Death penalty teaching

Connecticut has become the latest state to remove capital punishment from the law books as a penalty for serious crime. Appearing on national television, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stated that major religious denominations in the state, including the Catholic Church, supported banning it. 

It is not surprising the Church would want to see the elimination of the death penalty, although its position in this matter is not always clear, even among Catholics. Not all Catholics agree with the Church. 

The best short presentation of the Church’s teaching about executing criminals is in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The teaching is set in the context of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and under the heading, “Respect for Human Life” (see No. 2258 and following). 

It would be historically blind either to say that the Church always opposed capital punishment, or that it opposes capital punishment now without any qualification. The Church always has taught that societies can protect themselves even by taking the life of an aggressor. 

The current teaching keeps this principle intact, but it sets the application of the principle in the context of using capital punishment as a last resort. 

This present teaching and nuance very much had their stimulus in the writings of Blessed Pope John Paul II, who properly was heavily influenced by the current attitudes about the dignity of human life throughout the world.  

Three assertions have been made in the argument for capital punishment. First, killing a criminal removes from society a threat to the security and well-being of people. Second, killing a criminal deters others from committing similar crimes. Third, killing a criminal is society’s way of bringing vengeance upon the criminal. 

None of these arguments can be proved, and a wide range of sociologists, criminologists and moralists refute them. 

In the first case, in no modern society is executing a criminal the only way to assure that the criminal does not commit a serious crime again. For example, lifelong incarceration is one answer. 

Statistics indicate that killing one criminal rarely, if ever, deters another criminal from committing a crime. Very often, serious crimes occur virtually on impulse. In cases of carefully premeditated serious crime, inevitably the wrongdoer assumes that he or she will not be apprehended, and almost always the strategy for the crime includes a plan to avoid apprehension and trial. 

Finally, the last argument fails meet the standards of the Gospel. Revenge is never an option for Christians. Period. 

Therefore, Pope John Paul insisted, the current bases for capital punishment are too questionable. He pleaded for the benefit to be given human life — the life of the accused. He spoke deliberately in a worldwide culture in which human life is so frightfully discounted, as legalized abortion and violence, such as today in Syria, indicate all the time. 

The major, highly literate democracies outlawed the death penalty years ago, except the United States. 

It is fascinating that so many Americans stubbornly accept the death penalty despite any argument to the contrary. It is bewildering, frankly, that so many Catholic Americans urge retaining the use of capital punishment in our own legal system regardless of anything the Church says, all the while they condemn other Catholics for a “cafeteria” approach to Church doctrine, and all the while refusing even to study the reasoning that prompts the Church’s current teaching in this regard. 

In short, give human life the benefit of the doubt. Follow the Gospel. Capital punishment halts crime? Prove it. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV associate publisher.