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Attitude Of Catholic Church To The Capital Punishment

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The Catholic Church’s teachings have not always been consistent, specifically exemplified in the issue of capital punishment. Prominent historic figures in the Catholic Church such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas had strongly supported the death penalty. Augustine says that ‘it is in no way contrary to the commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ for the representatives of public authority to put criminals to death’. He suggests that in certain times, going to war for God is acceptable and necessary. Aquinas goes as far to say that ‘certain men must be removed my death from the society of men’ for the greater good of a society, and in order to protect it. Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church’s position has been staunchly against capital punishment, even supporting movements to abolish the practice. Modern figures in the church such as Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have publicly denounced capital punishment in the years since Vatican II. Pope Francis saying ‘Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed’, arguing that it has lost its legitimacy and is an offense against the dignity of the human person. While the Church seems to have come to a decision regarding its stance on the issue, this was not always the case. The Church may take a concrete stance today, but its own inconsistency and the complexity of modern times make this issue more complicated than that.

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Catholics are expected to agree with and act in accordance with the teachings of the Catholic Church. While this may be easy in regard to some issues, capital punishment is not one of them. An issue that everyone has an opinion on, the death penalty is something that requires reflection in order to form an opinion. It is easy to think or say that it is never okay to take a life, but in someone else’s shoes you might see it differently. Capital punishment is defined as the legally authorized killing of someone as punishment for a crime, though in practice the death penalty is becoming somewhat obsolete. Even though the Church condemns capital punishment, around fifty nine percent of Catholics say that they support the death penalty. In the modern world, it is easy to see why so many people support it. For example, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the brothers who orchestrated the Boston Marathon Bombing, is currently waiting to be executed by the federal government. After committing such an act and killing innocent bystanders, it is hard not to feel like he deserves the death penalty. With such senseless and premeditated harm to unprovoked people, he seems to deserve the maximum penalty that the judicial system has to offer. On top of that, in recent years it has cost tax payers as much as $60,000 per inmate every year to keep them in prison. Going back to the Tsarnaev case, it would seem ludicrous for taxpayers to pay up to $60,000 every year to feed and shelter the man who just detonated a bomb at the Boston Marathon. Being Catholic, one yearns for a reason to oppose the death penalty, but cases like these are common enough and make it difficult to follow the Church’s teaching.

On the other hand, some critics of Capital Punishment point to the fact that our country, and Catholicism, were built on ‘unalienable’ human rights. Even a supporter of the death penalty could not contest that holding a man prisoner and then killing him is not a violation of human rights that every person has. On top of that, it is also undisputed that killing another human is a sin. These are two pretty big objections to capital punishment, human rights and the Ten Commandments. Anyone who argues against these is arguing against the founding fathers and against God. Even in the most heinous crimes, it should not be okay to take another human’s life against his will. While we may immediately think that the proper justice to awful crimes in our society is capital punishment, it is important to think in the bigger picture. At the most basic level, we are all humans and our society was created by and is contingent on humans. Thus, there is no position in society that should give anyone the right to another man’s life. The Catholic Church is larger than just a nation’s government and can therefore see a bigger picture. As Pope John Paul II said, “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. I renew the appeal I made for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary”. More than just a punishment for a broken law, the Catholic Church sees capital punishment on a more basic level, as an offense against the human person.

When capital punishment began, it may have been necessary at the time. This practice has been around for hundreds of years, originating as a way to protect societies. As times have changed and society has become more civilized, there is no place for the death penalty. A practice as old and longstanding as this is not easy to stop, though many have tried and continue to try. Traditionally, the Catholic Church had held that capital punishment was justified by a legal system in certain cases to deter crime. As a religious institution, the Church could maintain somewhat impartial, while legal entities and governments made the actual decisions regarding the death penalty. Since the Second Vatican Council, important church figures have denounced capital punishment as unnecessary in today’s society. As Pope Francis has said in his own words, capital punishment is no longer needed to protect societies or for the common good. It is extreme and unnecessary in modern times, with so many alternative forms of punishment available. Though the correctional system in the United States needs major improvements, life in prison seems worse than dying in some ways, and is still more humane than capital punishment. The United States remains the only western country that still practices capital punishment, showing a clear shift against it. As more countries and people begin to agree with the Catholic Church’s stance, capital punishment is clearly becoming an outdated practice. As a Catholic, it is easier now than ever to accept the Church’s stance on capital punishment. In a time with so many alternative options for punishment, and a growing opposition to the death penalty, an increase in Catholic opposition may too occur in the near future.

God’s mercy is portrayed throughout the New Testament, and is often referenced in arguments against capital punishment. This specifically brings to mind ‘But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also’ (Matthew 5:39). Here, it seems that Jesus is rebuking the previous ‘an eye for an eye’ standard of the Old Testament, and replacing it with compassion and mercy. There seems to be a clear relationship to capital punishment here, suggesting that if it ever was acceptable, it is not anymore. Many Catholics who oppose the death penalty use this as an argument today, and it seems to be a logical one. In the Old Testament the death penalty was acknowledged, if not condoned, on numerous occasions, which goes hand-in-hand with the ‘an eye for an eye’ ways of the Old Testament. So, when Jesus says to ‘turn to them the other cheek’ it seems like a clear change, and therefore a change to opposing the death penalty.

Though the Catholic Church seemed to traditionally support capital punishment, it has changed its stance since the Second Vatican Council. The Old Testament accepted the death penalty, while St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas actually supported it. This came to an end around Vatican II, when the Catholic Church began its opposition to capital punishment. Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have publicly opposed it, as is the official position of the Catholic Church. This coupled with Jesus’ repudiation of killing, and the replacement with mercy, seem to solidify the Church’s argument against capital punishment. In modern times, Catholics struggle to come to a decision on this topic, as it is widely debated. Many feel that death is the only just punishment for some crimes, while a growing number are siding with the Catholic Church and feel that it is now unnecessary and has no place in modern society. Alternative methods of punishment are growing in popularity, which reduce the already dwindling number of capital punishment cases in the United States currently. As the Catholic Church and the founding fathers both said, human beings have certain undeniable rights. The imprisonment and eventual killing of another human clearly violates those rights and therefore should no longer be a practice. At one point in time, the death penalty may have been a necessary evil in order to maintain a civil society, but that time has come and gone. While not every Catholic agrees with every teaching of the Catholic Church, capital punishment is one teaching that everyone can agree on. The Catholic Church is right to say that capital punishment is cruel, unnecessary, and has no place in today’s society.

While the Catholic Church is correct in its opposition to capital punishment, not all of its reasons are totally convincing. The reasoning that it is cruel, unnecessary, and is not really necessary in today’s society is convincing, as it appeals to basic human rights and morals. However, the appeal to the Bible in order to oppose capital punishment is less convincing. While Scripture is official Catholic teachings, it is still an interpretation, whereas opposing it based on unalienable human rights is simpler and more concrete. Not only is it an interpretation, but even if we accept that interpretation, it means that we must accept all of it. Therefore, this line of reasoning would imply that the Old Testament is a valid reference as well. The Old Testament refers to Mosaic Law, stating thirty-six offenses that would call for capital punishment. On top of that, God even says “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image”. In response, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops responds to this by saying “While the Old Testament includes some passages about taking the life of one who kills, the Old Testament and the teaching of Christ in the New Testament call us to protect life, practice mercy, and reject vengeance”. If we accept all of Scripture as Church teachings, it doesn’t seem to be a fitting argument in opposition of capital punishment. We cannot pick and choose parts of Scripture to accept and not accept. That being said, the argument by the Catholic Church against capital punishment seems to be sufficient enough using only the arguments of cruelty and infringement of certain personal human rights.

Though the Catholic Church has not always opposed capital punishment, since the Second Vatican Council it has made its stance clear. Prominent church figures such as Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis have both publically opposed capital punishment. Although strong arguments are made when appealing to basic human rights, arguments based on Scripture seem to lack structure. While it isn’t easy for every Catholic to agree with the Church’s stance on capital punishment, they should. The Catholic Church knows things that everyday Catholics do not, they have more experience and knowledge to guide them in making the correct decision regarding difficult moral issues such as this one. A decision that every Catholic should strive to understand and support in any way possible.

10 September 2019

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