In California, there is a ballot initiative (Proposition 62) this November election to do away with capital punishment in the state. Effectively, there is no death penalty now as a death sentence translates to 20 to 30 years of court appeals, and death row inmates are dying of old age in San Quentin prison. There have been very few executions in the past 50 years in California, yet there have been many, many murders over the years.

The Catholic Church is publicly endorsing Proposition 62 as the Church opposes capital punishment for convicted capital murderers.

Here we reprint with editorial comment our earlier essay (from June, 2012) on this issue.



Editorial comment:  We believe that punishment should be appropriate to the crime.  As to the deterrence argument, there are many who reject this argument because the death penalty does not serve to deter all murders.  No deterrent is 100 per cent effective, but that does not mean we ought to reject the deterrence argument out of hand.  Capital punishment does serve to deter some murders.  (Similarly, there are those who oppose teaching abstinence as part of sex ed in the schools because not all teens will work at it and thus it is not 100 per cent effective.  But, failing to address abstinence in the classroom means that some teens who would be reached by the message and would work at being abstinent will be less likely to do so.)

From June 24, 2012:

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.

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