Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Church, abortion, and the death penalty

Many 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.

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.

Labels: ,


At Monday, August 20, 2007 3:48:00 AM, Blogger Sharon Cobb said...

Pope John Paul was very clear about being against the death penalty in all cases.

On abortion, you mentioned that the ruling goes back to the first century, yet there is nothing in the Bible about abortion.

So, would the view on abortion be based on a man made decision rather than the Bible and what Jesus said?

At Monday, August 20, 2007 7:50:00 AM, Blogger Dave Oatney said...

Despite the view of some, John Paul II was not the only Pope in the 2,000-year history of the Church. He very well understood that he was the 264th in a line that goes all the way back to Peter and, by extension, to Christ himself who ordained Peter.

He understood that he was not free to simply undo 2,000 years of Christian doctrine. He did not favor the use of the Death Penalty, and was careful to condemn it in public, but he did not make any change in the doctrine of the Church-which is that the Death Penalty is not the preferable option, but the State does have the right to use it. Indeed, as shown above, the Catechism HE promulgated stated that reality and that doctrinal view-I quoted from it above word for word.

You also must understand that Catholics are not sola scriptura people-we don't believe there would be a Bible as we have it and believe its contents to be were it not for the Church defining what books the Bible consisted of. There were lots of texts floating around claiming to have scriptural authority, but the Church stepped in collectively and said "these books are the Bible, these books are the divinely inspired text, and this is the Word of God."

Orthodox Catholics accept the Church's authority to define doctrine and dogma without question, as the Church is God's collective representative on Earth.

If the Church has defined since the first century (apostolic times, no less) that God's laws against murder apply to abortion equally, as a believing Catholic I am bound to accept that. Even so, my conscience tells me of the wrong and tells me it is murder, so knowing that I couldn't accept it anyway.

Bowing one's knee to the supreme authority of the Magesterium of the Church in all matters is part of what it means to be a good Catholic, and is what separates Catholics from Protestants and from non-Christian faiths.

At Monday, August 20, 2007 9:43:00 AM, Anonymous Elrod said...

Married to a Catholic whose father is quite conservative I've certainly heard these distinctions for many years. I'm fairly convinced of the Church's consistency on the abortion question, even if modern science has helped the Church evolve its position on the matter. There's a reason the Church (and many Protestants for that matter) came out so forcefully against abortion in 1871: biology at the time for the first time demonstrated the "lifelike" capabilities of the fetus. Alas, the 1871 statement was more of a culmination of opinion backed by modern science than a change in course.

On the death penalty, however, the Church has, in fact, altered its stance significantly between JPII and even those of the early 20th century. However, again, the Church used modern research to bolster this switch. Namely, the Church concluded, rightfully, that the modern penitentiary system effectively punishes murderers and removes them from society. When the Church openly supported capital punishment in centuries past, it did so because there simply was no penitentiary system to speak of. If you committed a grave crime you were either locked up in some local jail for a month, exiled, or executed (often with torture). Those were the options. Nowadays we have prisons that can house inmates for decades.

The Church concluded that the death penalty, IN REALITY, serves no moral purpose anymore. It is mere vengeance disguised as justice and is unnecessary to expiate the crime, no matter how heinous. It is for that reason that the Church has expended so much energy the last few years convincing the laity to oppose capital punishment as strongly as legalized abortion. Yes, they are different issues, but they are both incompatible with modern Church teachings. Supporting the death penalty in the US today is as immoral as supporting legalized abortion, as both are grave and gratuitous violations of human life. It may not have always been that way, but it is now.

At Monday, August 20, 2007 10:51:00 AM, Blogger Dave Oatney said...

Can I take it by your statement that you are pro-life, then?

There is little doubt that JP II altered how the Church perceives the use of the death penalty, and he certainly raised the notion that it has no place in modern punishment to a new level. He even altered the wording of the Catechism to provide for that...but the wording is careful indeed-this isn't dogma or doctrine, and the Church imposes no penalty for participating in an execution-something that the doctrine of the Church still allows for.

The reason I raised the point is because I grow tired of people on the Left attempting to call out traditional Catholics for voting for those who support the Death Penalty but who are pro-life on abortion-the Church does make a clear distinction here, the two are not linked in the same way, so for a traditional Catholic, at least, it is a rather meaningless discussion.

That in no way means (as you rightly point out) that opposing the death penalty has no theological or social merit in modern times in its own right. It does.

At Wednesday, August 22, 2007 3:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great thing about the Bible is God and Christ gives us certain interpretational rights. This is evidenced when Jesus stated "obay the laws of God and of the Land. Now I am no Catholic (Southern Baptist in fact) but I do believe David has it right about not only abortion but the death penalty.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Locations of visitors to this page
Profile Visitor Map - Click to view visits
Create your own visitor map