The Church, abortion, and the death penaltyMany non-Catholics as well as many well-meaning Catholics mistakenly believe that the Church is completely opposed to capital punishment. Hence, the question often arises when a Catholic politician is opposed to abortion but favors the death penalty whether that person is really pro-life. Liberals not only like to use the death penalty as a way to avoid having to deal with the abortion question, but as a way to try and harangue pro-life Catholics with the notion that they are somehow holding a double standard when they vote for a political candidate who is opposed to abortion but favors the death penalty.
But what does the Church really say about the death penalty? The most recent edition of The Catechism of the Catholic Church says:
2266 The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.
2267 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.
The Catechism goes on to say:
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will 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 further explaining this, The Catechism goes on to point out that there are other means of punishment available to the State today short of taking life, and that cases where execution is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not non-existent."
That is the Catechism as promulgated by Pope John Paul II. It does not condemn the death penalty, but essentially says "the State has the right to use the death penalty, but we would really rather you didn't." As a former professor who was a friend of mine-Dr. David Matual-once pointed out,the Church can't prohibit in its teaching something that is scriptural, so we are not going to see the Church condemn the death penalty outright as a matter of dogma, since its use is scriptural.
On the other hand, what does the same authoritative document say about abortion?
2271 Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law:
You shall not kill the embryo by abortion and shall not cause the newborn to perish. 75
God, the Lord of life, has entrusted to men the noble mission of safeguarding life, and men must carry it out in a manner worthy of themselves. Life must be protected with the utmost care from the moment of conception: abortion and infanticide are abominable crimes. 76
2272 Formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense. The Church attaches the canonical penalty of excommunication to this crime against human life. "A person who procures a completed abortion incurs excommunication latae sententiae," 77 "by the very commission of the offense," 78 and subject to the conditions provided by Canon Law. 79 The Church does not thereby intend to restrict the scope of mercy. Rather, she makes clear the gravity of the crime committed, the irreparable harm done to the innocent who is put to death, as well as to the parents and the whole of society.
2273 The inalienable right to life of every innocent human individual is a constitutive element of a civil society and its legislation:
"The inalienable rights of the person must be recognized and respected by civil society and the political authority. These human rights depend neither on single individuals nor on parents; nor do they represent a concession made by society and the state; they belong to human nature and are inherent in the person by virtue of the creative act from which the person took his origin. Among such fundamental rights one should mention in this regard every human being's right to life and physical integrity from the moment of conception until death." 80
"The moment a positive law deprives a category of human beings of the protection which civil legislation ought to accord them, the state is denying the equality of all before the law. When the state does not place its power at the service of the rights of each citizen, and in particular of the more vulnerable, the very foundations of a state based on law are undermined.... As a consequence of the respect and protection which must be ensured for the unborn child from the moment of conception, the law must provide appropriate penal sanctions for every deliberate violation of the child's rights." 81
Grave offense? Excommunication? Ouch!
We just don't see that kind of language when dealing with the death penalty-so the Church does recognize one as being worse than the other. The aborted child is always completely innocent. The convicted murderer is often not. The Church has consistently recognized abortion as a grave sin-and that is why there is no double standard where Catholic doctrine is concerned.