What is the Catholic teaching on the death penalty?

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Answered by: Amanda, An Expert in the Basics of Catholicism Category
The Catholic Church believes that we are called to protect and defend the sanctity of human life in all we do. For many, this means simply promoting anti-abortion legislation and voting for politicians who preach rights of the unborn. Many Catholics in the United States, however, forget about the right to life of the lowest among us- convicted criminals on Death Row.

The Church believes that the death penalty goes against the right to life by denying the chance of salvation to those sentenced to die. While many of us feel anger and resentment toward criminals convicted of heinous crimes, we are still called to protect their right to life just as we would an unborn. We bear the cross of defending those who cannot defend themselves, and this includes those who have been given the death penalty for their crimes.

The Catholic Church's teaching on the death penalty dates back to early church fathers like Pope Clement I. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states in paragraph 2267 that, while there are circumstances that may necessitate the taking of a human life, these circumstances "are very rare, if not practically non-existant." We believe that where there are non-lethal means such as imprisonment available, capital punishment is wrong. In the United States specifically, we have an infrastructure in place to imprison and perhaps even rehabilitate a criminal - an alternative which we must pursue.

Additionally, the criminal justice system is unfortunately broken. As a result, innocent people have been sentenced to death and even executed for crimes they did not commit. In September of 2014, for example, Henry McCullom, a North Carolina prisoner sentenced to death for the murder of an 11 year old girl, was released from prison after DNA evidence proved he was innocent. This gross miscarriage of justice nearly took a man's life. While the death of the victim is a tragedy, to threaten an innocent man's life as payment for her murder is proof that we are simply promoting a culture of death through support of capital punishment.

The Church's teaching on the death penalty also reflects our need to forgive as Christ would forgive. The Old Testament belief in "an eye for an eye" was trumped by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. At the crucifixion, Jesus offered salvation from sin. To kill a person for vengeance, then, negates His sacrifice. When lethal injection occurs, the opportunity to seek salvation is brought to an abrupt, unnatural end against the will of God. Support of the death penalty means a withdrawal of forgiveness, one of the greatest gifts we have been given.

There are several organizations dedicated to ending the death penalty, as Pope John Paul II called us to do in 2000: "May the death penalty, an unworthy punishment still used in some countries, be abolished throughout the world." These organizations stress the need for reform in the legal system to further prevent the convictions of the innocent, as well as offering those who committed the sin of murder the chance to seek counseling and rehabilitation. While it is unlikely that salvation will be brought to the heart of every hardened criminal, we must always remember that their lives are sacred, too, and the Church teaches us to defend their right to life as well. To be truly pro-life, we must continually seek ways to end the culture of death. To do this, we must work and pray for an end to the death penalty and for the salvation of our brothers and sisters on Death Row.

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