12-Part Series on Morality (Part 11: Capital Punishment)

Catechism paragraph 2267 states, “Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.  In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state.  Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, 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.”

Notice the first paragraph states capital punishment was “an acceptable…means of safeguarding the common good.”  This means capital punishment, unlike direct abortion and euthanasia, is not intrinsically evil.  In fact, God commanded the use of capital punishment in many sections of the Old Testament.  He did this to safeguard the common good of His nation, Israel.  In a time when maximum security and supermax prisons did not exist, those who posed serious physical and/or spiritual threats were sentenced to death.  Capital punishment was, therefore, a form of defense. 

Capital punishment, war and self-defense, are consequences of Original Sin and are tolerated to protect innocent human life.  As circumstances have changed over the millennia, however, capital punishment has become less necessary.  Today, due to advances in our prison systems, the Church accurately teaches that capital punishment is no longer admissible.  Since more advanced countries have paved the way to higher security prisons, underdeveloped countries have a blueprint for better, more secure prisons and, thus, a responsibility to build them.  This is why the Catechism says the Church “works with determination for [capital punishment’s] abolition worldwide.”

Note: Pope Francis’ statement on the inadmissibility of capital punishment is not an infallible statement; however, we are obliged to give intellectual and willful assent to this teaching, as it is a development of Catholic teaching given by a legitimate authority.