Archbishop Lucas offers insights on the US Catholic Catechism for Adults Chapter 29:
The Death Penalty
Following the lead of Pope John Paul II’s The Gospel of Life, the Catechism teaches that governmental authority has the right and duty to assure the safety of society, and to punish criminals by means of suitable penalties. This includes imposition of the death penalty if there is no other way to protect society (cf. CCC, no. 2267). But this principle has a very restrictive application:
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, no. 2267, citing EV, no. 56)
When dwelling on legal and moral arguments concerning the death penalty, we should do so not with vengeance and anger in our hearts, but with the compassion and mercy of our Lord in mind. It is also important to remember that penalties imposed on criminals always need to allow for the possibility of the criminal to show regret for the evil committed and to change his or her life for the better.
The imposition of the death penalty does not always allow for one or both of the purposes of criminal punishment to be achieved. “Our nation’s increasing reliance on the death penalty cannot be justified. We do not teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill others. Pope John Paul II has said the penalty of death is ‘both cruel and unnecessary’ (Homily in St. Louis, January 27, 1999). The antidote to violence is not more violence” (USCCB, Faithful Citizenship [Washington, DC: USCCB, 2003], 19).
Blessed John XXIII wrote that peace is a gift from God:
So magnificent is this aim [for peace] that human resources alone, even though inspired by the most praiseworthy good will, cannot hope to achieve it. God himself must come to man’s aid with his heavenly assistance, if human society is to bear the closest possible resemblance to the Kingdom of God. (Peace on Earth [Pacem in Terris], no. 168)
The best way to avoid war is to safeguard peace by letting go of the anger and hatred that breed war and by eliminating the poverty, injustice, and deprivation of human rights that lead to war. Disarmament needs to be encouraged. “The arms race is one of the greatest curses on the human race and the harm it inflicts on the poor is more than can be endured” (CCC, no. 2329, citing GS, no. 81 §3).
While every possible means must be taken to avoid war, there are times when a use of force by competent authority may be justified to correct a manifest injustice, especially to defend against a threat to one’s homeland. The tradition of the Church going back to St. Augustine (AD 354-430) has developed the conditions for war to be moral. These are known as the just-war conditions. They are listed as follows in the Catechism:
The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration. The gravity of such a decision makes it subject to rigorous standards of moral legitimacy. At one and the same time:
—the damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
—all other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
—there must be serious prospects of success;
—the use of arms must not produce evils graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.
These are the traditional elements enumerated in what is called the “just war” doctrine. The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good. (CCC, no. 2309)
War may never be undertaken from a spirit of vengeance, but rather from motives of self-defense and of establishing justice and right order. The government has the right and duty to enlist citizens in defense of the nation. Special provision should be made for those who refuse to bear arms for reasons of conscience. These men and women should serve their country in some other way.
The Church and human reason assert the permanent validity of the moral law during armed conflict. Civilians, wounded soldiers, and prisoners should be treated humanely. Exterminating people by ethnic cleansing is an intrinsic and grave moral evil.
In 1983, the bishops of the United States formally rejected nuclear war:
Under no circumstances may nuclear weapons or other instruments of mass slaughter be used for the purpose of destroying population centers or other predominantly civilian targets…. We do not perceive any situation in which the deliberate initiation of nuclear warfare, on however restricted a scale, can be morally justified. (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace: God’s Promise and Our Response, nos. 147 and 150)
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) (2012-04-02). United States Catholic Catechism for Adults (Kindle Locations 5726-5752). United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Kindle Edition.
The Most Reverend George J. Lucas leads the Archdiocese of Omaha.
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