal punishment that God will bring upon those who disobey is righteous commands. Let us “Go, and sin no more!” (v.11)

    5) Excellent review of the challenges to the authenticity of John 8
    http://www.multiline.com.au/~johnm/religion/spurious.htm as of 8/6/10

    Start here: • John 7:53 – 8.11: The “woman taken in adultery” story: Metzger’s statement. Just before page 105 and through page 201

    more

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11457c.htm

  • dudley sharp

    Mike:

    I did not take the quote out of context.

    You are attempting to negate the importance of that quote, a quote which Jesus?God chose to make the point, as He often did, throughout the NT.

    The quote I used:

    God/Jesus: ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.’ Matthew 15:4

    It was intentional chosed by Jesus to be the perfect reference, the perfect reference that the Word of God must be dominant over any tradition.

    The quote He used is the Word of God. He was reinforcing its primacy.

    If you thin Jesus/God was wrong in making His point with His chosen refernce, please tell us.

    Jesus used that quote because of its Truth, as THE example, to bring into today, that this eternal commandmant of God has eternal primacy, over all else, dominating over man’s traditions.

  • Mike Hayes

    Wow! Lots of comments here. Let me take Dudley’s first post about the quote from Matthew 15:8, which you are taking well out of context. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and showing how hypocritical they are in that they live by the LETTER of the law but that the spirit of the law is far from their hearts. So he’s not praising the death penalty at all, rather he’s pointing out that the Pharisees ignore plenty of laws themselves for the sake of their traditions and then they make fun of the disciples when they don’t wash their hands before eating as the law prescribes.

    All your other biblical references have nothing to do with the death penalty at all. If you want a good example of Jesus not condoning capital punishment look no further than the woman who was caught in adultery and about to be stoned to death.

    What Jesus points out again and again in scripture is the hypocrisy of those who take the law very literally without regard for the poor and downtrodden. We would be wise to do the same in the instance of capital punishment which executes poor people almost exclusively, often with much evidence not coming to light because their defenders don’t work very hard.

    There is clearly no reason to support the death penalty as a Catholic today. The Bishops have said it. The Pope has said it. We have sufficient means of protecting ourselves from aggressors through the prison system and other humane ways of rehabilitation.

    We should be mindful of two things. John Paul II’s example of forgiving the man who tried to assassinate him and calling for his release repeatedly. And secondly, JESUS was EXECUTED UNJUSTLY.

    If anyone should see the immorality of the death penalty it should be us Christians.

    And we should remember that culture at the time of Biblical writing influences each book immensely. Often they refer to things that are no longer relevant or culturally acceptable. (The Abraham and Isaac story is a prime example as we would no longer consider human sacrifice appropriate).

    Also, ancient Babylonian creation stories (which pre-date our scripture stories) emphasized the idea that violence can set things right again. The Christian and Jewish creation scriptures contradict this ideal directly by saying that Goodness pre-dates violence . The world is not inherently evil–we have a good God who has made a good world. The Word is God–not evil–as John’s gospel states.

    Lastly, I am someone who also used to believe that the death penalty was justified. After careful study on our tradition I no longer hold that view. If someone killed my wife, I’m sure I’d want to kill them. But that is exactly what the evil one wants from us. Perpetuating the cycle of violence is completely and totally against the Christian tradition.

  • R Bailey

    I defenitely think there are crimes that deserve the death penalty. Our country has been way too lenient. I think it should have mandatorydeath penalty in each state. We’ve got too far from an eye for an eye.

  • Christine Venzon

    I’m surprised at the opposition to the Church’s teaching on death penalty expressed in these comments, and dismayed at the arguments.
    First, regarding Mr. Sharp: Jesus died on the cross for the eternal salvation of all humanity. I think it unlikely that he would use his death to make a political statement regarding the justice or injustice of capital punishment.
    Also, can you cite some of these saints, doctors of the Church, theologians, and others, and their writings in support of the death penalty?
    Finally, are you criticizing the Church for being utilitarian, or not utilitarian? I can’t follow that argument or the conclusions you draw from it.
    Concerning Ms. Butler’s remarks: Yes I might feel that someone who raped or murdered a loved one deserved death, but law, both (good) human law and divine law, is not based on feelings. It is based on justice.

  • Michelle Butler

    I think that in some circumstances the death penalty is justified. We must accept that there are some very evil people in this world. Evil does walk among us. If it were one of your family members that were brutally murdered or raped would you feel differently. What if it was your child. It’s a proven fact that a pedofile cannot be cured. Why should our tax dollars feed and house these people for years and years. I’m not saying that these people can’t be saved but that would be a matter between he/she and the Lord. I myself aprove of the death penalty and I’m sure this will upset some people but I have a right to my opinion just as everyone else does.

  • Dudley Sharp

    The New Testament death penalty support is overwhelming.

    There is a 2000 year record of Catholic Saints, Popes, Doctors of the Church, religious leaders, biblical scholars and theologians speaking in favor of the death penalty, a record of scholarship, in breadth and depth, which overwhelms any position to the contrary.

    The very recent changes (EV,1995 & CCC, final amendment 2003) in the Catholic position are based upon a wrongly considered prudential judgement which finds that “defense of society”, a utilitarian/secular concern, not a moral or theological one, very rarely, if ever, requires execution.

    This change in teaching is based upon the Church’s switch to utilitarianism – defense of society – when the teachings have been and must be based upon justice, biblical and theological teachings and tradition – all of which conflict with the newest teachings based upon utility — as utility and justice may, often, have conflicts.

    In addition, the evidence is overwhelming that execution offers greater defense of society than does a life sentence. Dead unjust aggressors are infinitely less likely to harm and murder, again than are living unjust aggressors.

    Living unjust aggressors murder and harm in prison, after escape and after improper release. The cases are well known and are daily occurrences.

    It is a mystery why the Church chose a utilitarian/secular prudential judgement over eternal teachings based upon justice and chose to spare more murderers at the cost of more innocent deaths, but that is, precisely what She has done.

    It is also a mystery why the Church didn’t review the available evidence, that execution offers a greater defense of society. There is no evidence that She did.

    Thankfully, as the recent Church’s teaching is a prudential judgement, such means that any Catholic can support more executions and remain a Catholic in good standing.

  • Dudley Sharp

    Reconsider.

    God/Jesus: ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.’ Matthew 15:4

    This is a New Testament command, which references several of the same commands from God, in the same circumstance, from the OT.

    Jesus: Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Jesus) replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23: 39-43

    It is not the nature of our deaths, but the state of salvation at the time of death which is most important. This was the perfect opportunity for Jesus to say something contrary to support for execution.

    Jesus: “So Pilate said to (Jesus), “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?” Jesus answered (him), “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” John 19:10-11

    The power to execute comes directly from God.

    Jesus: “You have heard the ancients were told, ˜YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court”. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, “Raca”, shall be guilty before the supreme court and whoever shall say, “You fool”, shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell.” Matthew 5:17-22.

    Fiery hell is a considerable more severe sanction than any earthly death.

    The Holy Spirit, God, through the power and justice of the Holy Spirit, executed both Ananias and his wife, Saphira. Their crime? Lying to the Holy Spirit – to God – through Peter. Acts 5:1-11.

    No trial, no appeals, just death on the spot.

    God: “You shall not accept indemnity in place of the life of a murderer who deserves the death penalty; he must be put to death.” Numbers 35:31 (NAB) full context http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/numbers/numbers35.htm

    For murder, there is no mitigation from a death sentence.

  • Doug

    Precisely! In this country, we can never justify the death penalty – no matter the crime. Otherwise, we would be taking revenge rather than providing punishment. For those who would argue deterence of crime, Texas, the state that carries out more capital punishment than any other state, has not seen a drop in its crimes that would receive the death penalty.

  • Mandy P

    Awesome post about the death penalty!

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