The Catholic Church and the Death Penalty Print
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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