Put Out into the Deep

Church Teaching on the Death Penalty

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

The issue of the death penalty and the correct Catholic interpretation of its use is becoming a public policy issue about which we all should be educated.  Blessed John Paul II, in his magnificent pontificate, preached always the “Gospel of Life” in contrast to what he called the “Culture of Death.”  Unfortunately, our world culture today has tended to exhibit violence and death in so many different ways.  The wars that are constantly waged around the world, and the sight of so many dead, gives a chilling effect and undermines the value of human life.  The worldwide problem of abortion and the taking of innocent life at its very beginning also contributes to the culture of death which needs to be reversed if our world will truly live up to its potential.
The death penalty and its use will become in our own state an issue about which we must be educated.  The Church has always taught that the right of self defense is both an individual right and a societal right. Society has a right to defend itself against aggressors, both externally by means of war as a last resort, and internally by those who are murders, serial killers, terrorists and those guilty of treason. The question for us as Catholics is not whether the death penalty is morally acceptable, but rather whether it should be imposed today.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 2267).
Blessed John Paul II, in his Encyclical, The Gospel of Life, also makes the point that he does not see the necessity today for the imposition of the death penalty since society has other means to defend itself against criminals.
The Church always must opt for the conversion of sinners, and prisons, once named penitentiaries, are places where people can do penance and change their lives.  There is no better example of this than the case of the murderer of St. Maria Goretti, a teenage girl who resisted rape and was murdered by Alessandro Serenelli.Imprisoned for 30 years, he was truly converted during that time. He became a lay brother with the Brothers of St. Francis, Capuchins, and attended the canonization of St. Maria Goretti.  There are other extraordinary cases of conversion.  If the Church must be consistent regarding the value of life from the very conception to a natural death, the use of the death penalty is something that the Church should be against in our own day and age.
Unfortunately, human nature tends to seek revenge.  The Old Testimony principle, an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, still pervades in the mentality of many. The teaching of Jesus, however, overrides that principle when He tells us that we must love our enemies. He does not say that we cannot correct our enemies, or keep them from harming us. But love for life and the foundation of life should be a characteristic of us as Catholics.
Whenever the Church enters into the public policy field with moral teaching, she puts out into the deep and risks misunderstanding and even alienation from some Catholics.  Our consistent teaching about life brings us to the firm conclusion that all life should be defended and that the use of the death penalty in our own day and age is not necessary.

One thought on “Church Teaching on the Death Penalty

  1. Bishop DiMarzio, thank you for your words with regards to the death penalty. It reminded me of some of the teachings I had read recently by Cardinal Avery Dulles. This is a timely article as we approach Cities for Life, Cities Against the Death Penalty, an international event. In NYC the event is held by the international organization, the Community of Sant’ Egidio. On Wednesday, November 30th we will commemorate the event by welcoming Shujaa Graham, an outspoken abolitionist exonerated from death row in 1981 after having been on death row since 1973. Please join us at 6:30pm on Novemeber 30th at 236 E 15th Street (between Rutherford Pl & 2nd Ave) near Union Square.