The Holy Father is clearly opposed to the death penalty; but why doesn’t the Church oppose it as unequivocally as abortion and euthanasia?

The execution room in the US state of Oregon. Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1984, two death row inmates have been killed by lethal injection (Photo: PA)

I was glad to see the Holy Father, the other day, putting his weight behind those who are campaigning for the worldwide ending of the death penalty: on Wednesday, to a major international meeting which took place under the sponsorship of the Sant’Egidio Community, aimed at eliminating capital punishment, he made clear his approval of this intention:

I greet the distinguished delegations from various countries taking part in the meeting promoted by the Community of Sant’Egidio on the theme: No Justice without Life. I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.

I am bound to say that I don’t quite understand how any Catholic who is opposed to abortion and euthanasia (as all Catholics should be, though some, incomprehensibly to me – like the late Senator Teddy Kennedy – are apparently not) could be in favour of this equally deliberate taking of human life. I believe in democracy; but whenever I remember that in this country, if a referendum were held to decide the matter this barbaric punishment would almost certainly be restored, my belief falters. And I have to say, that greatly though (after many visits to different parts of the land of the free, covering destinations from Houston to Anchorage, Detroit to Los Angeles) I love America and the American people, I have to say that the way in which the death penalty is actually handed down and then carried out in some states in that great country (usually after many years on death row, often longer than a life sentence for murder here) leads me unavoidably to feelings about the American judicial system which are considerably less than respectful (I have other reasons for these feelings, into which I will not go here).

So what is Catholic teaching about capital punishment? I had in my simple way supposed that the Church today had come to the mind that it was wrong under all circumstances: but such is not apparently the case. This is how the Pope explained the matter when he was prefect of the CDF:

Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

The late Holy Father, in Evangelium Vitae, made clear his own view, that this was a punishment rightly on the way out: “There is,” he wrote, “evidence of a growing public opposition to the death penalty, even when such a penalty is seen as a kind of ‘legitimate defence’ on the part of society. Modern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform.” However, he continued, “it happens that the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm sometimes involves taking his life. In this case, the fatal outcome is attributable to the aggressor whose action brought it about, even though he may not be morally responsible because of a lack of the use of reason.” But, he went on, “On this matter there is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that it be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely. The problem must be viewed in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society.”

And now we come to the point at which I don’t quite understand the apparently equivocal way in which we have been taught by the Church’s highest pastors. And when I say “I don’t understand”, I mean just that: not, as these words so often indicate “surely anyone of the meanest intelligence can see I’m right”. I have a real question, to which I would be grateful for the answer. If, as the late Holy Father implies here, the abolition of the death penalty would be “more in line with human dignity and… with God’s plan for man and society”, why doesn’t the Church simply say that God’s plan for man and human society demands the abolition of the the death penalty? How is it ever necessary? Under what circumstances, for instance, does “the need to render the aggressor incapable of causing harm” ever “[involve] taking his life”?

Saif Al-Islam Gadaffi, for instance – who has certainly been the cause of many deaths and other untold harm – since he will be tried in Libya rather than at the Hague will almost certainly in the end be hanged by the neck until he is dead. But in what way would a life sentence handed down at the Hague make him any less incapable of causing any further harm? I suppose it could be argued that alive he might continue to be a rallying point for Gadaffi supporters (of whom there are still undoubtedly a good number). It’s just that I simply can’t get over the cold-blooded awfulness of deliberately bringing a man from his cell to a place where there is a gibbet and then with the full authority of the state stringing him up: it seems to me that the state which does that is always thereby immeasurably diminished. “We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing,” said the US bishops in 1994. I would like to see that in the next edition of the Catechism. But who am I? What I feel about it (feel as much as think) was eloquently conveyed by another opponent of the death penalty, Dorothy L Sayers, at the very end of her greatest Peter Wimsey novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, which you can read on Gutenberg, here.