What follows is a brief list of reasons why Catholics can and should support the death penalty.
St. Thomas Aquinas condones the death penalty. Aquinas’ main argument is that certain criminals pose a grave threat to society, and for the good of the whole, sometimes they need to be executed, just as we would excise a diseased limb from a human body.
Commonly heard is the argument that to be in favor of the death penalty is to contradict the pro-life position. This argument is completely false. Everyone has the right to life, but that right can be forfeited by descending into debased and animalistic behavior. Crimes such as murder, rape and pedophilia should be punishable by the death penalty because each of these crimes involves pursuing one’s base lusts and angers to the extent of harming others.
People often quote the lines “turn the other cheek” or “he who lives by the sword, dies by the sword” in order to justify an anti-death penalty position. However, Christ is clearly only referring to individuals here, not the government. If it was applied to the government, then if a man is convicted of murder, the government should turn the other cheek by letting him murder the judge. The government would also not be able to defend its citizens against invasions under this logic.
St. Paul writes: “Rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:3-5). Clearly, the government has a responsibility to protect its citizens and to mete out appropriate punishment to evildoers in order to discourage evil actions and promote good conduct. In some cases, this involves “bearing the sword” to execute criminals.
We see God himself execute wrongdoers in the Old Testament. Some might say that after Jesus, the death penalty is no longer applicable, but that is not the case. Some people tend to think that everything in the Old Testament is wrong and everything in the New is good. But Jesus himself says, “I came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it.”
Therefore, if Jesus does not explicitly condemn something common in the Old, it is still applicable in the New. Since he does not explicitly condemn the death penalty in the New, it is still applicable today. However, there are several instances in which we see indirect support for the death penalty.
Consider these words from Christ: “It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:2). Whatever you might think of these words, they don’t exactly sound like the words of someone who is against the death penalty.
Another argument against capital punishment is that there is no room for the sinner to repent and change. Again, this position is refuted in the New Testament. At the crucifixion, the good thief says to the other: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:40-42). He then asks Christ to remember him.
Now, if Christ were against the death penalty, he could have said that the thief’s punishment was unjust, but he does not. Rather, it is the thief’s realization of the justice of his punishment that brings Jesus to say, “You will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Thus, not only do we have evidence of Jesus indirectly defending the death penalty, but we also have proof that it is possible for a sinner to repent when faced with the death penalty.
In fact, capital punishment makes it even more likely that the sinner will repent. When faced with immediate and certain death, or a life in prison surrounded by criminals, which do you think is more likely to stir the human heart to examination and repentance?
On a secular note, the death penalty works. Compare Singapore to Chicago — two polar extremes on the treatment of criminals. One has the death penalty, and many other severe punishments, and the other gives its criminals a light slap on the wrist, if that. Look at these two places. Singapore is one of the most beautiful and lavish countries in the world. Chicago is one of the most crime ridden cities in the world. There is no coincidence here. Singapore has the good of its citizens in mind. Chicago does not.
As Aristotle tells us, it is in the mean where we find balance. Thus, a sensible country should have the death penalty for serial killers, murderers, rapists and pedophiles, as well as normal punishments for its criminals. Perhaps it would not always be invoked, but it needs to be available for use. Contrary to what you might hear, the death penalty is in fact an effective deterrent. If you want proof, look at Singapore and Chicago..
Final point: the death penalty is not murder, but justice. It is not vengeance, but mercy — both to society and, in a way, the criminal himself. There is a reason why upon pronouncement of the death sentence, we hear: “May God have mercy on your soul.”