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Capital Punishment (Death Penalty)

The death penalty is a very thorny issue today. For most of the second half of the twentieth century, nearly all Catholic leaders defended capital punishment. But in recent years, nearly all Catholic leaders have called for its abolition.

It is best to begin with the teaching of the current Catechism of the Catholic Church on the subject, which already reflects the new shift in emphasis while still upholding traditional moral teaching.

The reasons for the widespread Catholic shift toward abolition of the death penalty are complex, involving both doctrinal and prudential concerns, primarily arising out of John Paul II's ever-increasing emphasis on the "culture of life". To avoid confusion, it is critical that Catholics understand where doctrine ends and prudential judgment begins in the ongoing discussion.

Finally, it is very helpful to read at least one good example of a sophisticated Catholic exploration of this issue, which should help us to separate the wheat from the chaff as various arguments and points of view are proposed in the future.

If you only have time to look at three things, LOOK AT THESE.

  1. The Catechism on the Death Penalty
  2. Capital Punishment: Drawing the Line between Doctrine and Opinion
  3. Catholicism and Capital Punishment

And if you've got more time...

Despite the distinctions made in the middle document above, some Catholics have had difficulty grasping the difference beteween the absolute moral judgment which applies to issues such as abortion and euthanasia and the prudential judgments which make capital punishment a very different kind of issue. This distinction was clearly made by Benedict XVI (while still the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) in his 2004 instruction to the US Bishops on Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion — General Principles.

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