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Shaping a culture of life: What about the death penalty?

Recently I attended the Catholic Legal Theory seminar at the OU School of Law.  The topic for that evening was a particular application of the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty.   I was very impressed by the quality of discussion among the students and their professor, Michael Scaperlanda, in considering the intricacies of this difficult issue from both a legal and ethical perspective. 

Particularly heinous crimes, which have become all too common in our violent society, inevitably stimulate conversation around the death penalty.  What ought we as Catholics to make of this discussion?   What guidance does the Magisterium of the Church provide to help the faithful properly form our consciences on the difficult subject of the use of the death penalty?

The Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue affirms the sacredness of human life when it proclaims, “Thou shall not kill.” (Ex.20:13)  The Catechism of the Catholic Church asserts, “God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.” (CCC 2258)

What about those who are not innocent?  From earliest times Christian reflection has sought a fuller understanding of what this divine precept prohibits and allows.  This need arises especially in light of the often tragic events that occur in the life of individuals and societies. 

There are times when the values proposed by God’s Law seem to involve a paradox.  This is evident when it comes to legitimate defense, including self-defense. The Church acknowledges the right to defend oneself and indeed the duty to defend those for whom one is responsible from the actions of an unjust aggressor.  The state, too, which is responsible for protecting the good order of civil society and safeguarding the common good has the duty to defend its people against unjust aggression and to punish aggressors in a way that is proportionate to the offense. 

This is the context in which to place the question of the death penalty.  The second edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, following the 1995 encyclical letter of Blessed John Paul II, The Gospel of Life, acknowledges the possibility of the legitimate authority having recourse to the death penalty, assuming that the guilty party’s culpability has been fully determined.  But it adds that this should be the final option, “if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” (CCC 2267) 

In other words, the Church’s teaching puts very strict limits on the legitimate use of the death penalty.  It ought never be used, for example, to exact vengeance.  Nor should it be allowed simply as a deterrent.  The primary factor in the application of the death penalty is the necessary defense of society.  “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 the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.” (CCC 2267)

The use of the death penalty, or capital punishment, could be legitimate under very narrowly circumscribed situations, specifically, if there is no other way to protect society.  Given the means which the state has today to incarcerate offenders and protect society, the cases in which the execution of the offender is truly necessary are, in the words of Blessed John Paul II, “very rare, if not practically non-existent.” (Gospel of Life, 56) 

Unfortunately, in Oklahoma and other places the use of the death penalty has become quite commonplace.  It has not stemmed the rising tide of violence in these places.  Given this fact and the alarming number of innocent people found to have been mistakenly sentenced to death (one is too many!) as well as the disproportionately high number of poor and minority prisoners who are on death row, we may well question whether there is any legitimate need or reasonable justification for the use of the death penalty today. 

Our Church’s teaching offers a way through this confusion.  For Catholics this teaching shines the light of truth on a difficult question.   It gives sure guidance in fulfilling our responsibility to properly form our individual consciences.   For society, it has value as a contribution to the public conversation about whether we as Oklahomans want to retain a form of punishment which ratchets up the level of violence, is susceptible to misapplication, and corrosive of the values of our culture.  What kind of culture are we shaping?