Cardinal Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, acknowledged in General Principles that “There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty”. Even between catechisms, there are differing opinions on these two issues.
Pope John Paul II promulgated the now-famous Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992. In contrast to previous teaching on the issue, capital punishment was legitimized (however narrowly) under self-defense doctrine. This, according to scholars Feser and Bessette, contrasted to historical treatment of the issue as a matter of asset forfeiture: losing one’s most precious asset, human life, in expiation for a crime. Pope Pius XII in 1952 noted that a convicted murderer "has dispossessed himself of the right to live".
Cardinal Bernadin put forth the Seamless Garment in 1983, following Eileen Egan’s 1970’s teachings on the consistent ethic of life. This ethic opposes willful abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, and, note the qualification, unjust war. This concept spread through the American seminaries, and no one was surprised when Cardinal Sean O’Malley criticized the issuance of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s death sentence for his role in the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing. The former noted, in line with the John Paul II Catechism, that the threat had already been “neutralized” by Tsarnaev’s imprisonment before trial. Indeed, Tsarnaev claimed his death sentence was an injustice- after killing 3, maiming 16, and terrorizing a nation. Pope Francis’ recent revision of the 1992 Catechism declares capital punishment “inadmissible”, commenting that previous teachings on the subject were more legalistic than pastoral in nature.
Lesson 33 of The Baltimore Catechism, the American Bishops’ official catechism until last decade, identifies three circumstances when human life may be lawfully taken:
1. In self-defense
2. In a just war
3. By the lawful execution of a criminal.
In practice, public enthusiasm to carry out just rewards- to be “tough on crime” or to “Bomb Agrabah” is tempered by involved parties with respect for human life and recognition of moral culpability. These involved parties are police officers, homeowners, military officers, and trial judges, who direct and carry out the lawful taking of life. For example, no serious politician or official wants to legislate Genesis 9:6 into law. As seen in public discourse, the highest value of human life is assigned to those accused of a capital offense, where one wrongful execution is a moral outrage; and lowest for innocents in a war zone, in which a thousand foreign casualties does not churn the stomach. As an example of this ethic, then-Governor Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign-stop execution of mentally-incompetent Ricky Ray Rector in Arkansas is still discussed today. If this was not a lawful execution per-se, then was it willful murder committed by a future president? (3) Historical statistics likewise demonstrate that the perceived moral hazard of taking an innocent life is greatest with capital punishment, and lowest in war.
· Self-Defense: 149 unarmed Americans died during an encounter with law enforcement in 2017 alone. (1). This figure does not include accidental deaths under Castle Doctrine and Stand Your Ground laws.
· Just War: According to the National Geographic, 500,000 Iraqi civilians have died in conflict since 2003.
· Forfeiture: Since the 1970’s, 1 possible execution of an innocent person in America. This case was Cameron Willingham, found guilty of arson and executed in 2004. Governor Rick Perry of Texas was informed that trial evidence used outdated fire science, but he chose not to issue clemency to Mr. Willingham. (2)
In matters of human dignity, all these innocent lives should be weighed equally. In practice, they are most certainly not. Our nation spends millions on a single capital appeals, and not enough to provide clean drinking water in Flint, Michigan. There is no absolute truth or fallacy when commeasuring these issues: self-defense, just war and capital punishment. Personally, I feel that the ultimate punishment should be reserved for exceptional cases like Tsarnaev's. The key takeaway is to stay informed.
Source: (1) https://policeviolencereport.org/
(2) Identified by Edward Feser and Jospeh Bessette in By Man His Blood Be Shed
Agrabah is a fictional Middle-Eastern city created by the Walt Disney Company.