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Capital Punishment

Yet we must not underestimate the disturbing scenarios that threaten our future, or the powerful new instruments that the “culture of death” has at its disposal…These practices in turn foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life. Who could measure the negative effects of this kind of mentality for development?

Caritas in Veritate (“In Charity and Truth”), Pope Benedict XVI

We should acknowledge that in the public debate over capital punishment we are dealing with values of the highest importance; respect for the sanctity of human life, the protection of human life, the preservation of order in society, and the achievement of justice through law. In confronting the problem of serious and violent crime in our society, we want to protect the lives and the sense of security both of those members of society who may become the victims of crime and of those in the police and in the law enforcement system who run greater risks. In doing this, however, we…should not expect simple or easy solutions to what is a profound evil, and even less should we rely on capital punishment to provide such a solution.

Statement on Capital Punishment, U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1980.


 

It is morally unsatisfactory and socially destructive for criminals to go unpunished, but the forms and limits of punishment must be determined by moral objectives which go beyond the mere inflicting of injury on the guilty. Thus we would regard it as barbarous and inhumane for a criminal who had tortured or maimed a victim to be tortured or maimed in turn. Such a punishment might satisfy certain vindictive desires that we or the victim might feel, but the satisfaction of such desires is not and cannot be an objective of a humane and Christian approach to punishment. We believe that the forms of punishment must be determined with a view to the protection of society and its members and to the reformation of the criminal and his reintegration into society (which may not be possible in certain cases).

Statement on Capital Punishment, U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1980 #1.


 

We maintain that abolition of the death penalty would promote values that are important to us as citizens and Christians. First, abolition sends a message that we can break the cycle of violence, that we need not take life for life, that we can envisage more humane and more hopeful and effective responses to the growth of violent crime. It is a manifestation of our freedom as moral persons striving for a just society. It is also a challenge to us as a people to find ways of dealing with criminals that manifest intelligence and compassion rather than power and vengeance. We should feel such confidence in our civic order that we use no more force against those who violate it than is actually required.

Statement on Capital Punishment, U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1980 #2.


 

With respect to the difficulties inherent in capital punishment, we note first that infliction of the death penalty extinguishes possibilities for reform and rehabilitation for the person executed as well as the opportunity for the criminal to make some creative compensation for the evil he or she has done. It also cuts off the possibility for a new beginning and of moral growth in a human life which has been seriously deformed.

Statement on Capital Punishment, U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1980 #3.


 

The legal system and the criminal justice system both work in a society which bears in its psychological, social, and economic patterns the marks of racism. These marks remain long after the demolition of segregation as a legal institution. The end result of all this is a situation in which those condemned to die are nearly always poor and are disproportionately black…Abolition of the death penalty will not eliminate racism and its effects, an evil which we are called to combat in many different ways. But it is a reasonable judgment that racist attitudes and the social consequences of racism have some influence in determining who is sentenced to die in our society. This we do not regard as acceptable.

Statement on Capital Punishment, U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1980 #3.


 

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. 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.

Catechism of the Catholic Church, The Vatican, 1992 #2267.


 

In the same perspective there is evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of “legitimate defense” on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.

Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life,” Donders translation), Pope John Paul II, 1995 #27.


 

In this context we have to place the problem of the death penalty. In the church and civil society there is a growing tendency to apply it in a very limited way or to abolish it completely. This problem should be viewed in the context of a penal justice ever more in line with the dignity of the human person and God’s plan for humanity and society. The violation of personal and societal rights must be adequately punished as a condition for the offender to regain the exercise of his or her freedom. In this way the public order is defended, public safety is ensured, and the offender is offered an incentive to change and be rehabilitated.

Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life,” Donders translation), Pope John Paul II, 1995 #56.


 

The nature and extent of the punishment ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender, except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today, however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare if not practically nonexistent.

Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life,” Donders translation), Pope John Paul II, 1995 #56.


 

We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes, but for how it affects society… ‘Increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life. We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.’

Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2000, Policy Foundations and Directions #4.


 

We should resist policies that simply call for more prisons, harsher sentences, and increased reliance on the death penalty. Rather, we should promote policies that put more resources into restoration, education, and substance-abuse treatment programs.

Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2000, The Church’s Mission #5.


 

In Catholic teaching the state has the recourse to impose the death penalty upon criminals convicted of heinous crimes if this ultimate sanction is the only available means to protect society from a grave threat to human life. However, this right should not be exercised when other ways are available to punish criminals and to protect society that are more respectful of human life.

A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2005 Section II.


 

In calling for an end to the use of the death penalty, we do not seek to diminish in any way the evil and harm caused by people who commit horrible murders. We also share the hurt and horror, the loss and heartache that are the result of unspeakable acts of violence…However, standing with families of victims does not compel us to support the use of the death penalty…No act, even an execution, can bring back a loved one or heal terrible wounds. The pain and loss of one death cannot be wiped away by another death.

A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2005 Section II.


 

Even when people deny the dignity of others, we must still recognize that their dignity is a gift from God and is not something that is earned or lost through their behavior. Respect for life applies to all, even the perpetrators of terrible acts. Punishment should be consistent with the demands of justice and with respect for human life and dignity.

A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2005 Section IV.


 

When the state, in our names and with our taxes, ends a human life despite having non-lethal alternatives, it suggests that society can overcome violence with violence. The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but for what it does to all of society.

A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2005 Section IV.


 

The pursuit of the common good is linked directly to the defense of human life. At a time when the sanctity of life is threatened in many ways, taking life is not really a solution but may instead effectively undermine respect for life. In many ways the death penalty is about us: the actions taken in our name, the values which guide our lives, and the dignity that we accord to human life.

A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), 2005 Section IV.


 

Yet we must not underestimate the disturbing scenarios that threaten our future, or the powerful new instruments that the “culture of death” has at its disposal…These practices in turn foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life. Who could measure the negative effects of this kind of mentality for development?

Caritas in Veritate (“In Charity and Truth”), Pope Benedict XVI, 2009 #75.


 

Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. 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.

Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis, 2013, #52.


 

We cannot ignore the fact that in cities…various forms of corruption and criminal activity take place. At the same time, what could be significant places of encounter and solidarity often become places of isolation and mutual distrust… The proclamation of the Gospel will be a basis for restoring the dignity of human life in these contexts, for Jesus desires to pour out an abundance of life upon our cities (cf. Jn 10:10). The unified and complete sense of human life that the Gospel proposes is the best remedy for the ills of our cities.

Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”), Pope Francis, 2013 #75.

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