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Does the Catholic Church approve of capital punishment?

The Catholic Church recognizes the right of a political community to defend itself against dangerous individuals by means of the death penalty. In practice, however, the death penalty is frequently applied unjustly. For this reason, the United States bishops have disapproved of capital punishment in statements dating from 1974. This position has since been upheld by the United States Catholic Conference Committee on Social Development and World Peace and in statements by Pope John Paul II and other bishops.

Why have the bishops disapproved of the use of capital punishment?
In disapproving of the use of the death penalty, the United States bishops cited the following four reasons:

First: The use of the death penalty is sometimes applied unequally to various racial and economic groups. We already know that wealthy people are better able to purchase more sophisticated legal defense resources and therefore sometimes suffer fewer legal consequences of their crimes. This injustice is only magnified in the case of the death penalty. It is a fact that capital punishment is applied mainly to the poor and to individuals from minority groups. Also, very few women are sentenced to death -- even though they have committed the same kinds of crimes as have men on death row.

Second: There is considerable debate as to whether capital punishment is a deterrent to crime. Certainly, the individual killed will not commit crimes again, but such security can also be assured by a non-negotiable life sentence to prison. Part of the problem is the considerable lapse in time between the crime committed and the carrying out of the death penalty itself -- a time period that may be several years in length owing to trials, re-trials and appeals. This lapse in time causes the death penalty to lose its deterrent force.

Third: There are several studies that indicate that the death penalty may even lead to an increase of violent crime. One of the reasons for this has to do with the near-celebrity status attained by the prisoner during the days before the carrying out of the death penalty because of all the news media coverage. Another reason often cited is that in deliberately killing an individual, the state perpetuates a cycle of violence that only leads to more crime.

Fourth: Finally, we note that the bishops, in taking their stand against capital punishment, were seeking to promote respect for all of human life. On this point, the United States Catholic Conference statement reads as follows: "In 1974, out of a commitment to the value and dignity of human life, the Catholic bishops of the United States declared their opposition to capital punishment. We continue to support this position, in the belief that a return to the use of the death penalty can only lead to the further erosion of respect for life in our society." In other words, if the government declares that individuals can be killed in certain circumstances, this opens the door to taking human life in other instances as well.

In issuing their opposition to capital punishment, the United States Catholic bishops did not intend to deny the seriousness of the crimes committed by those assigned to the death penalty. Crime is a serious matter that Christians should work to eliminate. Even less did they intend disrespect for the victims of serious crimes; these victims deserve our fullest sympathy and support. Instead, their witness against the death penalty belongs to what has been called the "seamless garment" of pro-life stances or a consistent ethic for all of life.

To obtain a printed copy of the Evangeline Scripts write to:
Evangelization Office
Diocese of Lake Charles
P.O. Box 3223
Lake Charles, La. 70602

Copyright 1991 Diocese of Lake Charles, La.
With Ecclesiastical Approbation
+ Jude Speyrer, S.T.L., D.D.
June 1991
Used with permission