The fact that there is a Catechism paragraph on the death penalty would make most Catholics think that understanding the Church’s teaching on the matter would be easy. It’s there in black and white—what’s not to understand? But the human mind is Olympic in its ability to twist and bend and mash up all kinds of rationalizations for our own preferences.
Here are three ways that Catholics typically misunderstand the Church’s teaching on the death penalty:
1. Always wrong!
There are Catholics who argue that capital punishment is always wrong in every circumstance. According to them, disagreeing on this point is to fail to be fully Catholic and means you have to turn in your pro-life card. They insist that the death penalty is mentioned in the same breath as abortion, which is indeed always wrong.
Here are the facts, though. The Church has long taught in various ways that there are situations in which the State is allowed and sometimes obliged to use the death penalty. Whether it is through the teaching of St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Alphonsus Liguori or St. Robert Bellarmine (who are all saints and doctors of the Church), or through policy (the Vatican used to put to death those who attempted to kill the pope), or through catechetical teaching associated with ecumenical councils like Trent or Vatican II, this is the Church’s teaching:
Sometimes it is incumbent upon States to kill criminals who pose a danger to society.
Sure, sure, there were saints who were against the use under any circumstance. St. Ambrose comes to mind. But the Catechism says that it is the traditional teaching that states *can* put criminals to death. People who reject this position are rejecting Church teaching.
2. Always allowed!
But then there are some Catholics that take a view that goes in the totally opposite direction but is equally wrong. From the Church’s teaching that says that the State *can* use the death penalty, they’ve somehow managed to conclude that now the death penalty is the rule, the standard right of States, and so *must* always be allowed. According to this position, there is never any situation which would require the State to abolish the death penalty.
But that’s not a faithful rendition of the teaching nor the tradition. The fact is that the death penalty is an exception to a very important Christian rule that goes something like this:
Don’t kill people if you don’t have to.
Capital punishment is not the default position according to the tradition, it is an exception to the above rule kind of like just war (which is actually what St. Augustine says). If someone invades your country, you have a right to fight back in order to protect society. But like the just war theory, the death penalty is acceptable only if certain conditions are met, like only if the crime committed is grave, only if killing the criminal is a *last resort* and if killing this criminal doesn’t result in other consequent harms to society.
So arguing that the State must always allow and so use the death penalty is like saying that the State must always go to war even if war can be avoided. That’s not Church teaching, and neither is another thing. Sure, sure you could argue that going to war even when unnecessary would teach other nations not to mess with us… kind of like a deterrent (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). But now you’ve moseyed on off the reservation of Church teaching which has never allowed much less insisted on going to war to teach other nations a lesson. The rule is still, don’t kill people if you don’t have to.
3. “Prudence, schmrudence…”
Finally, many Catholics agree that the above positions are wrong, but they say that the Church’s application of its teaching is a matter of prudence. Therefore, we can totally ignore everything the Church says about the death penalty. This reminds me of my two-year-old. He loves me. He totally understands that what I say goes. But when it comes to actually doing what I tell him to he’s all like, “Um no. I’m going to keep drawing on your laptop with this Sharpie. Deal with it.”
But we’re not two-year-olds even if we act like them sometimes. So here are the facts. The Church’s doctrine is that if there are “non-lethal means” of protecting society from a bad dude then the State must limit itself to those non-lethal means. That’s not up for negotiation. That’s the teaching. That’s not part of the prudential judgment aspect here. Catholics should assent to the teaching that if you don’t have to kill someone to protect society don’t do it. Period. Full stop.
The prudential part comes in when we look at a particular society at a particular point in time and ask ourselves whether or not there are any non-lethal means to protect society properly. It just so happens that in our time the Church has assessed the options and has come to the prudential conclusion that in our modern era non-lethal means are present practically everywhere. Therefore, the use of the death penalty should be “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
Now, can a Catholic disagree with that? Technically, yes a Catholic could, but only if they can demonstrate that the non-lethal means don’t actually protect society. See, just because a teaching is based on a prudential assessment doesn’t mean you can just blow it off. If you’re going to disagree with the Church’s prudential assessment you have to be able to articulate why the non-lethal means of protecting society aren’t good enough. And you have to keep in mind that the burden of proof is on you, i.e. the one who wants the death penalty. The burden of proof is not on the Church that wants to get rid of it because, once again, the death penalty is not the default position. It is an exception to the rule that we shouldn’t kill someone if we don’t have to.
So, the bottom line is, if you’re Catholic and you insist on having the death penalty on the books you have the burden of proof to show that killing criminals is necessary for protecting society, that it is the last resort, that there are absolutely no other harmful consequences that come about as a result of it. Secondarily, you’ll also have to explain how the danger of killing an innocent person is an acceptable risk, and how it is you intend on killing anyone since there are no drugs to do it with since they cannot be obtained in the U.S., etc., etc.
Wherever you are on this issue, do let’s be clear about the Church’s teaching, and as much as possible try to avoid the mental gymnastics to justify our preferences.
For an excellent, concise, and easy-to-read primer on the social teaching of the Catholic Church, I highly recommend the recently-published DOCAT. It’s aimed at a young audience, but is a valuable resource for Catholics of any age who take seriously the question, “What should we do?”