Educational Resource

Death Penalty Questions & Answers

Year Published
  • 2012
  • English

What is the Catholic  Church’s position on the use of the death penalty?

At the heart of Catholic teaching on the death penalty is the  belief that  “Human life is sacred because from its beginning it involves the creative action  of God and it remains for ever in a special relationship with the Creator, who  is its sole end…” (Catechism, No.  2258).

Regarding the death penalty, 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” (#2267).

Catholic teaching says that the situations in which the  death penalty can be used are “rare, if not practically non-existent.” Wouldn’t  cases of heinous crimes, such as 9/11, be examples of the “rare” cases?

The test of whether the death penalty can be used is  whether society has alternative ways to protect itself, not how terrible the  crime was. Life in prison without parole provides a non-lethal alternative to the death penalty. We can’t know whether God has a purpose for a person’s life,  even one who has committed a terrible crime and must spend his or her life  behind bars.

Does life in prison without parole really work or are  those convicted sometimes released?

Life in prison without parole means that the convicted  person is not eligible for parole and cannot be released.

I understand that in the past innocent people were  sentenced to death, but now that DNA is available, isn’t this avoidable?

DNA evidence only exists in about 5-10% of criminal cases (10-15% of death  penalty cases). Where it is available, it is still subject to contamination and  human error. The risk of an erroneous conviction is still significant.