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Opposition to the Death Penalty

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 09, 2007

On November 2nd the Community of Sant’Egidio and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty delivered a petition to the United Nations calling for an end to capital punishment. The petition was signed by five million people from 154 countries.

Opposition to the death penalty has been growing around the world over the past ten years or so. Pope John Paul II expressed the view that modern penal systems made the need for the death penalty exceedingly rare or even non-existent, and ever since that time Catholic Church leaders have been in the forefront of the movement to seek an end to the practice. The Sant’Egidio Community frequently works closely with the Holy See on issues of peace and justice.

I confess to being conflicted about both the death penalty and the extremely widespread support for its abolition. On balance, I agree that it should be outlawed, but my chief reason is not that it is intrinsically immoral in all situations (according to Church teaching, it isn’t). Rather, I believe it is too often misapplied to take the risk of having it as an option. I recognize the legitimacy of disagreement on this issue, yet disagreement is not the source of my own internal conflict.

Two things primarily concern me. First, I don’t like the way Pope John Paul II’s prudential judgment about the advisability of capital punishment has led in many places to a great confusion over the settled Catholic teaching on the matter. John Paul II did develop the doctrine on the death penalty slightly, clarifying that it must be necessary for the protection of society, but his thoughts on the efficacy of modern penal systems are not part of the Church’s special competence. This doesn’t mean they are not valuable; they just aren’t part of the Church’s official teaching. (For a fuller treatment, see Capital Punishment: Drawing the Line Between Doctrine and Opinion.)

Second, I don’t like the way opposition to the death penalty can be seized as a sort of pro-life moral high ground, as if this is just as valuable as being against abortion. The death penalty is not intrinsically immoral; abortion is. The two problems are incommensurable morally, and abortion is also quantitatively more significant by many orders of magnitude. It concerns me that opposition to the death penalty is growing more widespread and more vehement almost in direct proportion to the spread of the culture of death. Some people might have the best of reasons for their opposition (and, indeed, I have stated my own), but I can’t avoid the sneaking suspicion that for the vast majority this is simply another flight from reality—another refusal to accept the axiom that actions have consequences.

Indeed, if the massive opposition to capital punishment were based on any sort of logic, a similar opposition to abortion would even now be bringing whole political systems to their knees. This, ultimately, is what makes me conflicted about the death penalty. Of course, one should support the good despite any misunderstanding and hypocrisy which come along for the ride. But there is a great deal of such baggage in this case. It bothers me. It makes me very nervous. I don’t like it.

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