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The Catholic Church and the Death Penalty

“The [Catholic] Church has consistently taught that the state has the authority to use the death penalty. But, in recent years, popes and bishops have become more vocal in calling for an end to its use. Many Catholics instinctively favor life over death, even after the worst crimes, and some are left wondering if the Church’s mind is changing.

In some places bishops support the death penalty and in other places they oppose it. Some use the Bible’s authority to support the execution of criminals. But some crimes in Vatican City, for instance, such as attempting to assassinate the pope, are capital crimes.

“The Church still officially teaches that the death penalty is a legitimate option for states to employ. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: ‘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.’

Note what that says. “If this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Will that be used to support the death penalty for those who refuse to comply with Sunday laws when nations fear an offended God? Will “circumstances” demand the death penalty for those obedient to all of the Ten Commandments?

Both John Paul II and Pope Francis called for the removal of the death penalty in quite strong terms, though they revealingly did not revise the Catechism.

Cardinal Avery Dulles said, “The death penalty is not in itself a violation of the right to life.” His conclusion was because of the “constant teaching of the Church that judicial executions are licit, even if regrettable and to be avoided whenever possible.”

Dr. Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America, said, “The Church has always held that the death penalty is a just option available to the state, even if we do not welcome its use. St. Augustine says that the death penalty is just, but the Church should plead for mercy.”

“The death penalty is not, and has never been a positive end in itself,” Pecknold added. “It is a means towards serving justice. If we find we can now serve the same ends and express a preferential option for life, this is doubly good.”

“But we should not fall into a false understanding that what was once ‘good’ is now ‘bad.’ The Church doesn’t evolve out of a true teaching, nor does humanity progress beyond natural law.”
“The consensus against capital punishment in modern western nations, it must be observed, has grown in line with increased prosperity, political stability, and states’ ability to deploy credibly effective alternatives to execution.”

In a recent Sri Lankan case, “the government acted in response to the ineffectiveness of prison sentences, with drug traffickers and crime bosses seeming to continue operating with impunity, even behind bars.

“While in the developed West, use of the death penalty may, in fact, be almost completely unnecessary, not all parts of the world are as developed.”

“A decree will finally be issued against those who hallow the Sabbath of the fourth commandment, denouncing them as deserving of the severest punishment and giving the people liberty, after a certain time, to put them to death. Romanism in the Old World and apostate Protestantism in the New will pursue a similar course toward those who honor all the divine precepts. The Great Controversy, page 612.

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