Church’s teaching clear on the morality of the death penalty

I recently took part in a discussion on what it means to be pro-life, and in light of the impending execution of Carey Dean Moore, I need to address a couple of misconceptions. 
First, as we dialogue on this matter, it is very important that we understand the church’s teaching clearly. I recall a phone conversation some years ago in which the caller insisted that the death penalty is as morally evil as abortion. That caller was asking that the church deny Communion to those who promote capital punishment because they disagreed with church teaching. When I explained that in point of fact the church teaches that capital punishment can be allowed, the caller said, “Well I disagree with the church.” We had hit an impasse.
Equating abortion and capital punishment is wrong. The church’s teaching and tradition are almost unanimous that capital punishment is not, like abortion, always and everywhere a moral evil. Sometimes and in some places under some circumstances, the death penalty can be morally applied by a state. The question we ought to be asking is, “Can we do so now, here and in this situation?”
Second, the church’s teaching on the death penalty is clear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (no. 2267), and gives us the proper parameters for answering that question. We read that if there are “non-lethal means” to “defend and protect people’s safety,” then the state “will limit itself to such means.” This is not a suggestion, but an order from Mother Church. If the state can protect its citizens without killing, then the state must avoid killing. “Punto,” as my Latina mother would say, “period.”
What’s more, in answer to those who argue that the punishment must fit the crime, the catechism continues by pointing out that non-lethal means to self-defense “are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.” Killing a murderer is not the only proper punishment. Justice, which serves the common good, can still be achieved without killing.
Some Catholics read this, though, and argue that this is just a prudential teaching from the church. But they are wrong. At this point in this paragraph of the catechism, we are not talking about prudential teaching. This is doctrinal teaching to which all Catholics are bound. 
Third, the prudential part arises, as I say above, when we consider whether right here and now there are non-lethal means available in order to “defend and protect people’s safety.” So let’s look at the current situation. 
Carey Dean Moore murdered two men in cold blood in 1979. He admits to it and has taken full responsibility. He has repented of his crime. He has turned his life over to Christ Jesus. He poses no danger to himself, to fellow inmates or to guards. How exactly, then, is his continued existence behind bars a threat to society? The answer is that it is not. This is why the bishops of our state have said that the conditions do not exist to justify a moral application of the death penalty. 
And let us be clear about something else. The burden of proof on this prudential question is on the state, not the church. It is the governor, after all, who is seeking to kill a man. He must demonstrate that he has no choice but to kill.
Being pro-life can mean different things to different people. However, as we are guided by conscience, we have to make sure our pro-life conscience is formed by Catholic teaching. According to that teaching, the killing of Carey Dean Moore undermines what it means to be pro-life. It ought to be stopped.
Deacon Omar Gutierrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at
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