Is Death Penalty allowed by the Church?
DELIBERATIONS in Congress about the death penalty have shifted to the moral and ethical implications of the measure. It has come to a point where the stand of the Church seemed paramount for its re-imposition. I’m afraid that pro-death penalty congressmen are simply looking for justification for their stand, making them guilt-free in the process. The underlying issue here is not what the Church stands for, but whether in these modern times and under our present circumstances death penalty is still warranted.
The history of the Catholic Church’s teaching on death penalty is long and complex and composed of many subtle nuances and not so subtle contradictions and conflicts. While there have been recent developments in position statements in the Church, they are also not without their disagreements and differences of interpretation, as well as underlying values.
Summarizing what the Scripture and tradition said of the death penalty, including that of the Council of Trent and the opinions of Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas, we can draw some established points of doctrine. It is agreed that crime deserves punishment in this life and not only in the next. In addition, it is agreed that the State has authority to administer appropriate punishment to those judged guilty of crimes and that this punishment may, in serious cases, include the sentence of death.
But the real issue for Catholics is to determine the circumstances under which death penalty ought to be applied. Cardinal Avery Dulles said, “It is appropriate, I contend, when it is necessary to achieve the purposes of punishment and when it does not have disproportionate evil effects. I say ‘necessary’ because I am of the opinion that killing should be avoided if the purposes of punishment can be obtained by bloodless means”, e.g., imprisonment without parole.
In a careful discussion of this matter, Pius XII concluded that the State ought not to issue pardons except when it is morally certain that the ends of punishment have been achieved. Under these conditions, requirements of public policy may warrant a partial or full remission of punishment. If clemency were granted to all convicts, the nation’s prisons would be instantly emptied, but society would not be well served.
The Catholic magisterium in recent years has become increasingly vocal in opposing the practice of capital punishment. Pope John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae declared that as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, “cases in which the execution of the offender would be absolutely necessary are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” Again at St. Louis in January 1999, the Pope appealed for a consensus to end the death penalty on the ground that it was “both cruel and unnecessary.” The bishops of many countries have spoken to the same effect.
In coming up with this prudential conclusion, the magisterium is not changing the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine remains: that the State, in principle, has the right to impose the death penalty on persons convicted of very serious crimes. But the classical tradition held that the State should not exercise this right when the evil effects outweigh the good effects. Thus the principle still leaves open the question whether and when the death penalty ought to be applied. The Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked, because, on balance, it does more harm than good.
There is, first of all, a possibility that the convict may be innocent. John Stuart Mill, in his well-known defense of capital punishment, considers this to be the most serious objection. He cautions that the death penalty should not be imposed except in cases where the accused is tried by a trustworthy court and found guilty beyond all shadow of doubt.
The sentence of death, therefore, is unacceptable if it has serious negative effects on society, such as miscarriages of justice, the increase of vindictiveness, or disrespect for the value of innocent human life.
Under these circumstances, we better ask ourselves if we have it in our hearts to execute people despite our country’s flawed and imperfect criminal justice system, crooked law enforcement agencies, and corrupt justice personnel.
Remember, too, that poorly educated and penniless defendants often lack the means to procure competent legal counsel; witnesses can be suborned or can make honest mistakes about the facts of the case or the identities of persons; evidence can be fabricated or suppressed; and judges can be prejudiced or incompetent.
There is no doubt that legislating the measure is the duty of our congressmen. But the question is not just about whether the State can legally and morally do it or not, but whether the State can correct a wrong-doing by an intrinsically evil act or whether death penalty ought to be imposed at all!