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Expert Answer Forum

by Catherine Frakas 11 Jun 2002

The Pope's Position on the Death Penalty QUESTION from David Lindberg February 26, 1999 I am wondering if the Pope's position on the Death Penalty is considered to be an infallible one. Is it subject to questioning by the rest of the church? Or is it something that we must obey. I myself have been opposed to the Death Penalty most of my adult life. However, it doesn't seem that the church presents as strong an opposition to the Death Penalty as it is against abortion. Thanks for your response.
ANSWER by John-Paul Ignatius on Thursday, March 4, 1999 Dear David:
Please excuse my delay in getting to your question.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states at paragraph 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. If, however, nonlethal 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 with 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 definitively 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.
This language comes from Evangelium vitae, (The Gospel of Life), no 56.
In a summary of this Great Encyclical, the Vatican said this:
The encyclical is presented with great doctrinal authority: It is not only an expression- like every other encyclical of the ordinary magisterium of the pope, but also of the episcopal collegiality which was manifested first in the extraordinary consistory of cardinals in April 1991 and subsequently in a consultation of all the bishops of the Catholic Church, who unanimously and firmly agree with the teaching imparted in it (No. 5). This teaching is in substance a precise and vigorous reaffirmation of the value of human life and its inviolability, and also a pressing appeal addressed to each and every person in the name of God: Respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life! Only in this direction will you find justice, development, true freedom, peace and happiness (No. 5). At the very least, this teaching is an authoritative teaching that would come under the third level of affirmation of belief described in Canon 752 of Canon Law:
A religious respect of intellect and will, even it not the assent of faith, is to be paid to the teaching which the Supreme Pontiff or the college of bishops enunciate on faith or morals when they exercise the authentic magisterium even if they do not intend to proclaim it with a definitive act; therefore the Christian faithful are to take care to avoid whatever is not in harmony with that teaching. Religious respect is similar to the beyond the reasonable doubt test in criminal law. Authoritative teachings MUST be given the PRESUMPTION that such teaching is good, accurate, and true.
This means we cannot dissent against this teaching. We must give respect to the teaching intellectually and we must obey the teaching, even if we privately are not sure whether we believe in that teaching.
Since this level of teaching is not infallible one can discuss the possibility that a judgment of the issue other than the one the Church has made may be a better judgment. But compelling evidence would be needed to overcome the high standard of religious respect (beyond a reasonable doubt test). And even then our attitude must be submissive, intellectually respectful, and our will in obedience to the teaching.
We must remember, that even if compelling evidence does exist to meet the beyond the reasonable doubt test to warrant the Church re-evaluating the teaching, IT IS THE CHURCH who does this, NOT US.
We must adhere to the teaching, and must submit to the teaching and obey it, and be respectful to it as long as the Church affirms the teaching.
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