History of the Catholic Church and the Death Penalty

History of the Catholic Church and the Death Penalty

The History of the Catholic Church and the Death Penalty The Ten Commandments, principles issued by God for us to live our lives by, includes one that states – “Thou Shall Not Kill. ” However, on Wednesday, September 21, 2011, two men in the United States were executed – Mr. Troy Davis in Georgia, and Mr. Lawrence Brewer in Texas. (Jonsson) While the approaching execution of Mr. Brewer was almost unmentioned, the approaching execution of Mr. Davis garnered much public attention with many believing his claims of innocence.

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According to an article published in The Christian Science Monitor, this public attention included world leaders, a former president and Pope Benedict XVI – the head of the Catholic Church. (Jonsson) Pope Benedict without a doubt was against not only Mr. Davis’ execution but that of Mr. Brewer’s as well. With the Catholic Church against the taking of another life, what exactly is the history of the Catholic Church and the death penalty? The Death Penalty, also known as capital punishment, can be traced back to the Eighteenth Century B. C. n Babylon and the first recorded execution in what eventually would become the United States dates back to 1608. (Death Penalty Information Center) Back in the colonial times, the laws were different from colony to colony as to how severe the crime had to be in order to receive a punishment of the death penalty. In some colonies, treason was a punishable offense, as well as “stealing grapes, killing chickens, and trading with Indians,” and in other colonies “striking one’s mother or father, or denying the true God” (Death Penalty Information Center) were grounds for receiving the death penalty.

Efforts to abolish the death penalty in the United States can be traced back to 1767, with the first major change occurring in 1794 when Pennsylvania decided to use the death penalty only in cases of first degree murder convictions. With the exception of treason, in 1846 Michigan became the next state to abolish the death penalty, and other states followed with totally eliminating the death penalty in their state. As recent as March of this year, Illinois joined the states abolishing the death penalty.

Illinois’ toughest penalty at this time is life without parole. In the late 1800’s the first electric chair was invented, and in the early 1900’s cyanide gas and the gas chamber made their appearance. (Death Penalty Information Center) Through the years there has been both support and opposition for the death penalty. At both the state and federal level laws have changed, and in 1999 Pope John Paul II, on a visit to St. Louis, Missouri, called for an end to the death penalty.

However, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are currently 58 countries that still use the death penalty, and more than half of the states in the United States still use death as a form of punishment for crimes committed. As previously stated, one of the Ten Commandments states that “Thou Shall Not Kill. ” However, this is in direct contradiction with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says when it states “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor. (2267) Therefore, while the Church does state “Thou Shall Not Kill,” it does support the death penalty under certain circumstances. From the early days, government was allowed to administer the death penalty for specific offenses without interference from the Catholic Church. Wilton D. Gregory states in his article The Church’s Evolving View on the Death Penalty that “Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) sanctioned capital punishment so long as it was carried out with justice, and not out of hatred; with prudence, and not with precipitation. However, even though the Catholic Church felt that the death penalty was acceptable in certain circumstances, it was with the understanding that “no cleric may decree or pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood. ” (Gregory) Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also argued that “the state should refrain from using the death penalty except for very grave offenses such as murder and treason. ” (Gregory) Opposition to the death penalty began after World War II, when according to Gregory, many European countries began to question their right to execute their citizens.

Almost thirty years later, in 1974 during a United States Catholic Conference, the American bishops “declared its opposition to the institution of capital punishment. ” (Gregory) In 1972, the United States Supreme Court suspended the death penalty, however, it was reinstated again in 1976. (Death Penalty Information Center) That same year “the papal Commission for Justice and Peace expressed opposition to its use. ” (Gregory) For over thirty-five years, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have made an effort to have the death penalty abolished in the United States.

Some of the arguments that they have used is that retribution (an eye for an eye) is not an acceptable form of punishment, and that mistakes are made and there are a number of death row convicts who have been exonerated. They have also tried to say that reform is possible, however, when a person is put to death, their life is cut short and therefore reform is not possible. In addition, the bishops feel that race and the economically disadvantaged are unfair factors in both trials and sentencing.

Proponents of the death penalty feel that a crime punishable by death is a deterrent for someone committing that particular crime, however surveys conducted with authorities from the criminal justice and legal fields showed that “an overwhelming majority did not believe that the death penalty is a proven deterrent. ” (Death Penalty Information Center) In 2005, the bishops started a national Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty. This campaign was an attempt to educate Catholics, non-Catholics, legislators, and courts about the teachings of the Catholic Church. Gregory) A major shift in the Catholic Church’s stance on the death penalty occurred because of Pope John Paul II. As Gregory states, in 1992 the church approved the first universal catechism in over four hundred years. The text, according to Pope John Paul II, serves as a “full, complete exposition of Catholic doctrine, enabling everyone to know what the church professes, celebrates, lives and prays in her daily life. ” (Gregory) When the final and official Latin version was released in 1997, the section regarding the death penalty had been substantially changed.

The primary difference between the first version released in 1992 and the version released in 1997 “is the way in which the purposes of punishment are defined. ” (Gregory) The first revision kept the long-established stance of the church on the death penalty – allowing the use of the death penalty, in part, “to defend life and protect public order. ” (Gregory) However, the final version allowing the use of the death penalty as “restitution of public order” (Gregory) had been eliminated.

In the years between the first version (1992) and the final, official Latin version (1997) Pope John Paul II published a letter called “The Gospel of Life” that addressed several ethical issues related to the protection of human life and dignity, including the death penalty. As Gregory states, it looks as if Pope John Paul II’s evaluation of the death penalty had an impact on the Vatican commission in charge of the revisions. The text in the final version of the Catholic catechism states that “the ases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent. (Gregory) As Gregory states about Pope John Paul II, while he “greatly influenced the development of the Catholic position of capital punishment, he also wrote and spoke passionately against the use of the death penalty in his homilies and speeches. ” As many of us know, Pope John Paul II survived an assassination attempt, and later, not only forgave the man who tried to assassinate him, but also prayed with him, and later, was able to grant him a pardon.

While the “objectives of church and state remain distinct, we believe that our faith has an important and reasonable voice in the moral debates of our time” (Gregory) and regardless of the fact that “the Catholic Church desires to strike a balance between the demands of justice and the need for the very acts of mercy that make it easier for people to practice compassion and justice,” (Gregory) in my opinion, the debate over the death penalty will continue well into the future.

Not only is the death penalty still used in the United States, but in 57 other countries as well. While strides are being made in the United States, with states abolishing the death penalty in their state, there are still many states that will need to follow suit. While the Catholic Church has made their position on the death penalty clear, there are still many who need to change the way they think, if the Catholic Church has any hope of abolishing the death penalty worldwide. Works Cited Catechism of the Catholic Church. Doubleday. New York: New York, 1994. Print. Death Penalty Information Center. Death Penalty Information Center. DPIC, 2011. Web. 24 Sept. 2011. Gregory, Wilton D. The Church’s Evolving View on the Death Penalty. Catholic News Service. 2008 Nov. 13. Web 25 Sept. 2011 Jonsson, Patrik. Troy Davis Execution Protest Confronts Support For Death Penalty. The Christian Science Monitor, 2011. Web. 24 Sept. 2011.


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