What Does the Church Teach Concerning Capital Punishment?
The way I seek to effect a reconciliation between the two is to distinguish between the order of justice and the order of mercy
The question of capital punishment within the Catholic Church is a thorny one, and it is difficult within the cacophony of competing voices to sort out the current state of the Church's teaching. The Church's teaching that relates to the intentional killing of an innocent human being by either public authority or a private actor is certain.The teaching of the Church on the killing of a malefactor-specifically as found in Pope John Paul II's Evangelium vitae and the editio typica of the Catechism of the Catholic Church-is not quite as absolute
The Church's teaching that relates to the intentional killing of an innocent human being by either public authority or a private actor is certain. It is an absolute and exceptionless norm that the intentional killing of an innocent human being is in each and every case an intrinsic evil, against the natural moral law, and a violation of the Fifth Commandment. It is a sin against justice and against charity. EV, 57, 62, 65, 71.
The teaching of the Church on the killing of a malefactor-specifically as found in Pope John Paul II's Evangelium vitae and the editio typica of the Catechism of the Catholic Church-is not quite as absolute, and hence the uncertainty. EV, 57.
Before he was pope, Cardinal Ratzinger himself recognized this in a letter to the U.S. Bishops dated July 3, 2004, where he recognized that "if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment . . . he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to Holy Communion." While urged to "exercise discretion and mercy . . . it may still be permissible . . . to have recourse to capital punishment."
Without suggesting that I have the final word on the matter which is in a little state of flux and which better minds than mine have struggled, I have tried to do two things in this very short treatment.
First, I have tried to preserve the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church that the death penalty may be justly applied by public authority, i.e., that it is not a moral evil and in fact is a moral good, in a proper case, to put a malefactor to death for a serious capital offense. I believe that teaching to be irreformable. But I have also tried to give John Paul II's teaching in Evangelium vitae which has found its way into the Catechism of the Catholic Church its full and plenary meaning without quibbling. And taking both teachings, I have attempted to reconcile the two.
The way to I seek to effect a reconciliation between the two is to distinguish between the order of justice and the order of mercy. As St. Ambrose put it in his letter to the Christian judge Studius, "authority, you see, has its rights, but mercy has its policy."
In Evangelium vitae, with respect to the malefactor and the "problem of the death penalty," John Paul II is not focusing on the rights of authority in the order of justice to execute a malefactor, but on mercy's policies. He is balancing two goods: one of justice and one of mercy.
Within the order of justice, for the public authority to put a malefactor guilty of a capital offense to death is no wrong. It is justified by the good of retributive or vindicative justice, and the public authority, as custodian of the common good, has that power given to it by God. It is certainly an evil in the physical order, but it is a moral good in the order of justice.
This is the constant teaching of the Church, and it is found in the Old Testament (e.g., Gen. 9:6, Ex. 21:12; Lev. 24:17), and New Testament (e.g., Rom. 13:1-7), and from St. Clement of Alexandria, to St. Thomas Aquinas, to St. Alphonsus Liguori, the Gratian, to Popes Innocent I and Innocent III to Pius XII. Indeed, I find it to be consistent with John Paul II's teaching in Evangelium vitae, who observes that while an innocent's life has absolute value, a malefactor's life is not likewise so absolute. EV, 57.
However, the order of justice is not the only order that informs the good. There is also an order of mercy. If a malefactor may justly be put to death, there is the further question: is there room for mercy? And if so, when?
In Evangelium vitae, Pope John Paul II provides the analysis for the limits of mercy within the context of the death penalty. Adopting the analysis that is used when a private party defends against an unjust aggressor, the Pope teaches that mercy may theoretically extend as far out to the point where "absolute necessity" requires otherwise, in other words, "when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society." EV, 56. This is the outer limit for mercy.
To go beyond this limit would be to expose society to danger, and that would be uncharitable, unmerciful, indeed unjust. St. Thomas says that mercy without justice is dissolution. Misericordia sine iustitia mater est ...
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