Capital Punishment and Catholics

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Capital punishment throughout history has had many faces in our society. In the early twentieth century capital punishment was viewed as an integral part of the criminal justice system. In the United States alone approximately thirteen thousand people have been legally executed sine the colonial times (ACLU, 2003). By the 1930's up to 150 people were executed yearly, because of various legal challenges the execution rate was almost zero by 1967. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the practice of capital punishment, citing the death penalty as it was practiced, cruel and unusual punishment arbitrarily administered by the courts and thus unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia (Costanzo, 18). In 1976, in Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty stating that under guided discretion the courts again could impose capital punishment for crimes such as murder with special circumstances (Costanzo, 21). Since having the death penalty reinstated in 1976 by the Supreme Court, society has a whole still favors capital punishment, but because of the nature of the punishment there is still a split among society as to the appropriateness of the sanction. In today’s society there are those that are apposed and there are those that are in favor of the death penalty, but the majority still views capital punishment as a staple in the criminal justice system. Public opinion polls show approximately seventy percent of the U.S population currently approves of the use capital punishment (ACLU, 2003). Even with a high approval rate among the population in the United States there is still a large population of people with religious arguments against capital punishment, catholic society by the nature of humanity and evolution has realized that capital punishment is less and less a moral and ethical punishment for capital crimes such as murder. In examining the history of the Catholic Church and the Catholic Church’s moral teachings in regards to the death penalty we might better understand why the Catholic Church has such a strong stance of opposition towards capital punishment and why this form of punishment has caused such a dilemma for American Catholics and Catholics around the world.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, there are many references to the death penalty and how and when it should and could be used as a punishment. Throughout the Old Testament references can be found in which God commands the use of capital punishment. In some these references from the Old Testament, God uses the death penalty himself as a form of punishment. God was involved, either directly or indirectly, in the taking of life as a punishment for the nation of Israel or for those who threatened or harmed Israel. The first example of the death penalty being used is in Genesis 6-8 in the story of Noah and the flood. God destroyed all human and animal life except that life which he as God decided to save which was on the ark. A second of Gods use of the death penalty would be in Sodom and Gomorrah Genesis. 18-19, where God destroyed the two cities because of the heinous sin of the inhabitants. In the time of Moses, God took the lives of the Egyptians' first-born sons Exodus 11 and destroyed the Egyptian army in the Red Sea Exodus. 14. God used capital punishment to deal with Israel's sins and the sins of the nations surrounding Israel, these above examples show where god not only condoned capital punishment but used it himself to punish those whom he judged to be worthy of the punishment (Death Penalty, 2003).

In more modern society the Catholic Church reaches for a spiritual leader to guide and interpret circumstances such as the appropriateness of capital punishment. The Pope, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church, has the authority to make decisions for the church. During the last several years the Vatican has issued opinions on the appropriateness of capital punishment and its use. These opinions are quoted not only from...
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