Catholics and the Death Penalty

08-19-2018From Fr. Antony's DeskFr. John J. Barbella

As you read these words, I am on my annual vacation. Last week I told you that I would use this column to address the recent news that Pope Francis had "changed" Catholic teaching on the death penalty. It is best that I begin by reminding people that not even a pope is free to change the unchanging Doctrines of the Catholic Church. Doctrines are those central Truths of the Faith that have been given to us by Christ–either in person while He was on this earth or through constant, unbroken teaching of His Church.

The Truth that Jesus is Lord, that He is truly God and truly man, that in the Eucharist we truly receive His precious Body and Blood, that there are seven sacraments, that there is a Heaven, a hell, and a purgatory–these are examples of Doctrines–Truths of the Faith that cannot change.

Another such Truth is that all human persons are created in the image of God and thus have a God-given sacred dignity that all other persons are obliged to respect. That teaching is the foundation of everything we believe about the dignity of the human person. It is why the Church–from ancient times–has been against abortion. It is why Christian people have played a leading role in the development of humane health care. It is why we are called upon to show compassion and respect, not only to those of our own country, race, or religion but to all human beings.

It is also why our Church has grappled for many years with the death penalty. I say grappled because the death penalty is a more complicated case. Obviously, a murderer shows a distinct lack of respect for human life. Moreover, any civil society that strives to respect human life has to protect its citizens from those, like a murderer, who do not. Given those realities, the Church has held that the state could impose the death penalty only when there was no other way to protect innocent people from dangerous criminals.

“Today” – Pope Francis says – “there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of a human person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” Moreover, “more effective systems of detention have been developed” which protect innocent people while giving the guilty time to do penance. In other words, there are better ways to protect the innocent without resorting to the death penalty.

When all is said and done, Pope Francis is essentially saying that those conditions which once led the Church to allow the death penalty no longer exist–and that our respect for human life is better expressed by seeking other means to punish the guilty.

I hope this is helpful to those who have questions about this matter. You can read the Holy Father’s entire statement on the Vatican Website–which is an excellent source of information.

Please say a Hail Mary for me each day, and know that I’m praying for you.

Have a great week!

Fr. John