History of Capital Punishment a.k.a. the Death Penalty
B. The Catholic Church and the Death Penalty
Professor Doris Neuzil
REL 401 - The Catholic Tradition
September 24, 2011
The History of the Catholic Church and the Death Penalty
The Ten Commandments, principles issued by God for us to live our lives by, includes one that states – “Thou Shall Not Kill.” However, on Wednesday, September 21, 2011, two men in the United States were executed – Mr. Troy Davis in Georgia, and Mr. Lawrence Brewer in Texas. (Jonsson) While the approaching execution of Mr. Brewer was almost unmentioned, the ...view middle of the document...
Efforts to abolish the death penalty in the United States can be traced back to 1767, with the first major change occurring in 1794 when Pennsylvania decided to use the death penalty only in cases of first degree murder convictions. With the exception of treason, in 1846 Michigan became the next state to abolish the death penalty, and other states followed with totally eliminating the death penalty in their state. As recent as March of this year, Illinois joined the states abolishing the death penalty. Illinois’ toughest penalty at this time is life without parole. In the late 1800’s the first electric chair was invented, and in the early 1900’s cyanide gas and the gas chamber made their appearance. (Death Penalty Information Center)
Through the years there has been both support and opposition for the death penalty. At both the state and federal level laws have changed, and in 1999 Pope John Paul II, on a visit to St. Louis, Missouri, called for an end to the death penalty. However, according to the Death Penalty Information Center, there are currently 58 countries that still use the death penalty, and more than half of the states in the United States still use death as a form of punishment for crimes committed.
As previously stated, one of the Ten Commandments states that “Thou Shall Not Kill.” However, this is in direct contradiction with what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says when it states “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.” (2267) Therefore, while the Church does state “Thou Shall Not Kill,” it does support the death penalty under certain circumstances.
From the early days, government was allowed to administer the death penalty for specific offenses without interference from the Catholic Church. Wilton D. Gregory states in his article The Church’s Evolving View on the Death Penalty that “Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) sanctioned capital punishment so long as it was carried out with justice, and not out of hatred; with prudence, and not with precipitation.” However, even though the Catholic Church felt that the death penalty was acceptable in certain circumstances, it was with the understanding that “no cleric may decree or pronounce a sentence involving the shedding of blood.” (Gregory) Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) also argued that “the state should refrain from using the death penalty except for very grave offenses such as murder and treason.” (Gregory)
Opposition to the death penalty began after World War II, when according to Gregory, many European countries began to question their right to execute their citizens. Almost thirty years later, in 1974 during a United States Catholic Conference, the American bishops “declared its opposition to the institution of capital punishment.” (Gregory) In 1972, the United States Supreme Court suspended the death penalty,...