Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
So the other day, I link a piece by Bp. Finn which reiterates the teaching of the Church that the death penalty, while permissible in certain situations, is basically not to be applied unless it absolutely needs to be. No big news there. It’s been the teaching of the Church since Evangelium Vitae. The Catechism sums it up this way:
2267 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 are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm - without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself - the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”
Not really hard to understand. Perfectly in line with the Church’s traditional approach, which has always granted Caesar the power to wield the sword (Romans 13) and yet has also always had room to prudentially counsel mercy even for those guilty of capital offenses (like the woman taken in adultery in John 8). At no point in the whole history of the Church has the Church ever counseled that Caesar should always strive to execute as many capital criminals as humanly possible. Instead, the Church has always recognized that there is a prudential dimension to infliction of the death penalty and has, in various ways, sometimes sought to save guilty men from the gallows for mercy’s sake.
As time has rolled on, the Church has leaned more and more toward the counsel that the death penalty be inflicted more and more rarely. It remains a prudenial judgment, of course, and one can imagine situations in which it might be necessary to inflict it for the sake of the common good (say, in a region where prison technology makes it likely that a murder will escape and murder again. But still, the basic principle holds in the Church’s thinking: if you don’t *have* to kill the prisoner then don’t. The default position is clear: life. The Church does not have to justify mercy to the prisoner, but the state needs to show really good cause why the death penalty and not some other penalty must be inflicted.
Sure enough, some readers appeared who have strong objections to this. One of them repeatedly declared the Church to be in error and the Magisterium to be out of touch with reality, while another, oddly, ignored these expressions of open contempt for the obvious leading of the Magisterium and kept insisting that it was somehow “cherry-picking” from the Magisterium to repeat, in its entirety, the actual teaching of the Church about the death penalty. This was strange enough, but then this truly remarkable comment was made:
I think if one is Catholic in the truest sense we are talking about a person who is obedient to the Church’s teachings about Jesus the Christ with loyalty to the Pope as Head of the Roman Catholic Church and faithful to the Magesterium. It is difficult for me to follow the reasoning of someone who is pro-life(against abortin) and at the same time taking an the extreme position of being totally against the death penalty.
How can somebody be opposed to abortion and, at the same time, to the death penalty? Indeed, that is mysterious. It’s like being opposed to tyranny while simultaneously favoring freedom. It’s like enjoying exercise while simultaneously appreciating fresh air. It’s like enjoying bacon and eggs at the same time. Or singing both the words and the tune. Who can account for such a complete contradiction?
Here’s the thing: Though the Church in no way says that the death penalty is gravely immoral like abortion, it does not follow that the Church thinks the death penalty is the bee’s knees. Nor does the Church compel us to say that the death penalty should be inflicted sometimes. It merely says that faithful Catholics can hold that there may be times when it can be inflicted. On the other hand, it is also perfectly acceptable to think (as, in fact, the Catechism says) that reasons to inflict the death penalty “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent”. The notion that there is some weird contradiction between being prolife about abortion and holding that there is no good reason to inflict the death penalty is rubbish. A conviction that there are in fact no reasonable excuses to inflict the death penalty is perfectly consistent with opposition to abortion and is, basically, what the Catechism teaches. A Catholic can’t say that the death penalty is intrinsically immoral as abortion is. But he can say that there’s no good reason to use it. The Church does not function by the rule “That which is not forbidden is compulsory.”