Catholic Church Death Penalty

Catholic Leaders Respond to Return of Death Penalty

Attorney General William Barr announced earlier this week that the Department of Justice is authorizing use of the death penalty. The controversial move has met with mixed praise and condemnation. Several Catholic leaders and organizations have since spoke out against the decision.

Reinstating the Federal Death Penalty

The decision reinstates the death penalty by lethal injection for federal inmates. A copy made available on the DOJ website is currently inaccessible but a PDF was preserved by Politico.

The document allows for prisoners to be executed via injection of a single agent. The DOJ had also previously used a “cocktail” of three different drugs, partially in order to make it easier to source the agents from reluctant commercial vendors.

Executions have not been carried out on the federal level for many years, largely resulting from legal challenges. However, most executions take place at the state level in the twenty-one states that allow the death penalty.

Partisan Approval

Approval or disapproval of the death penalty tends to largely follow party lines. 

Conservative lawmakers often approve of the death penalty as a way of maintaining “rule of law.” This is the idea that all citizens are subject to the same laws and that the severity of the punishment should match the severity of the crime.

Liberal lawmakers often disapprove of the death penalty, usually on the grounds that it is impossible to exonerate and release a wrongly convicted person in the event that that person has been put to death.

Religious leaders tend to disagree with the death penalty on the grounds that it violates the sanctity of life. This religious doctrine states that humans should be allowed to live from conception to natural death. It is the same doctrine often used by the church to argue against abortion and euthanasia.

Catholic Bishops Speak Up

Since Barr’s announcement, a number of American Catholic church leaders have spoken out against the decision. Leading the movement has been Bishop Frank J Dewane. 

Dewane is the Bishop of the Diocese of Venice Florida and chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishop’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human development. In a letter addressing Barr’s announcement, Dewane wrote,

“I am deeply concerned by the announcement of the United States Justice Department that it will once again turn, after many years, to the death penalty as a form of punishment. I urge instead that Federal officials take this teaching into consideration, as well as the evidence showing its unfair and biased application, and abandon the announced plans to implement the death penalty once more.”

The Death Penalty and the Church

In St. Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, he points out that God did not let Caine go without punishment after his murder of Abel. However, God did not insist that Caine’s life should be the punishment. The Mark of Caine even prevented others from killing him.

“Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God Himself pledges to guarantee this,” reads the encyclical.

The USCCB has long been opposed to the death penalty. Their 2013 document Life Matters: A Catholic Response to the Death Penalty states that,

“We teach that killing is wrong by responding with mercy and justice, not more killing. We don't want a government that kills when society can be protected fully by the bloodless means of life imprisonment. By fostering a spirit of vengeance, which should have no role in the administration of justice, the death penalty contributes to the increasing disrespect for human life in our culture.”

Most recently, in 2017, Pope Francis edited an entry in the Catechism of the Catholic Church to categorically reject the death penalty.


Article written by Johnathan Jaehnig with Christian Catholic Media News

Jon Jaehnig is a professional freelance writer and journalist, specializing in technology and health. He is a practicing Catholic and active Knight of Columbus living in upper Michigan, USA.

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