The Death penalty has always been an area of debate for many people throughout the world. Fifty years ago, less than half of the U.S. approved the death penalty. Today, however, new polls indicate that approximately 75 percent approve of this punishment. So why the increase in favor of the death penalty? Some say it’s needed due to the overall increase in violent crime and yet others believe it’s a deterrence factor. Others say it’s justified as a way of retribution. So which is right? This is difficult to say, but it basically comes down to what a person believes is truly right for him or her and the religious traditions that they follow.
Where the Catholic Church stands on the death penalty has transitioned somewhat over the years. It has gone from believing that this act is completely inhumane and unacceptable under any circumstances to possibly being acceptable only under the most severe of circumstances. Today, however, the U.S. Catholic bishops are in total opposition to the death penalty; although, they do acknowledge that the Christian tradition has been that a government has the right to protect its citizens. They do, however, question if the death penalty is warranted in our present times.
Regarding deterrence and retribution the argument has been that the death penalty may prevent those that have committed heinous crimes from killing again, it doesn’t necessarily prevent others from doing the same. On retribution, the bishops do not believe that this is an acceptable or appropriate form of punishment.
In essence, the heart of the matter by the Catholic Church is that the abolition of the death penalty should be promoted and instilled. They believe that in doing this, it breaks the cycle and violent message to take a life for a life. In opposing the death penalty, it also coincides with the message that every individual has a unique worth and each person’s dignity is important from the moment of conception. The Catholic Church also believes that opposing the death penalty goes hand-in-hand with Judaic and Islamic traditions which indicate that “God is indeed the Lord of Life.” In addition, the Catholic Church’s belief is that with the death penalty opposition, it further moves us toward the example of Jesus and how he would react to this ancient process.
The bishops do recognize that society needs to protect itself from convicts who are of a violent nature; however, they believe that imprisonment shouldn’t dehumanize a person. This leads to the belief that people who are incarcerated should also be given medical and psychological treatments as well as pastoral and financial care.
In addition, the bishops argue that there is always the possibility that an innocent person will be put to death, that it creates anguish for the executioners as well as a prisoner’s family, that it creates unwarranted publicity which is unhealthy, and that criminals might be put to death due to discriminatory elements.
Various scriptures have been quoted in the promotion of the death penalty. For instance those that support this usually quote the Exodus passage “an eye for an eye.” Those opposing quote Ezekiel (33.11) “As I live, says the Lord God, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man’s conversion, that he may live.” According to Catholic teachings, man should not use the holy scriptures to affirm their point of view as this is considered inappropriate.
Whereas followers of Jesus are taught to turn the other cheek and not withhold forgiveness and second chances even towards the gravest of sinners, the message that tends to be sent with the use of the death sentence is that some sinners must be killed and gotten rid of and given no forgiveness nor second chances. This is not the message that the Catholic Church would like to send.
The death penalty is seen by the Catholic Church as something that ought only to be used when there is no other efficient method of protecting the public from possible further criminal acts of the guilty party. Alternative methods such as incarceration are strongly preferred and viewed as being more respectful to the dignity of the offender.
The Catholic Church will only deem the use of the death penalty acceptable in cases where the “guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined.” Within our current society, which has many other efficient ways of preventing future crimes without execution, the Catechism states that the cases in which execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare’ if practically nonexistent.
In the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, it does state that the death penalty is warranted only under extreme magnitude; however, if at all possible, a bloodless punishment would be more in line with the church teachings and those of Christ.