||Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed|
Capital punishment and the issue of prudential judgment
By: Dale S. Recinella
In addressing Catholic audiences around Florida and around the country, I frequently encounter a deep confusion
on the subject of prudential judgment and Catholic teaching on the use of the death penalty.
Some audience members mistakenly believe that the principle of prudential judgment allows any Catholic to support the use of
capital punishment for any reason that makes sense to them. In other words, they believe that the teaching of the Church on
the use of capital punishment is just one opinion among many, and that each individual Catholic’s opinion on the subject is
just as good as the Church’s teaching.
I have attempted to delve into the roots of this misunderstanding. The best I can determine is that this misconception
has its basis in a fear that the moral teaching of the Church against the use of capital punishment might be conflated to
equate capital punishment with the status of abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem-cell research and other traditional life issues. The proper understanding of Church teaching does not invest the death penalty with the same moral gravity as those other issues. The rest of the news, however, is that the moral teaching of the Church on the use of the death penalty is authoritative.
In the document “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death” issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) in
November 2005, our American bishops have addressed these issues quite plainly:
“In its traditional teaching as summarized in the Catechism of the
Catholic Church, the Church affirms the right and duty of legitimate
public authority ‘to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity
of the offense’ (No. 2266). Recourse to the death penalty is not
absolutely excluded (see No. 2267): The death penalty is not intrinsically
evil, as is the intentional taking of innocent life through abortion
or euthanasia (see Nos. 2271, 2277). Nevertheless, the Church teaches
that in contemporary society where the state has other nonlethal means
to protect its citizens, the state should not use the death penalty
(see No. 2267).
In addition to the Catechism, our American bishops incorporate the authoritative teaching of the encyclical,
“The Gospel of Life”:
“Some ask whether those who commit the most heinous crimes or who are
found guilty of repeated violence constitute the ‘rare’ occasions when the
death penalty is appropriate. According to ‘The Gospel of Life,’ the
existence of a ‘rare’ occasion when the death penalty may be used is not
determined by the gravity of the crime but by whether ‘it would not be
possible otherwise to defend society.’ No matter how heinous the crime,
if society can protect itself without ending a human life, it should do so.”
Finally, our American bishops seem to address the prudential judgment argument head on, saying:
“The Church’s teaching, as expressed clearly and authoritatively in the
Catechism and ‘The Gospel of Life,’ should not be ignored or dismissed as
just one opinion among others. Rather, Catholics are called to receive
this teaching seriously and faithfully as they shape their consciences,
their attitudes, and ultimately their actions.”
In other words, a properly formed Catholic conscience should incorporate from the Catechism, “The Gospel
of Life” and our bishops this authoritative moral teaching restricting the use of the death penalty to
only those circumstances where nonlethal means are insufficient to protect society.
First published: The Florida Catholic OnLine, June 4, 2010
© 2010 Dale S. Recinella & The Florida Catholic.
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.
I Was In Prison
News & Updates
This ezine is targeted for people involved in prison ministry or in stopping the death penalty, we think you will find helpful information for people who are undecided about capital punishment, for those who have never experienced the inside of a jail or prison, and for those who feel called to participate through prayer and adoration.
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Dale S. Recinella
, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella
, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed