An Elementary Distinction
In thinking about what it means to be pro–life, Christians must, to begin with, distinguish between protecting innocent life and protecting society against those who destroy life. There is a 2000 year record of Catholic saints, popes, biblical scholars and theologians speaking in favor of the death penalty, a record of scholarship which overwhelms any modern day position to the contrary.
Catholics who support Capital Punishment need not fear that they are not in accord with the traditional teaching of the Catholic Faith. To support capital punishment is to be nothing less than authentically Catholic. The magisterium of the Catholic Church has always recognized the morality of capital punishment and its necessity for a just ordering of society. Many passages in the Old and New Testament promote it's use. The Fathers and Doctors of the Catholic Church are virtually unanimous in their support. In modern times Doctors of the Church such as Robert Bellarmine and Alphonsus Liguori held that certain criminals should be punished by death. Blessed John Henry Newman and St. Thomas More sanctioned it's use. (see sidebar, Avery Cardinal Dulles)
St. Thomas Aquinas
Summa Theologica, 11; 65-2; 66-6.
"If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended.
Summa Theologiae, II, II, q. 64, art. 2
Now every individual person is related to the entire society as a part to the whole. Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and healthful that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since "a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Cor. 5:6).
Executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer:
"...a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear, for capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. ...the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy."
The City of God
“The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human beings allows certain exceptions, ... the representatives of the State's authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice.”
In the Papal States the death penalty was imposed for a variety of offenses.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus of Catholic theologians in favor of capital punishment in extreme cases remained solid, as may be seen
from approved textbooks and encyclopedia articles of the day. The Vatican City State had a
penal code that included the death penalty for anyone who might attempt to assassinate the pope. It was revoked in 1969.
Including capital punishment with the evils of contraception, abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia has opened a loophole for duplicitous Catholics, especially politicians, allowing them to be inconsistent and unprincipled about valid pro-life issues. This leads many of the faithful to conclude that those issues also can be made situationally acceptable.
The modern opposition to the death penalty has gone hand in hand with the advance of pacifism, secular humanism and the degeneration of faith and morals. It originated in the 60s and 70s with the anti war movement and the sexual revolution. The sense of sin, guilt, and retributive justice has evaporated. In past times the most consistent supporters of capital punishment were the Christian churches while its most consistent opponents were groups hostile to the churches. Grave harm has always come to the Church when contemporary opinions displace traditional teaching.
"The reversal of a doctrine as well established as the legitimacy of
capital punishment would raise serious problems regarding the credibility of the magisterium. Consistency with scripture and long-standing Catholic tradition is important for the grounding
of many current teachings of the Catholic Church; for example, those regarding abortion, contraception, the permanence of marriage, and the ineligibility of women for priestly ordination. If the
tradition on capital punishment had been reversed, serious questions would be raised regarding other doctrines."
(2004, Avery Cardinal Dulles - see sidebar)