Catholic teaching offers a unique perspective on crime and punishment. It begins with the recognition that the dignity of the human person applies to both victims and offenders. It affirms our commitment to comfort and support victims and their families, while acknowledging the God-given dignity of every human life, even those who do great harm.
Catholic teaching on human life begins with the belief that life is a gift from God that is not for us to take away. As it is applied to the death penalty, this teaching is both complicated and clear. The Church has long acknowledged the right of the state to use the death penalty in order to protect society. However, the Church has more and more clearly insisted the state forego this right if it has other means to protect society. Our fundamental respect for every human life and for God, who created each person in His image, requires that we choose not to end a human life in response to violent crimes if non-lethal options are available. Pope John Paul II, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Vatican Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and statements from U.S. Bishops are all clear and consistent that the use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned in our nation because we have alternative means to protect society.
In his encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” the Holy Father challenged followers of Christ to be “unconditionally pro-life,” willing to “proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of life in every situation.” He reminds us that “the dignity of the human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.” The cases in which society could not defend itself, according to the Pope, “are very rare if not practically non-existent.”
We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.
— United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
“A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty”
In response to the Holy Father’s call to end the death penalty during his January 1999 visit to the U.S., the bishops issued A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty. They reiterated the Pope’s challenge to “end the death penalty which is both cruel and unnecessary.” They concluded that their opposition to the death penalty is about not only the act of killing a guilty person, but also the detrimental effect of institutionalizing violence in our society.
Abolition sends a message that we can break the cycle of violence, that we need not take life for life, that we can envisage more humane and more hopeful and effective responses to the growth of violent crime. - United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Death penalty facts
- Approximately 3,300 people are on death row in the US; 89 of them in Tennessee.
- Since executions were reinstated in 1977, over 135 death row inmates have been exonerated; 2 in Tennessee.
- 90% of Tennessee’s death row inmates could not afford to hire their own defense at trial.
- Inmates convicted of murdering a white person are more than 3 times as likely to be sentenced to death than those convicted of murdering an African-American.
- Capital punishment is a far more expensive system than one whose maximum punishment is life without parole, diverting resources from real crime prevention efforts.
- At least 5-10% of those on death row suffer from severe mental illness while at least 100 of those executed since 1977 suffered from some form of mental illness.
- A recent survey of former and past presidents of top U.S. academic criminological societies show that 88% of these experts reject the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder.
What you can do
- Pray for victims of crime and their families, those who have been wrongly convicted, and those on death row and their families.
- Educate people in your parish and community about Catholic social teachings and capital punishment.
- Advocate by contacting your elected officials and joining together with Catholic and other religious and social justice groups.