Peter Singer speaking at a Veritas Forum event on MIT's campus on Saturday, March 14, 2009. Photo by Joel Travis Sage.
[somewhat of a reply to Professor of Bioethics Peter Singer's article, For the death penalty yet pro-life? Really?]
I agree (apart from rare exceptions) with the general papal opinion now, that the death penalty should not be carried out, for the sake of providing a witness to the sanctity of human life.
It's not an absolute, though. The Church recognizes that states have the power of the sword (Romans 13:1-7; also the analogy to Just War Theory). I myself believe, accordingly, that the death penalty is quite justified (is not inherently and always wrong) and can and should still be carried out in the case of the most heinous crimes (mass murderers, terrorists, etc.), without any slightest hint of reasonable doubt whatever as to guilt, as determined by a jury trial. I don't approve of the famous execution of Troy Davis, if there was significant, reasonable doubt raised about the man's guilt. I don't favor it, anyway, in the case of single murders.
The death penalty is not an absolute contradiction to pro-life, either, because the two scenarios aren't analogous. The state has no right to murder an innocent child. But in capital punishment, it is a question of application of criminal justice, since the state has the power of the sword and the right to coerce in enforcing its laws (police can sometimes shoot to kill).
The popes have allowed this "loophole," and I can hold it in good conscience, as an obedient Catholic, because the Church doesn't deny that states have the power of the sword. In other words, the Church's position is not absolute pacifism. The Church is lifting up and recommending the ideal, while acknowledging the reality of sin, and necessity for use of force in particular circumstances.
Thus, I completely reject the attempted failed disanalogy of (pro-) capital punishment vs. (anti-) abortion, while agreeing with the popes and the Mind of the Church in our time that execution should be almost non-existent.
Peter Singer is the one who has the massive self-contradictions: he opposes the death penalty, yet favors abortion, while arguing that animals have rights that preborn human beings do not have. Referring to abortion, he has written:
. . . we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being's life.
(Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics, St. Martin's Griffin, 1996, p. 105)
He's the very last person who should be lecturing pro-life Christians on when a human life should justly be taken, given his hyper-confused ethical thinking.
Blessed Pope John Paul II's 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae, included an exception clause for the death penalty:
It is clear that, for these purposes to be achieved, the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent. (56)
Likewise, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2267):
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 to 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 definitely 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 nonexistent."
My position of favoring the death penalty for terrorists (the sort that can kill 3000 people in one day, as on 9-11) or mass murderers, is, I think, quite in accord with this teaching: limited application; very rare. This is not contradictory to Blessed Pope John Paul II's or the Catechism's teaching, though it might allow relatively more latitude in application (one could quibble about when it is necessary under the exception clause, or not).
The Church has not denied to states the power of the sword, nor denied that police can use lethal force in certain circumstances, nor denounced its traditional Just War theory, nor stated that all use of force or capital punishment in the various manifestations of the Inquisition were inherently wrong (St. Thomas Aquinas argues that such practices are justifiable). Thus, capital punishment, in the very rare cases when it should occur, is neither inherently wrong, nor contrary to Church teaching (nor to the Bible).
* * *
Pope Benedict XVI, in the year (2004) before he became pope, wrote, as Cardinal Ratzinger:
3. Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.
Reply to Two Lutheran Pastors on Fundamental Misconceptions Regarding the Catholic Position on the Death Penalty