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What Does the Church Teach About the Death Penalty?


A listener named Carlos calls into the show and asks, “What does the Church teach about the death penalty?” He shares that he is planning on running for office, and his state has been debating whether or not to ban the death penalty. Carlos points out that he has always been of that mindset that in order to be fully pro-life, you cannot support the death penalty. He asks Father Dave if this is true.

Father Dave replies, “The Catechism is clear about the death penalty in a modern era and in a society such as ours: That it should be nonexistent. The Catechism says: ‘The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church as we have it now was completely reformulated, re-researched, and reissued in 1994. The only revision that took place was on the paragraph about the death penalty, using the terms ‘should be practically nonexistent.’ … The Catholic Church is absolutely against the death penalty.”

RELATED: Can the Death Penalty Ever Be Justified in Catholic Teaching

Father Dave points out that there is a tiny footnote. “There is a tiny loophole that should apply to some country under martial law or someplace that doesn’t have prisons. Within the morality of the Catholic Church, self-defense is justified. If somebody is coming at you with a knife and about to go for your jugular, it is morally permissible to take another knife and stop them first. But if that person is in a straight jacket or behind bars, it is not morally permissible to seek revenge. Even for valid reasons, ‘I’m in great pain because you killed my sister.’ None of those justify additional killing. The footnote in the Catechism is if there is no other possible way to stop that person from killing again, then, yes, society can protect itself by self-defense. But can you see how improbable and unarguable that is? That the people on death row and the number of people we put to death is not in self-defense. It is absolutely and positively vengeance and nothing else.

“Obviously that is not in any way to diminish the pain of people who have lost someone to a murderer,” Father Dave says. “But studies have been done. Secular research shows that people don’t have closure and don’t move on, and still feel the pain even after they sit there behind the one-way mirror and watch the state execute the person who killed their loved one. And even if 100% of the people said that they felt better after that, it is still not morally justified. One bad action does not justify another bad action … even just psychologically it doesn’t help society. Morally, if we defend the fact that it should be a crime to kill a baby in the womb, it goes hand-in-hand with the death penalty. A lot of people will make the departure that the baby in the womb is an innocent life and a killer is not an innocent life; that’s not how God looks at it. God calls us to be merciful. We need to find other ways to keep others safe, rather than committing murder ourselves.” (Original Air 5-08-18)