Capital Punishment for Convicted Capital Murderers is not a Pro-Life Issue
The late Pope John Paul II had a serious distaste, or even animosity, towards capital punishment. However, he could not impose a de jure change (on this issue) on the Catholic Church as Church teaching had allowed for the use of capital punishment in previous centuries. However, he was able to achieve a de facto change in Church attitudes to the death penalty. This can be seen in the articles and opinion pieces published in Catholic periodicals (including local diocesan publications) in the past 15 or more years. This altered attitude is also to be heard in Church pronouncements on the life issues as these pronouncements now include reference to capital punishment as something to be condemned (as it is unnecessary).
The same is now true in homilies at Sunday Mass in many, if not most, parishes in the USA. I recently heard one such homily where the 5th Commandment was addressed by the priest. The correct translation of the 5th Commandment is “Thou shalt not murder”. Note this carefully. It does not translate to “Thou shalt not kill” as some priests are claiming. In this homily several weeks ago, the priest allowed for national self defense in the form of a just war (a concept the Catholic Church arrived at some centuries ago). He also mentioned individual or family self defense when being assaulted with lethal force as being morally licit. He was conspicuously silent on societal self defense and the proper application of capital punishment. Well, I will not be so silent. And, this was not the first homily on the subject that I found distasteful. Last summer, at another parish, a priest specifically cited capital punishment along with abortion as being serious moral evils.
This inclusion of capital punishment in the life issues does serious damage to the pro-life movement’s credibility and effectiveness by introducing needless confusion into its message. To be pro-life means that one condemns (and likely abhors) the taking of innocent human life (murder) by any means. That is why the pro-life position condemns wars that are not justified, murder, abortion (in all its forms), euthanasia, so-called mercy killings, assisted suicides, and the withholding of basic food and water from severely, and even not so severely, handicapped newborns and infants ( a growing form of infanticide in the Western world) and all other forms of infanticide. I have yet to hear a persuasive, much less compelling, argument as to why capital punishment is correctly a pro-life issue. Quite simply, this is because capital punishment is not a pro-life issue. The convicted capital murderer residing on death row is not an example of innocent human life.
Ought the Church address the issue of capital punishment? Of course, the Church can and ought to address this issue. The Church, rather than attacking and condemning capital punishment per se, can and ought to address the serious abuses of its application in the world. Here are a couple of examples of abuses of capital punishment that need to be condemned. Summary executions, where there is no due process (no fair trials) are to be condemned. Summary executions often, if not always, lead to individuals being executed who are either innocent of crimes, or are guilty of less than capital offenses. Applying capital punishment to less than capital offenses is also immoral and must be condemned. In some countries (Communist China comes to mind, but there are other offending nations such as in the Islamic world), individuals can be and are executed for property crimes such as theft, or for such things as adultery. Those abuses of capital punishment are rightly condemned.
You might also want to read this essay:
Thank you for reading and thinking about this.