The morality of the death penalty

August 28th, 2018

Pope Francis announces change

Pope Francis recently announced a change to the Roman Catholic Church’s catechism regarding the death penalty. Previously, the catechism stated, “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude . . . recourse to the death penalty, when this is the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.” The new language in the catechism states:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority . . . was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but . . . do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption. Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.

In a recent New York Times article, Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun and death penalty abolitionist who is well-known for Susan Sarandon’s depiction of her in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, responded to this news by stating, “It’s a happy day. . . . What I’m particularly delighted about is there’s no loopholes. It’s unconditional.” However, proponents of the death penalty, such as the Reverend C. John McCloskey III, an influential Catholic teacher, have spoken more positively. In 2015, McCloskey said that church doctrine “does not and never has advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty.” 

Cases for and against

In a 2002 forum at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia argued that the death penalty is moral. Reflecting on his Catholic faith, he stated that the church has always reserved the right for the state to act in ways different from individuals, to provide “wrath” for those who have done evil. In the case of the death penalty, Scalia appealed to Romans 13:1-5, where the apostle Paul states that everyone should be subject to the governing authorities, for those authorities are given their power by God and it’s within God’s will to use them as an instrument of God’s vengeance.

Other defenders of the death penalty appeal to the idea of lex talionis, the notion of an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, and life for a life most famously found in Exodus 21:23-25. In this equation, justice requires the penalty to match the severity of the crime. If a person commits murder, only another life can balance the scales. This idea has been a part of the Catholic Church’s reasoning about capital punishment throughout history. It’s obvious as well that capital punishment was a part of ancient Hebrew practice.

On the other side of the debate, Elizabeth Morgan of Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania, argues in a Religion Online article, “There are too many mistakes for such a permanent solution; there are too many racial, IQ and class inequities; there is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty deters violent crime — and there is a good bit of evidence that it is violent crime. Also, it seems to me as a Christian that it contradicts the gospel call for forgiveness and truncates the possibility of transformation.”

Morgan’s final point is a primary reason cited by Francis and is also found in the United Methodist Social Principles. Essentially, by allowing someone to be put to death by the state, we short-circuit the possibility of repentance. A just penalty for the offender, therefore, isn’t the key factor in discerning our approach to capital punishment.

In a recent National Review article, Edward Mechmann points out that because Francis doesn’t use the phrase intrinsically evil when referring to the death penalty, this leaves the door open for future circumstances to influence the church. If Francis had used that terminology, it would have meant that there could be no further discussion about approving something as moral at some point in the future. This isn’t a radical change, Mechmann notes, but merely a further development in reflection over the death penalty in our current situation.

Church teaching vs. the polls

A recent Pew Research Poll suggests that the end of the death penalty may be a tough sell in the United States. The poll revealed that 53 percent of Catholics approve of the death penalty as a punishment for murder, which is in line with Americans in general at 54 percent. Thus, both the Pope’s declaration and the United Methodist Social Principles are likely out of step with a majority of their fellow Catholics and Methodists, respectively.

However, support for the death penalty in the United States has been falling for years, and only recently has it rebounded to current levels. Prior to 2016, support had reached a four-decade low of 49 percent. Since more religious groups in the United States have public stances in opposition to the death penalty than in favor of it, the reality is that many American religious organizations are at odds with their adherents.

The question then becomes, Should religious organizations and their leaders reflect the opinions of their members, or should they provide spiritual leadership in contrast to their followers with the hope of changing their minds? It may be that the changes in attitude in recent years about the death penalty, along with other social issues, have come about through the spiritual leadership of some religious organizations. On the other hand, these may have begun as changes in the larger society that then filtered down into the church. This becomes a chicken-and-egg quandary.

What we can affirm is that throughout American and United Methodist history, spiritual leaders have often been part of the push for social change, from the abolition of slavery to women’s suffrage to changes in child labor laws, civil rights and more. We must remember, however, that not all spiritual leaders nor all church members agreed with these changes in their time. Spiritual leadership and popularity are often at odds with one another.


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