The Catholic Thing
The Catholic Church and the Death Penalty Print E-mail
By George Marlin   
Monday, 04 May 2009

Colorado’s Democratic governor, Bill Ritter – a pro-life Catholic who, as Denver’s district attorney, sought the death penalty – is catching flak from his party because he’s expected to veto a state bill to abolish capital punishment. Ritter, they argue, must support their cause because Catholics are “supposed to be pro-life at both ends.”

Leftist hypocrisy never ceases to amaze me.

When Catholic pols publicly adhere to Church teaching on abortion, partial-birth abortion, stem-cell research, and same-sex marriage, they are routinely condemned by leftists for daring to impose their religious beliefs on all Americans. But it’s okay to impose when it’s an issue embraced by the left. Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, another Catholic, actually marched in an anti-death penalty parade and has lobbied his state legislature citing religious principle in opposition to the death penalty. Don’t hold your breath waiting for anything like that on abortion.

Although these liberals turn, when expediency moves them, to the Catholic Church to support their positions, on capital punishment they are wrong. The Roman Catholic Church has always acknowledged the state’s power to impose the death penalty.

Pope John Paul II often appealed for compassion and clemency towards condemned murderers, and American Catholic bishops have stated that the death penalty should not be imposed in the United States. Nevertheless, no pope has ever used his office to condemn capital punishment per se, and the bishops, whether taken singularly or collectively, have no authority under civil or canon law to urge the imposition of or attempt to block the application of the death penalty. That authority is vested solely in the civil power, and is consigned to the state by virtue of the natural law.

Representatives of the Catholic Church are free at all times to express their personal opinions that other forms of punishment are sufficient to ensure proper order or to defend the innocent, both of which are crucial to the well being of the community at large. But the determination that the imposition of the death penalty is necessary belongs exclusively to the state. The Church recognizes this power and understands that its source is divine.

What the Church does not confer, the Church cannot take away. Even the American bishops’ statement opposing the use of the death penalty clearly admits that “the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of a serious crime.” The late John Cardinal O’Connor, who was personally opposed to the death penalty, stated from the pulpit in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in 1994, that “formal official Church teaching does not deny the right of the state to exercise the death penalty under certain, narrowly defined conditions. It is a matter of judgment.”

Here is what The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm. For this reason the traditional teaching of the Church has acknowledged as well-founded the right and duty of legitimate 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.”

In reaffirming its traditional teaching on capital punishment, the Church in no way requires the state to exercise the death penalty, which is simply a prudential option. The Catechism urges mercy, but again recognizes that leniency is granted at the discretion of the state.

The Church also dismisses the “seamless garment” proposition which argues that if one is opposed to abortion, one must be against the taking of any life for any reason. This argument has been widely used by those who wish to blur the obvious distinction between abortion and capital punishment in order to strengthen opposition to the latter. Abortion, according to the Church, is wrong because it destroys innocent human life. Capital punishment is permissible because the first duty of the state is to maintain order for the common good. To meet this end, it is permissible for the state to kill those who are found guilty of grievous offenses in times of peace and war.

During the 2004 presidential campaign, then-Cardinal Ratzinger in the instruction Worthiness to receive Holy Communion – General Principles, also pulled the rug out from under the proponents of the “seamless garment” argument by making it perfectly clear that not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. “There may be,” he declared, “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.” When it comes to abortion, death penalty, or the war in Iraq, only abortion is intrinsically wrong because it destroys innocent human life. On the death penalty and the war, Ratzinger confirmed that the Church does not have a univocal view.

If Governor Ritter does veto the proposal to eliminate the death penalty, he will experience a left-wing backlash. When attempting to build a victorious Democratic electoral coalition, leftists tolerated a few Catholic pro-lifers to achieve that end. But now to impose their political will beyond Washington, expect local Democrats, particularly Catholic ones who do not pass the litmus test on abortion and capital punishments, to be labeled political apostates, challenged in primaries, and hounded out of their party.

George Marlin is the author of The American Catholic Voter: Two Hundred Years of Political Impact.

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Comments (21)Add Comment
Read the Catechism?!
written by Beth, May 05, 2009
Well, as you know, the left rarely reads the Catechism, but rather imposes their liberal views upon it.
Seamless garment
written by Bradley, May 05, 2009
The seamless garment has never been a doctrinal argument and has never denied the church's teaching on the death penalty. It certainly does not equate it with abortion. It simply argues that the church and the faithful must take great care whenever human life is involved, and must protest when it is used unjustly. That is why Pope John Paul II said the following on July 9, 2000: "May the death penalty, an unworthy punishment still used in some countries, be abolished throughout the world."
written by Andrew, May 05, 2009
I agree that according to the Church it is not intrinsically wrong, however, given the circumstances (means) of the US, it isn't right, as you mentioned JPII mentioning. So, catholics in America should oppose it because the conditions in which it is justifiable are not met in the US, as O'Connor said, "formal official Church teaching does not deny the right of the state to exercise the death penalty under certain, narrowly defined conditions." These conditions are not present in the US.
written by Terence, May 05, 2009

The death penalty is a very difficult issue. We would like to think it is no longer needed with the advent of high-tech, maximum security prisons. However, what about the inmates and prison guards who have been injured and killed by convicts who are serving life terms and have absolutely nothing to lose? It may be that there are some in our society who are so dangerous that allowing them to live poses grave risk to others. That is why the Church leaves this decision to the state.
written by Austin Ruse, May 05, 2009
Of course, the conditions still pertain in the US. What about murder in prison? Are not those prisoners also our brothers who should be protected from persistent murderers? What about paroled murderers who murder again? Lastly, the reason it will never be taken off the table in the US is that we do not know that we will not live in a state of nature even 100 years from now, like they do in many parts of the world.

Good column, George....
written by wj, May 05, 2009
It is clear that George Marlin cares more about spouting tired Republican talking points about the "Left" than he does seriously engaging the Church's developing teaching on the permissibility of the death penalty in our current society. Does Marlin think that Archbishop Chaput, who was instrumental in gaining passage of the bill in question, is a member of the "Left"? Will he criticize the Archbishop if he chooses to speak out against Ritter's triangulating ploy to appear tough on crime?
written by Zachary Foreman, May 05, 2009
The Vatican only abolished the death penalty in 1969, so quietly no one noticed until 1971. Also, the papal states executed people up until 1870, allowing the most heinous crimes to be punished by malleting the condemned's head then slitting his throat.
Traditional Church teaching has been strong, continuous and explicit on this matter. It should be made clear that it is not the teaching that has changed, but penal technology and societal wealth.
President, Lampstand
written by David H. Lukenbill, May 05, 2009
An excellent article reminding us that the Church’s support for capital punishment is and has always been, strong; regardless of the various political reasons some—Catholics and non-Catholics—attempt to make it appear that Church teaching is in opposition to capital punishment.

This is an important subject and one which our organization has been examining for some time, with a book about it due out this year, validating the support of the Catholic Church for the juridical use of capital punishment to protect the innocent from the aggressor when no other means exist to do so.
written by William H. Phelan, May 05, 2009
I served as a lieut. in the Military Polce and one of my sons is a State Trooper. NO ONE will ever understand this issue until they have met the personification of PURE EVIL face to face. Fr. John Geoghan was killed IN PRISON by another prisoner serving a LIFE SENTENCE without parole. What should that prisoner's sentence be: TWO life sentences? Please, readers. Put the toys away. The death penalty can serve a legitimate purpose.
LCDR, USN [ret]
written by Keith Toepfer, May 05, 2009
#3 Andrew,

You wrote "catholics in America should oppose (the death penalty) because the conditions in which it is justifiable are not met in the US. I am curious as to what "narrowly defined conditions" you, and Cardinal O'Connor, refer. I have read the Catechism in its entirety within the past 7 months, and am unaware of anything therein beyond ¶ 2267, which seems to me to leave the determination to a 'prudential judgment.'

Pax et bonum,
intrinsic evil
written by Christopher Zehnder, May 05, 2009
In his penultimate paragraph, Mr. Marlin confuses war as such with particular wars. War as such is not intrinsically immoral, but a particular unjust war is. Likewise, killing as such is not intrinsically immoral, but killing in abortion is. If a particular war is unjust, it must be opposed, just like any other act of murder.
written by Bill, May 05, 2009
Bravo Mr. Marlin. Now if only you or somebody could convince Father Richard McBrien of the shallowness of the seamless garment ploy this world might be a better place in which to live.
written by Lee Gilbert, May 05, 2009
The conditions for capital punishment are not met in the United States? Our prisons are already full, and here in Oregon they are full of the most violent offenders. With a Depression likely coming at us tax revenues are falling rapidly, and we are very likely to have a severe spike in violent crime. Crunch time is coming. We cannot afford new penitentaries. My guess is that we will resort to something like prison camps plus increasing use of the death penalty.
Fr. G?!?
written by John T, May 05, 2009
I'm personally opposed to the death penalty, but don't think that the case of Fr. Geoghan (a convicted pedophile accused of molesting 130 children) makes a particularly compelling case for supporting it...unless, of course, you propose the death penalty for unrepentant recidivist pedophiles who rape innocent children.
written by JediGraz, May 05, 2009
The moment of death is the penultimate moment in life. How we pass through its door determines our destination. If we approach it with contrition we ultimately see God. If not we go to hell. The death sentence for unrepentant "lost" souls can be an opportunity for conversion and get them ready to meet their maker with sorrow for what they've done. If they're left to rot in a prison with a life sentence they may end their lives unprepared. The salvation of souls is the Church's ultimate mission.
written by doris roland, May 05, 2009
What makes you think Gov. Ritter is faithful Catholic? He is far from it. And he still is allowed by his Archbp. to receive the Eucharist. Shortly after taking office, Ritter restored state funding for Planned Parenthood, signed legislation that requires all Roman Catholic hospitals to distribute emergency contraception to rape survivors, pledged that he will not seek to appoint judges who oppose abortion rights. For more of this sad story go to:
To: wj
written by Brad Miner, May 06, 2009
Knowing Mr. Marlin as I do, I can tell you there's never anything "tired" about his arguments, and an attentive reading of his column confirms his acknowledgement of the opposition to capital punishment of individual Catholics, including popes and princes of the Church. His point is simply that the assertion by some that the Magisterium opposes the death penalty per se is false, and that's the truth.
written by blue8064, May 06, 2009
Those who wish to abolish capital punishment also need to recognize that the deliberate denial of the necessities of life to someone, such as denying food to those who refuse to work, is a form of capital punishment, practically speaking. In other words, time limits on eligibility for welfare or unemployment compensation are forms of capital punishment. This is especially unjust, given that there is no requirement to prove guilt first.
written by shamgar, December 28, 2010
the squeamoos fastidious pusillaminous plastic prelates is the blind leading the blind their christology of a feminized christ who would not swat a mosquito achrist with the heddy lamar eyes is a travesty that is why the murders are on the street corners of every medium sized municpality in this land right now eccl. 8:11.the noahic covenant has never no never been abrogated.
written by wjkolar, August 04, 2012
Pope Benedict, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, had a major role in drafting the 1992 Catechism and, especially, its 1997 revised passages. When he told journalists about the changes in 1997, he said while the principles do not absolutely exclude capital punishment, they do give "very severe or limited criteria for its moral use."

"It seems to me it would be very difficult to meet the conditions today," he had said.
written by WIll, November 01, 2012
"Abortion, according to the Church, is wrong because it destroys innocent human life. Capital punishment is permissible because the first duty of the state is to maintain order for the common good."

Very tidy. However countless souls have been wrongfully convicted and executed. No worries though, that single line in the CCC has got it covered.

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