Thursday, July 30, 2009

Catholicism and Capital Punishment

The has published an article which might surprise some considering the last two Popes' opinions on the death penalty. Here's John Paul II's, here's Benedict XVI's.

From the Examiner article:

According to the Catholic Catechism (2265), “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for someone responsible for another person’s life, the common good of the family or of the state.”

The church understands that the scale for punishment should reflect the gravity of a crime. “Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm.” The traditional teaching of the church “acknowledges… the right and duty of public authority to punish malefactors by means of penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not excluding, in cases of extreme gravity, the death penalty” (CC 2266).

Pope John Paul II chose another sentence from the same article of the Catechism.

In any event, the principle set forth in the new Catechism of the Catholic Church remains valid: 'If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.'

The present pope feels the same way, in spite of his reputation as a conservative theologian.

But, I would imagine many people couldn't care less what the popes or the Catholic Church think. These people, not unlike their Catholic neighbors, are faced with the same difficult questions. Is it possible to remove the vengeance factor from our feelings about capital punishment? Is executing a person ever necessary to set the social order straight?

Even unabashed supporters of the death penalty recognize that revenge is not a good motive for it; they invariably insist they're driven by justice not vengeance. And, although it escapes me, many people seem to put a lot of weight in the eye-for-an-eye theory.

What's your opinion? Do you find it interesting that even the Catholic Catechism can be variously interpreted? In that regard it's a bit like our own Constitution and Bill of Rights, isn't it.

Please leave a comment.


  1. All religious doctrine is subject to widely varying interpretations depending on the agenda of the interpreter.

    I have talked to Catholics who have found the death penalty in direct opposition ro what they believe is the true word of Christ and I have talked to many who believe that the same words justify it.

    And yes, I think the need for revenge is next to impossible to be eliminated as a reason for a death sentence.

    I believe that a death sentence is all too often used as an "example".
    It is only a short leap from the public executions in a Chinese Stadium to the inordinate rate of the racially loaded percentages of death sentences in modern America.

    Mike, I'm back from my trip to the Middle Ages. Good stuff here as usual.
    Here's a link to an interesting story about a firefighter who shot a cyclist in the head in traffic in Asheville. NC because he objected to the cyclist riding with a child on a busy street. It happened on the 27th, I believe.

  2. Welcome back Micro. I'll put that link into a new post right now. It perfectly illustrates some of my favorite theories.

  3. You made a statement without evidence: "The present pope feels the same way, in spite of his reputation as a conservative theologian." Here is what he wrote while his predecessor was still Pope.

    "Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia."
    -- Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Worthiness to Receive Communion – General Principles," Item 3, July 2004

    'Tempered use' is not the same as 'never'. Respectfully, you may disagree with him (thus the 'diversity of opinion' he acknowledges), but you should not misrepresent his opinion.