Where does the Church stand on the Death Penalty?

A Florida man, Duane Owen, was recently sentenced to be executed on June 15th for two 1984 homicides, amongst other crimes. At the end of May, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a letter to Governor Ron Desantis, asking him to commute Owen’s sentence to life in prison without the opportunity for parole. However, their letter was unsuccessful in prompting any stay in the plans for the execution.

John Morales took this opportunity to welcome Fr. Marcel Taillon onto Morning Air to discuss the Catholic Church’s position on the death penalty and why it holds that perspective.

In the letter, executive director of the FCCB, Michael Sheedy, implored Gov. Desantis to understand that while Owen has, by his actions, proven to be dangerous, depraved, and an enemy to society, ending his life will not bring back the lives that he took.

Gov. Desantis at one point lowered the requirement to sentence criminals to the death penalty, signing a bill into law that no longer required a unanimous agreement by the jury. Given his past stance and record on the death penalty, it was no surprise that he denied another stay on Owen’s execution, especially after he imposed a stay after a call for mental evaluation was invoked earlier last month by Owen’s attorneys. It was determined that he had the capacity to understand the gravity of his crimes and his sentence.

In Pope Francis’s 2020 encyclical Fratelli Tutti, he proclaimed a clear and unequivocal stance on the death penalty, writing:

“Saint John Paul II stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice. There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible’ and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.” (Fratelli Tutti, 263)

Fr. Marcel urged listeners to familiarize themselves with the facets of Catholic social teaching that they may not be familiar with, including the Church’s stances on issues of life and death. While very different issues, there is overlap between the discussion of abortion and the death penalty and yet there is, admittedly, still some dissension within the Church regarding the official views on these topics.

“We don’t talk about the death penalty enough,” said Fr. Marcel. “But it’s a conversation that lies within the pro-life vocabulary and is part of our social teaching. It’s rich, it’s wonderful. There are all kinds of wonderful documents, teachings, exhortations, and encyclicals by the different popes over the years. They really take the biblical tradition and apply it to our circumstances today.”

Fr. Marcel continued, reiterating what it is that our popes have explained to us: violence is not the answer to violence. When someone has been found guilty of a heinous crime, the instinct of law-abiding citizens is to punish that person to the fullest extent of the law. But in some states, that limit extends to the point of taking away somebody else’s right to life. The argument that has surrounded this issue has stemmed from the idea that some people have voluntarily ceded their right to live by virtue of their actions.

The Church has issued its official position on several occasions, saying that the correct punishment for heinous crimes against humanity is life in prison without parole. This effectively prohibits them from interacting with a society that they have betrayed and abused. This can be accomplished without further violence and more loss of life.

“We do not object to your depriving these wicked men of the freedom to commit further crimes. Our desire is rather that justice be satisfied without the taking of their lives or the maiming of their bodies in any part. And, at the same time, that by the coercive measures provided by the law, they be turned from their irrational fury to the calmness of men of sound mind, and from their evil deeds to some useful employment. This too is considered a condemnation, but who does not see that, when savage violence is restrained and remedies meant to produce repentance are provided, it should be considered a benefit rather than a mere punitive measure… Do not let the atrocity of their sins feed a desire for vengeance, but desire instead to heal the wounds which those deeds have inflicted on their souls”. (St. Augustine, Epistola ad Marcellinum, 133)

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John Hanretty serves as a Digital Media Producer for Relevant Radio®. He is a graduate of the Gupta College of Business at the University of Dallas. Besides being passionate about writing, his hobbies include drawing and digital design. You can read more of his daily articles at relevantradio.com and on the Relevant Radio® app.