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It’s Not Just Me: The Death Penalty Revisited

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | May 03, 2007

I continue to be amazed at the number of people who condemn’s insistence that the application of the death penalty involves prudential judgments about which good people may disagree. Capital punishment is completely different from abortion in this respect. I partially blame this confusion on the inclusion of Pope John Paul II’s own opinion in the Catechism, where its nature as a prudential judgment is not explicitly noted. But this confusion is perpetuated almost daily by bishops and other ecclesiastical lobbyists who should know better. I personally have no strong opinion about the use of the death penalty, but I do have a very strong desire that Catholic doctrine be properly understood. I tried to make all the necessary distinctions three years ago in a column which is now part of our What You Need to Know entry on this topic (see Capital Punishment: Drawing the Line Between Doctrine and Opinion). But when I asked for feedback on our WYNTK series, some readers responded with ire. Folks, this is not just me talking. When Cardinal Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) sent his instructions to the American bishops on Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion — General Principles, he said the same thing:

3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.

It is imperative for Catholics to take as their moral compass the precise teachings of the Church; not the opinions of churchmen (especially in areas for which the laity are responsible) and certainly not the fashions of the larger culture. Only with that proper compass can we reasonably decide which direction prudence demands. Without that proper compass, only the merest chance can keep us on course.

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