||Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed|
Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty and the Issue of Prudential Judgment
Catholic teaching regarding the death penalty is set forth in the Catechism of the Catholic Church at ¶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.
While the language of the Catechism seems clear on its face, some pro-death penalty Catholics have questioned whether this text is binding
Catholics or it is simply a “prudential judgment” that they can take or leave as they please. Their “prudential judgment” argument in favor
of the death penalty goes as follows:
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.”
1. They argue that the teaching in the Catechism on the death penalty is not moral teaching (i.e., not binding) but is simply the
“prudential judgment” of Pope John Paul II as pastor. If that were the case, then the door is open for Catholics to substitute their
prudential judgment for his.
2. Less sophisticated proponents of this argument then go further and assume that “prudential judgment” allows them to support
whatever makes sense to them.
The problems with such “prudential judgment” arguments in favor of the death penalty are as follows:
a. The most sophisticated Catholic proponents of this argument focus upon the closing words of the closing sentence of ¶2267: “… the
cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.’”
Even if one assumes that this particular conclusion is only a prudential judgment of the Pope, it does nothing to negate the moral teaching
of the balance of ¶2267, i.e., that capital punishment can only be morally justified when non-lethal means are insufficient to protect innocent
life in society.
b. Perhaps that is the reason that more sophisticated Catholic death penalty proponents argue that the Catholic Church has in fact
failed to set out the criteria that justify use of the death penalty:
This argument appears to be based upon a comparison of ¶2267 on the death penalty to ¶2309 on just war. The latter paragraph sets forth
several conditions that must be met for the moral use of legitimate defense by military force. Therefore, the argument goes, because ¶2267
only sets forth one basis upon which the death penalty can be justified (i.e., that capital punishment can only be morally justified when
non-lethal means are insufficient to protect innocent life in society), the statement is incomplete, and “prudential judgment” can provide
other moral reasons that justify its use.
The crux of this analysis is as follows: if the Church did not explicitly say that there are no other reasons, then there can be other reasons.
Anyone familiar with statutory analysis will grasp the perils of such an analysis, especially in light of the fact that ¶2267 reads:
If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit
itself to such means…
Consequently, the net effect of this argument is to strip the first two grammatical paragraphs of ¶2267 of moral authority, as well,
and to render all of the Catechism’s teaching on capital punishment optional.
c. Less sophisticated Catholic proponents of the death penalty have gone far beyond these arguments, claiming that “prudential
judgment” allows any Catholic to support the death penalty if “it makes sense to them.” This argument fails to distinguish between the
visceral satisfaction sought by an act, on the one hand, and right reason practically applied, on the other.
Prudence affirms the good as a duty and shows in what manner the person should accomplish it. In the final analysis, it is a virtue that
requires the mature exercise of thought and responsibility in an objective understanding of a specific situation and in making decisions
according to a correct will. ¶548 Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.
Right reason practically applied with a correct will should not seek to take human life when non-lethal means are sufficient to protect
innocent life in society.
A response to such “prudential judgment” arguments in favor of the death penalty has been clearly and eloquently stated by Charles E. Rice,
Professor Emeritus, Notre Dame Law School:
Professor Rice readily acknowledges that before Evangelium Vitae, he and others “argued for the use of the death penalty on grounds
consistent with the position taken by St. Thomas Aquinas.”1 Now, he does an excellent job of summarizing where the Church has been,
where it is, and what that means for faithful Catholics.
Church teaching has traditionally regarded the decision whether to exercise the authority of the state to impose the death penalty as,
in effect, a prudential judgment subject to a strong presumption against the use of that penalty.
Has the Church changed its affirmation of the authority of the state to impose the death penalty? Or has it restricted the conditions under
which that authority may rightly be exercised? The answer is: No on the first, Yes on the second.2
… In short, Evangelium Vitae’s allowance of the death penalty only “in cases of absolute necessity…when it would not be possible to
defend society” refers not to some generalized protection of society by imposing retribution or by deterring other potential offenders.
Rather it refers only to the protection of society from this convicted criminal. The final text of the Catechism makes it explicitly
clear that a Catholic can no longer argue for the death penalty from an undifferentiated need to protect society or to promote the common
good.3 [Italics in original.]
© 2011 Dale S. Recinella
All rights reserved.
No reuse without permission.
1 Charles E. Rice, The Winning Side: Questions on Living the Culture of LIFE (St. Brendan’s Institute: Mishawaka, IN, 1999), at 281.
2 Ibid., at 277.
3 Ibid., at 281
Now I Walk on Death Row – in Florida: June
DALE S. RECINELLA, Catholic Lay Chaplain for Florida Death Row
Saturday June 18th
Sponsored by: American Catholic Correctional Chaplains Association (ACCCA)
3:30 – 4:45 pm: Presentation followed by book signing
Open to members and to Catholic clergy and religious of Florida
Only Crushed Grapes Produce Wine
ACCCA Annual Conference
Residencia Jesús Maestro
717 NE 27th Street
Miami, FL 33127
For information contact:
Paul E. Rogers, President ACCCA @ 262.627.0636 or Paul
Now I Walk on Death Row – On Television:
DALE S. RECINELLA, Catholic Lay Chaplain for Florida Death Row
Tuesday Morning June 28th 10 am ET (taping for later play):
It’s Time for Herman and Sharron: Christian Television Network, Largo, FL
For broadcast times, contact: Linda Opsahl (727) 535-5622 ext. 4057
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.
Your name and information will never be used or shared with anyone. We promise!
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