What the Catholic Church Teaches Regarding Capital Punishment

By Penny Hoffmann

Capital punishment is a controversial ethical issue and has been for a long time. In Australia, there has been a recent ressurection of the desire to have the death penalty, and in response Catholic organisations in Australia and worldwide have a history of speaking in private and public arenas concerning this ethical issue. But what is an ethical issue, and what are the guiding principles that inform the Catholic perspective?

Ethics shape one’s values and are what people strive to believe in and put into practice in their everyday lives.

The Catholic Church’s values are shaped by the ethical teachings present in the Bible and authoritative texts and figures. A main ethical concept of the Catholic Church is the Consistent Ethic of Life, which can be explained by Jesus’ “Seemless Garment” where one can not be partly pro life, but instead fully pro-life for every ethical issue where life is relative.

The Consistent Ethic of Life is seen through the Church’s Principles of Catholic Social Teaching which include the Dignity of the Human Person, the Stewardship of Creation, Preferential Option for the Poor, the Common Good, Solidarity, and others. These guiding principles inform the Catholic perspective on ethical issues.

The Principles of Catholic Social Teaching that are applicable to the Church’s teachings on capital punishment include the Dignity of the Human Person and the Common Good. Regardless of age, sex, gender, crime, or anything else, one does not lose their dignity.

Branching from these Principles, other remonstrations that form the Church’s stance on capital punishment include that the death penalty does not allow time for people to repent, there may be judicial errors where someone who is innocent is sentenced to the death penalty, it is not a useful deterrent because criminals may assume that they will not be caught, there have been countless studies that prove that capital punishment is ineffective, and that capital punishment is done by humans instead of God.

Despite the Catholic Church’s teachings, there is still support within the Catholic community for capital punishment:

“Tiniest of cracks were used by Catholic death penalty advocates from Nebraska to the Philippines to claim that the church was not against it”.

The Catholic Church has undergone most of its change concerning the teachings on capital punishment over the last fifty years. For centuries, “the Church has allowed the death penalty for extreme cases”. However, Catholic authoritative figures such as Popes have declared that these extreme cases are so rare that there may as well be none and that there need not be support for it, and that “tiniest of cracks were used by Catholic death penalty advocates from Nebraska to the Philippines to claim that the church was not against it”.

According to the new teaching in the universal Catechism:

 “The Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the Inviolability and Dignity of the Person and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide”.

According to an ABC news article published in August last year, in an accompanying letter that explained the amended stance, the head of the Vatican’s doctrine office stated that the Church’s position on capital punishment was an evolution of prior teaching and that it did not contradict past teachings.

An argument that is commonly used by those who do not find the dignity of a human person important is that criminals who murder do not display that they find the dignity of their victims important, so this cancels out their own life.

There are some situations and contexts which make following the Catholic teachings regarding capital punishment challenging to follow. An example is witnessing a criminal have no remorse for the most serious crimes such as murder. The church responds with teachings that these criminals may repent in the future and that God delivers justice to all.

In a secular world, the Catholic Church provides effective guidance regarding their teachings on capital punishment due to their presence in as many platforms as they can to promote Catholic teachings. These platforms include, but are not limited to, church, protests, blogs, social media, and the news.

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