THE CATHOLIC CHURCH AND THE DEATH PENALTY“We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion than we can defend life by taking life.”
-United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty (Washington, DC: USCCB, 1999). Where does the Catholic Church stand?
- The Catholic Church opposes the death penalty except, according to the late Pope John Paul II, “in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. 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.” 1
- The Catechism of the Catholic Church states “If…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.”2
- When he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Pope Benedict XVI explained that in modern society it would be "practically impossible" to fulfill the Catechism's criteria for a death sentence.3
- The Catholic Bishops of New Jersey have called for an end to capital punishment, most recently in February of 2005, stating, “Because the State of New Jersey has other means to redress the injustice caused by crime and to effectively prevent crime by rendering the one who has committed the offense incapable of doing harm and because we recognize the dignity of all human life, we continue to consistently and vigorously oppose the use of capital punishment.”4
- On Holy Thursday of 2005, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a new campaign to end capital punishment in the United States, stating: “The death penalty diminishes all of us. Its use ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but what it does to us as a society. We cannot teach respect for life by taking life.”5
How do most Catholics feel about the death penalty?
- Support for the death penalty among American Catholics “has plunged in the last few years.”6
- According to a December 2004 Zogby International survey of 1,700 American Catholics, only 48% of American Catholics now support the death penalty.7
- According to the same survey, Catholic belief in the death penalty seems to be linked to the frequency of Mass attendance, with those attending more frequently less likely to support the death penalty.8
- When given a choice, the majority of New Jerseyans who regularly attend religious services (54%) prefer life without parole over the death penalty for murder.9
- 79% of Catholics feel that opposing the death penalty is “consistent with the defense of human life.”10
-Pope John Paul II, St. Louis, MO, January 1999