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Why Capital Punishment is “Inadmisible”

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A pending bill in the Ohio General Assembly, S.B. 103 (the “Bill”), if passed and signed by Governor DeWine, will abolish the death penalty in Ohio. Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr, on behalf of himself and all the Catholic bishops of Ohio, has submitted written testimony endorsing the Bill and urging its passage. For Catholics, any doubt about the morality of capital punishment has been resolved. As Archbishop Schnurr testified, the death penalty is “is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and we should work with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

These words echo the recently-revised language of Section 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which teaches that the death penalty is inadmissible for at least three reasons:
(1) the inviolable dignity of the human person;
(2) the problem with endowing the state with the authority to kill; and
(3) the development of legal and technological means to protect society without having to put the offender to death. In addition to these reasons, other theological commitments also compel opposition to capital punishment. And these commitments do not force us to subscribe to abstract theories or metaphors about respecting life that simply don’t fit all situations.


As I have written in this space before, I am skeptical of abstract moral principles such as “respect for life” or “the dignity of the human person.” Of course, I do believe we should respect life, and that every person is intrinsically endowed with inviolable dignity. But embracing these notions is often not very helpful in the crisis of moral decision-making. In fact, they can sometimes cause us to confuse issues, and force us to attempt to impose “one-size-fits-all” moral theories on issues that require different moral explanations. While foundational moral principles are a necessary part of our moral deliberation, the moral life is inherently practical, requiring specific, concrete reasons for doing X or refraining from Y.

Similarly, I am suspicious of broad, sweeping generalizations to attempt an account of the Church’s teaching about human life. Slogans like “a consistent ethic of life” do not capture the variety of reasons we give for protecting life across a broad spectrum of circumstances. In fact, they cause more confusion than clarity.

The notion of a “consistent ethic of life” implies that every question of whether to preserve, take or relinquish a human life is addressed by the same set of reasons. Put another way, it implicitly assumes that every life situation is commensurate with every other. But this is not how it works in the practice of our moral lives. To try to use the same justification for opposing abortion that we use to oppose capital punishment does not work, and we should not force ourselves to attempt it. This is because abortion and capital punishment are different moral objects, having very little to do with one another, and require different reasons for our opposition to them. If we try to impose a broad generalization, we might (and often do) oppose abortion, but justify capital punishment.


But to say that life issues are not commensurate does not necessarily imply that some are more or less important than others, nor does it deny the reality of intrinsically evil moral objects. Our commitment to life issues must be consistent with the moral gravity of the object, even if our reasons differ from issue to issue. But the incommensurability of life issues means that different stages of and questions about life require different justifications, and those justifications don’t “translate” from one issue to the other. For example, we oppose abortion because it is an assault on fundamental justice: depriving an innocent human being of her life for nothing that human being has done. But that rationale doesn’t work to oppose capital punishment for a murderer.

By definition, the murderer has committed an egregious offense against another person particularly and against society generally. He is not an “innocent” person, and so we cannot use his innocence to oppose taking his life. Rather, our opposition to taking the life of the murderer must be based on the limits of retributive justice and the prohibition of vengeance. The primary rationale for depriving the offender of his liberty is to punish him within the limits of the protection of human society – the common good. To impose sanctions that exceed the protection of the common good is to move beyond justice to vengeance. The state must never take vengeance, and the Church must never endorse the state when it does.

I am aware of theological objections to the Church’s opposition to capital punishment, especially in terms of the development of doctrine. How do we reconcile the Church’s current teaching with historical examples of the Church’s lack of opposition to capital punishment? These are serious objections that demand careful and respectful attention. They are not easily dismissed.

Regardless of these objections, the current teaching is justified even in historical context. Protecting society does not require us to take the life of persons who have committed the most heinous crimes. Arguably, that has not always been the case. But, as section 2267 of the Catechism says, it is now. Thus, if it is not necessary to take that life to protect society, it is necessary not to take that life. This is not based on the moral status of the wrongdoer. Rather it is based on the moral status of those who would kill (or endorse the killing of) that person. Even if we think that person deserves death, constrained by the limits of justice, we do not have moral authority to impose or endorse it. Thus, in the words of Archbishop Schnurr, “we look forward to the day when the death penalty is only remembered as part of Ohio’s history.”

Dr. Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary & School of Theology. He holds a Ph.D. in moral theology from Boston College, and a J.D. from Duke University School of Law.

This article appeared in the October edition of The Catholic Telegraph Magazine. For your complimentary subscription, click here.

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