The Practical Wisdom of Catholic Social Teaching: Applied to the Death Penalty in the Secular World

Recently, the United States was able to experience the presence of Pope Francis. During this visit, it seemed that the American public became interested in all things Catholic, even if there was some disagreement with Church teaching. The Pope showed that some teachings of the Church offer some practical wisdom on the life issues and the dignity of the human life, not only religiously, but in the secular world as well.1

In his recent address to Congress, Pope Francis expressed support for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty. “The Golden Rule,” Pope Francis said, “reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.” Since the beginning of his ministry, this conviction has led him “to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.” Francis goes on to say  that he is “convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.”

About twenty five years ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops “renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty”.  The bishops wrote, in A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, that  “Each of us is called to respect the life and dignity of every human being. Even when people deny the dignity of others, we must still recognize that their dignity is a gift from God and is not something that is earned or lost through their behavior. Respect for life applies to all, even the perpetrators of terrible acts. Punishment should be consistent with the demands of justice and with respect for human life and dignity.”

Pope Francis expressed his support for them, “Recently my brother bishops here in the United States renewed their call for the abolition of the death penalty. Not only do I support them, but I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.” So even the Pope and the Bishops of the United States, who know what the Church’s teachings on the death penalty are, advocate for the abolition of this unnecessary, aggressive violence.

First, I will discuss what the Church teaches on the death penalty in the Catechism, encyclicals and through theologians such as St. Thomas Aquinas. The Catechism of the Catholic Church stated that the state has the right to exact the death penalty, but neither St. Thomas Aquinas nor any Magisterial text presumes this gives the state an unlimited right to make capital laws and carry them out. It is inherent in a just capital punishment law that there be proportion between the taking of the life of the criminal and the benefit expected to the common good.  

In article 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it is taught that “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 an unjust aggressor”. But even if a criminal is identified and it is known that the said criminal committed the crime he or she has been convicted of, where does the common good come into play? How does an execution benefit the common good? One will ask those questions since the common good includes the criminal as well.

The Bishops of the United States and people such as Sister Helen Prejean, the author of Dead Man Walking, assert that the death penalty is a violation of Catholic Social Teaching.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church also states, in article 2267, that “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority should limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.” In other words, there are non-lethal ways of rendering a criminal unable to do harm. This is stated in the Catechism as well as in Evangelium Vitae article 56. “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 definitively 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.”

That being said, the next thing that needs to be discussed is the principles of Catholic Social Teaching that are being violated, and how these principles are being violated. There are ten total principles of Catholic Social teaching, and there are three that are being violated. So I will touch on those.

The first principle being violated is that of preservation of human dignity. This principle states that  all life is sacred and that the dignity of the person is a the core of a moral vision for society. According to Catholic Social teaching  “Our belief in the sanctity of the human life and the inherent dignity of the human person is the foundation of all the principles of our social teaching.” Capital punishment takes away the dignity of a criminal. In a complete and total disregard for the sanctity of a criminal’s life, we kill him or her, because it seems like the right thing for them to do. The U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that there are two essential human rights that every human being has: the right not to be tortured and the right not to be killed.  The death penalty is just that: torture and killing. It violates one’s rights.  

The second violated principle is stewardship of creation.  Stewardship of creation insists that we show our respect for what/whomever we see as a creator by caring for creation. We are called to protect people and the planet, living our faith (or lives in general, whatever we might believe), in relationship with all of creation. This environmental challenge has fundamental and ethical dimensions that cannot be ignored. This is a tricky situation when it comes to the death penalty. Some could cite reasons for the death penalty being that it helps protect the rest of society.  Capital punishment isn’t actually necessary. There are other alternatives. Tougher sentencing would discourage offenders from committing crimes. Longer jail times for felons and first-time offenders would keep them from entering into society until they are able to rehabilitate.  Requiring inmates to pay for their time in prison would reduce the cost to taxpayers. Allocating a portion of a prisoner’s earnings toward facility expenses and programs would force them to “pay” for their crimes, literally and figuratively, making keeping a convict in prison for life without parole even cheaper. A portion of inmates’ wages should also be put into funds for crime victims and their families. Although money can never replace a loved one or completely heal the damage, it could help families establish a new normal and get on their feet again. The prison system in place today, at least in the United States, is more sophisticated than the one we had in place 100-200 years ago, so people aren’t as much of a danger to society anymore once they are locked behind bars. There is a possibility that the criminals could escape. There are more constructive alternatives to the death penalty.

And, the third and final violated principle is providing options for the poor and vulnerable. This principle roots itself in Catholic teaching’s proclaiming of a basic moral test, which is how we treat the most vulnerable members of society. We must put the needs of the poor and vulnerable first. Christ said it himself in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 25: “Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers, you do for me.” The vulnerable person in this equation, so to speak, is the criminal. We as human beings are just so centered on being vengeful about the deaths of the victims, and cannot summon enough love to forgive someone for that, even if he is not showing remorse. We already have power over this criminal, so why not use this power for good?

It’s been seen in multiple cases where the death penalty has been dealt. The victim’s or victims’ family(ies) want the perpetrator dead. Others will find it in their hearts to forgive.

But let me ask this:  Is it really worth it, watching someone die in front of you, even if that person hurt you and your loved ones?

I would have to say no, it’s not worth it.  


Catechism of the Catholic Church. Liguori, MO: Liguori Publications, 1994.

John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae: Encyclical : The Gospel of Life. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1995.

A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death. Washington, D.C.: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2005.


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