Moral Issues

Pope John Paul II & Capital Punishment

by Art Sippo

The matter of Capital Punishment is difficult. It has always been recognized by the Church -- and still is -- that the execution of criminals was permissible when it was necessary for the common good. Unfortunately, this was taken as a blanket approval and limits on the application of the death penalty were rarely if ever invoked by Catholic authorities until this century. We should have spoken up on this matter as on related matters (e.g., the limits of just war) long ago. I think that the Pope has very courageously taken up a cause that is unpopular among many of his supporters in America but which is much more popular overseas. In particular, we must remember that the application of the death penalty in places like China and Africa is used even in minor civil matters as a weapon of terror by many states. The Pope did not give a personal opinion in the Encyclical Evangelium Vitae. He made a prudential judgment as Sovereign Pontiff based upon his assessment of the modern world and the penal systems we have. As such what he wrote is part of the ordinary and universal Magisterium and is formally infallible. Cardinal Ratzinger has in fact acknowledged this and the Latin typical edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church has been altered to reflect this.

The Pope declared that the death penalty should be used "rarely if at all." To my mind, that means that it can still be used in those cases where the individual remains as a danger to society and can never be released again without fear of further capital offenses (i.e, serial killers, serial rapists, serial torturers, child molesters, violent psychopaths, and habitual criminals of these sorts). Such people are really rare and require special handling for the common good of society. (N.B. - Around 80 percent of all known serial killers are Americans. This is a home grown problem.) In this sense, you and I are more conservative on this issue than is the Holy Father. He would personally like to see the death penalty abolished entirely. I think this is naive. It would entail eliminating the arming of the police and most military actions . I could not support that. But he has kept the depth of his personal aversion to Capital Punishment out of official Church documents and has enunciated what I think is the Gospel message concerning it: forgive your brother and do not take his life merely out of vengeance or convenience or to make a point but only out of necessity to prevent further violent acts.

Art Sippo
The Catholic Legate