History Of The Catholic Church On The Death Penalty

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History Of The Catholic Church On The Death Penalty


At one level, capital punishment, or the death penalty, is a minor issue. The media keep the public aware of all sorts of horrible crimes, but relatively few people are directly affected by those crimes, either as perpetrators or victims, or as family and friends of perpetrators and victims. Very few people are sentenced to die for their crimes, and still fewer people are ever executed.

At another level, capital punishment represents two profound concerns of nearly everyone: the value of human life and how best to protect it. For most people who support capital punishment, the execution of killers (and people who commit other horrible acts) makes sense (Shannon, 219).

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the consensus amongst Catholic theologians remained in favour of capital punishment in those cases deemed suitably extreme. Until 1969, the Vatican had a penal code that included the death penalty for anyone who attempted to assassinate the Pope.

However, by the end of this century opinions were changing. In 1980, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops published an almost entirely negative statement on capital punishment, approved by a majority vote of those present, though not by the required two-thirds majority of the entire conference.

In 1997 the Vatican announced changes to the Catechism, thus making it more in line with John Paul II's 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life (Macquarrie, 324).

Discussion and Analysis

Even if one concedes that the death penalty could be used in some cases, how do we decide what is worthy of death? In the Old Testament people were executed because they worked on the Sabbath (Ex 31:15). Surely we don't want to execute someone for that! Only a small segment of Christianity, Reconstructionists, would say that we should live under all of the laws (or at least the moral and civil laws) of the Old Testament. But what about moral issues like homosexuality (Lev 20:13), adultery (Lev 20:10), and animal molestation (Lev 20:15-16)?

Matthew 5:17-18 says Jesus came to fulfill the law not abolish it. Hebrews 8 attests that Jesus' death and resurrection brought about some change in the law and covenant.

Although these sins (like adultery, bestiality, homosexuality, and all sins) still offend God, they should not be treated the same way now, as they were in the Old Testament. We do not live in a theocratic government (a government with God as king), and thus we have to function differently. While we should still take sin seriously, God will handle certain sins in his own time.

Governments should not implement laws that condone sins such as mentioned above. But since all governments are made up of sinners, then they show sinful traits no matter how fair they are.

Again, see Gen 9:6-7. Murder takes from an innocent person something essential for life and happiness, something which cannot be given back. An innocent life ceases.

The murderer's life is forfeited by his own wrong doings. The murderer's ruling and judging privileges—the image of God—are ...
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