Q. Please explain precisely what the Catholic Church holds regarding capital punishment. Is it possible that the Church has changed its position? And how do Catholics reply to the charge that capital punishment is so wrong that it can be compared to abortion?
A. The authentic Church position on capital punishment is readily available and precise. Two recent statements summarizing this position are: (1) Section 57 of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), issued in March 1995; and (2) the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by the same John Paul II, Eng. trans. 1997.
In The Gospel of Life, surely one of the most influential encyclicals of out times, the Holy Father rejects "the extreme of executing the offender" except "in cases of absolute necessity." Explaining "absolute necessity," John Paul uses the phrase, "when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society." He then adds this sentence: "Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent."
Furthermore, the Holy Father goes on to cite this principle in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2267:
"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 more in conformity with the dignity of the human person."
Hence the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, providing that such constitutes the only possible and effective means of defending human lives against an unjust aggressor.
Again, however, the Catechism stresses that instances "in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity," are "very rare, if not practically non-existent." (Ibid cf. The Gospel of Life, No. 56)
As regards abortion, it constitutes direct termination of the life of an innocent person – the unborn child. So that there is a world of difference between capital punishment, which presumes guilt, and a totally innocent human being. By virtue of the natural moral law, no human being has the right directly or deliberately to take the life of an innocent human being.
What is assumed in both the Papal Encyclical and the Catechism is that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined; see ¶ 1 of No. 2267 in the Catechism. Within this assumption, of course, there can be serious problems – which is at least one valid reason for the legal process of appeal. Another difficulty can be sourced in an inadequate (or even corrupt) justice system.
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‘New Life’ Blessing
Q. Did I hear or read something about a new Church blessing for unborn children?
A. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano recently announced that the text for the new "Rite of the Blessing of a Child in the Womb" has been approved by the Holy See and, according to an announcement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, should be available in English and Spanish by Mother’s Day.
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, Chair of USCCB’s Committee on Pro-life Activities, has stressed the "beauty of this blessing for human life." The Transcript will, of course, cover the text of this blessing when it is issued.