What Does the Church Teach about the Death Penalty?
The Church’s teaching on the death penalty focuses on the truth that human life is sacred because every life is created by God and for the purpose of being in a particular relationship with God.
Although the death penalty may be allowed in “extreme gravity,” the Church teaches that it may only be utilized where there are bloodless means sufficient enough to protect society from an aggressor. (CCC 2266-2267) So what does that mean?
It means that no matter how horrible the crime, if we can protect society without ending a human life, that is what we should do. Notice that the focus is on whether society has alternative ways to protect itself, not on how awful the crime was. In American society today, there is an alternative: life in prison without parole. Imprisonment is an effective method of protecting society from people who perpetrate violence. Because of this, at least in the United States today, the death penalty does not serve a purpose in protecting innocent human lives.
Often people arguing against the death penalty will point out the cases where someone on death row was later proved to be innocent. For example, newly discovered DNA evidence has been frequently used to prove someone’s innocence. It goes without saying that we should not be punishing innocent people, especially in such a final way as killing them. Indeed, since 1973, over 115 people on death row have been exonerated.
It is important to realize, however, that the death penalty in our society is wrong even if we are 100% sure that the person committed the most horrendous crime. We are each called to respect the life and dignity of every human being, even when that person denies the dignity of others. Their dignity still comes from God and is not something that can be lost through their bad decisions. The right to life applies even to people who do terrible things.
Missouri: A Dubious Distinction
In 2015, Missouri was the second in the nation in terms of the number of executions (6 executions), only behind Texas. In fact, Missouri was one of only six states that executed someone in 2015. The year before, Missouri and Texas tied as executing the most prisoners in our country with 10 executions each. That means that in 2014 and 2015, over 25% of the executions in the United States took place here in Missouri.
These statistics probably come as a surprise to you. The news does not cover this topic very often. It is a topic, however, about which we who are pro-life should be concerned.