Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Death Penalty and St. Thomas

Q - St Thomas Aquinas in his "Summa contra Gentiles" spoke of his firm support of the death penalty. I know Church thought draws upon a lot of his works including Summa Theologica so why the difference in thought regarding the use of capital punishment? Thanks for your help!

A -
Thanks for the question! While the Church certainly does use St. Thomas quite a bit, we should note that he isn't a one man magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church). So, while he may be the most important theologian ever (that conclusion is debatable) we do not give him any charism of infallibility.

That being said, the Church has not ruled out the use of the death penalty. It merely questions the prudence of using it in today's society. As I have stated in a previous post, the death penalty is not an intrinsic moral evil like abortion or euthanasia. In other words, the Church does not absolutely exclude a government's right to have recourse to the death penalty. In fact, a Catholic, in narrow circumstances, can support the death penalty and still be in good standing with the Church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent." (CCC 2267)


Lloyd said...

I must agree with you that in today's day and age, with super-max prisons and life without parole sentences (which really mean that a convicted murderer will never get out), the death penalty is inconsistent with Catholic values. When you add on top of that the fact that often minorities and the poor are much more likely to get the death penalty than rich folks, it seems to be quite clear that the death penalty cannot be supported by Catholics.

Cody said...

When I was at St. Mary's, I was opposed to the death penalty in all cases. But my view has moved on, and I do not think that complete opposition is at all in accord with pro-life values. It is extremely naive to say that the death penalty is never needed. Certainly, our run of the mill murderers do not need to be executed-life without parole is a better option. But I am more concerned with gang leaders. You see in places like Los Angeles where gang leaders are still able to run their operations from inside the prison. There is little way to stop this. It'll turn into a cat-and-mouse game. The only way to protect society at that point is a prompt execution. This applies to all areas of organized crime, gangs, terrorist cells, etc. But executions should occur promptly (not years later) or else there isn't much point in even having them in prison.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Marcel. All too often I think that we are presented with a less than authentic Catholic position on the death penalty by many catechists, but yours is outstanding, and all you had to do was say what the Church says, imagine that!

Anonymous said...

To Lloyd,
Your statement that "the death penalty is inconsistent with Catholic values" is false. Virtually all Catholic theologians and SAINTS up until very recently have never advocated for an abolition of the death penalty, and as the poster showed because the Church herself does not oppose it outright, but rather supports the proposition that the state may (in limited circumstances) have recourse to it, one cannot make a statement such as you did and still maintain intellectual honesty.

David M said...

I would add that just as St. Thomas is not a one-man magisterium, Evangelium vitae and the 1993 Catechism are not necessarily stand-alone one-stop sources for authoritative, complete statements of authentic Catholic dogma - especially on the issue of capital punishment, since what the 'ordinary magisterium' of the Church has said throughout the centuries is rather different from the emphasis that came to predominate in the late 20th century.