Capital Punishment is not a Pro-Life Issue

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.

copyright 2016 –


  1. “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.”

    Well said, Larry.

    Ecclesiastes 8:11 says “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, the hearts of the sons of men are fully set to do evil.”

    1. Thank you, Leslie, for your comment. Yes, what I was trying to say was that citizens can debate the effectiveness or appropriateness of capital punishment without trying to make it into a pro-life issue. I cannot quote the verse from the Old Testament, but it does say somewhere that God hates the shedding of innocent blood.

      1. For Christians, Jesus changed everything, so the Old Testament no longer applies; i.e., Jesus taught love God, love people, help others, forgive everyone. I think that’s why capital punishment gets mired in the pro-life issue. I think capital punishment is useless if we’re not going to use it swiftly so it may be a deterrent. One could argue that swift justice for Timothy McVey deterred nuts from copycatting him. Anyway, you’re welcome. Take care, you.

      2. Leslie, you caught me while drafting a new post. I am not sure that we can agree with your assertion that Jesus changed everything. He said that He did not come to change the Law(s). What I interpret that to mean is that what was against the moral law in the past was still against the moral law. Similarly, what was not sinful prior to Jesus’ time was not going to be made sinful by Him. (The Catholic Church has a problem with trying to make things sinful that really are not sins, but that is a topic for another day.)

        You raise a good point about how capital punishment is administered in the US. It is a farce with decades of court appeals and legal maneuvers. Even some death row inmates have said that the execution of their death sentence ought to be quick and not drawn out over many years.

        But, my first statement in my editorial comment was that we believe that punishment should fit the crime. Deterrence is a secondary argument in favor of capital punishment.

      3. I agree with you, Larry. Punishment should fit the crime and deterrence is secondary–fortunately, because imprisonment much less capital punishment seem to deter nothing. We’ve criminals and gangs running our prisons. Prisoners can get anything if he or she has the money or something of value to swap. It’s akin to the insane running the insane asylum.

        You’re right: Jesus didn’t change the laws that God gave Moses. Jesus added what the “eye for an eye” Old Testament lacks: forgiveness (by Father God and ourselves) as well as God’s grace (unmerited favor) and our being saved by faith, not by works. Christians are at rest in God. We aren’t condemned by the Law; we are forgiven even before the sin is committed.

        The Old Testament is all about condemnation and guilt. Jesus is all about loving Father God and people, helping others, forgiving everyone.

        Jesus’ forgiveness throws a huge chink in our penal system, especially capital punishment: For example, Jesus forgives the adulteress and tells her to go and sin no more–after her accusers fail to throw even one stone, because like the rest of us, they are not sin free.

        The Old Testament says punishment should be swift. Jesus says punishment belongs to God.

        I find comfort in that, because there’s so much injustice in this world. I do what I can and give the rest to God.

      4. “we are forgiven even before the sin is committed.” I think that forgiveness requires repentance.

        Thanks for your comment – it covers several things.

      5. I agree: Repentance requires forgiveness; e.g., Jesus said, go & sin no more. Pastors who teach that you’re forgiven even before you’ve sinned are saying there is no sin that God won’t forgive [if you’re truly repentant in your heart]. Jesus has a couple of caveats to that (blasphemy against the Holy Spirit and causing his children to stumble), but Jesus also has a caveat to those caveats::Those who don’t know better aren’t held to the same judgment standards. People in authority will be judged the harshest. Nobody, outsider, didn’t-help-elect-those-Presidents me finds comfort in that. 🙂

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