Here is a very quick summary of the stance of the Catholic Church on the death penalty. This review is necessary because of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s recent proposal to reinstate capital punishment — abolished in Illinois in 2011 — for persons convicted of mass killings or the homicide of a law-enforcement officer. I write as one who, many years ago, testified before a committee of the Illinois General Assembly about the evolving teaching of the Catholic Church on this topic.
The Catholic Church, for centuries, has acknowledged a theoretical right of the civil political order to carry out the execution of criminals. This theoretical right depends upon whether a particular criminal poses an immediate threat to the civil order. The church has looked upon the state as the proper body to determine this need. We are all aware of the bitter legacy of lynchings in the United States. The first edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (first published in French, 1992; English, 1994) acknowledged this theoretical right of the state.
In our day, however, moral theologians and church leaders have questioned whether a situation allowing for a resort to capital punishment exists concretely. In 1995 in his encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), St. John Paul II taught: “Execution is only appropriate in cases of absolute necessity, in other words when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.” The Catechism was updated to reflect this teaching of John Paul II. This updating of the teaching was precisely what I testified about at the State Capitol. The Catechism, at 2287, reads: “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 nonexistent.”
The Catholic Conference of Illinois, the lobbying organization of the Catholic bishops of Illinois, is unequivocal in its opposition to Gov. Rauner’s proposal: “We are distressed and alarmed by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s call for the reinstatement of the death penalty in any way, shape or form. His call to put to death individuals convicted of mass shootings or the fatal shooting of a law enforcement officer under proof of ‘beyond all doubt’ instead of ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ is simply parsing words. You cannot teach killing is wrong by killing. We are all God’s children, and our first — and primary — right to life must always be protected
Likewise, the ecumenical organization, the Illinois Conference of Churches, has stated: “The 2011 abolition of capital punishment in Illinois was a profound achievement. Many groups, including the Illinois Conference of Churches, worked for many years to achieve this abolition. People opposed in principle to capital punishment worked successfully with people who held to the prospect of the death penalty as a deterrent to crime. It became clear to many that the death penalty failed to deter crime. Many people who had been condemned were later exonerated through scientific evidence. Many came to understand that, if capital punishment were to be correctly applied, there would have to be greater certainty about a person’s guilt.
The recent proposal of Gov. Rauner to restore the death penalty for mass killings and homicide of law enforcement officers ignores the facts which led to a consensus against the death penalty in Illinois. Whenever tragedy is used or evidence is ignored for political gain, justice is not served and our society is the less for it. The Illinois Conference of Churches urges Illinois citizens to reject this proposal.”