Let’s talk about the death penalty.
I’ll tell you my conclusion up front. While the Catholic Church teaches that, in principle, recourse to the death penalty is morally acceptable, in practice (at least in the modern United States) the use of capital punishment cannot be justified. Therefore, any advocacy for this procedure should be avoided. Essentially, in principle, the death penalty is licit, but it is always evil when we factor in the current circumstances.
I’m throwing my argument out here hoping for thoughtful disagreement, because well, I know I’m speaking contrary to many Catholic minds much greater than my own.As always, let’s start with what the universal catechism has to say (paragraph 2267):
Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, 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.
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 to the dignity of the human person.
Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
The key phrase is this, “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.” To state this another way, capital punishment is only morally acceptable when used to defend innocent lives from a violent criminal. In the United States today we have the means to lock up unjust aggressors for life, therefore the death penalty can never be morally used.
However, it may not be the case that the catechism gives the entire story here. Catholic thinkers Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette make a compelling (though I’m not fully persuaded yet) argument that in addition to defending innocent lives, the traditional teaching of the Catholic Church holds that a state can also licitly resort to capital punishment in order to execute just retribution of a grave offense. If justice is giving a man what is owed to him, be it a day’s wages for a day’s work for example, then the death penalty is truly what’s owed to the serial killer. They state:
The fact is that it is the irreformable teaching of the Church that capital punishment can in principle be legitimate, not merely to ensure the physical safety of others when an offender poses an immediate danger (a case where even John Paul II was willing to allow for the death penalty), but even for purposes such as securing retributive justice and deterring serious crime.
I’m not going to go into their argument here, I trust that if you question their reasoning you will read their articles yourself. However, I don’t think that the death penalty can still be licit in the US even if Feser and Bessette’s conclusion is correct. My argument is rooted in the very first sentence of the catechism quote above, “Assuming that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty…”
If the state is going to deliberately end the life of a human person then the level of certainty that the accused is actually guilty must be as close to absolute as humanly possible, but I don’t think we are capable of that in the US today. One major factor is the racial bias the US has when it comes to who we execute (see here, here, and here). Our uncertainty concerning the guilt of prisoners on death row can also be demonstrated by the 156 death row inmates who have been exonerated in the US since 1973, not to mention the several cases where there’s evidence of a person’s innocence but they have already been executed.
Furthermore, the US does not have a great track record when it comes to executing criminals humanely. 3% to 7% of executions are botched, with modern methods having the higher failure rate. One of these botched executions was performed on Clayton Lockett, whose lethal injection, in 2014, took 45 minutes to end his life. There are several reasons why this is the case, but one major reason is because it’s wardens and lawyers, not doctors or personnel with medical experience, who guess both what drugs to use and a drug’s dosage for a lethal injection.
So even if the state can justly kill a criminal for the sake of retribution, there should be an indefinite moratorium on capital punishment unless we can be morally certain that a person is guilty, that there was no racial bias in their trial and sentencing, and that we can guarantee them a humane death. Barring that, I would dare to say that, from a Catholic perspective, capital punishment in the United States today is, in practice, always evil.