Catholic teaching on human life begins with the belief that life is a gift from God that is not for us to take away. As it is applied to the death penalty, this teaching is both complicated and clear. The Church has long acknowledged the right of the state to use the death penalty in order to protect society. However, the Church has more clearly insisted the state forego this right if it has other means to protect society. Pope Francis, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Vatican Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and statements from U.S. Bishops are all clear and consistent that the use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned in our nation because we have alternative means to protect society.
In his encyclical “The Gospel of Life,” Pope John Paul II challenged followers of Christ to be “unconditionally pro-life,” willing to “proclaim, celebrate, and serve the Gospel of life in every situation.” He reminds us that “the dignity of the human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.” The cases in which society could not defend itself, according to the Pope, “are very rare if not practically non-existent.”
Abolition sends a message that we can break the cycle of violence, that we need not take life for life, that we can envisage more humane and more hopeful and effective responses to the growth of violent crime. – United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
Pope Francis stated in 2015: “In a world that cries out for peace and understanding, if you support capital punishment, you have made a judgment that thousands of incarcerated Americans, (about whom you know only what the media has told you), are no longer human, are no longer children of God, and are incapable of change, reconciliation or redemption, and that the family of the murder victim are incapable of forgiveness.”
In 2018, Pope Francis approved formal changes to the catechism, the Catholic Church’s primary teaching document, to clarify that now, for the Catholic Church, the death penalty is completely unacceptable. In a statement published last Thursday morning, the Vatican announced an emendation to the section of the Catholic Catechism that deals with the death penalty, which states:
Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good. Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.” “Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”
In 2020, Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” states that the death penalty is inadmissible, and Catholics should work for its abolition. A papal encyclical is one of the highest of all documents in terms of its authority, removing any doubt about the church’s belief on the issue.
GROUPS AND RESOURCES
THE BOOK OF DISCIPLINE OF THE UNITED METHODIST CHURCH ON THE DEATH PENALTY
We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.
The United Methodist Church cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life. It violates our deepest belief in God as the Creator and Redeemer of humankind. – The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church, 2004
2006 marks the 50th anniversary of the call by the General Conference of the United Methodist Church for an end to capital punishment in the United States. Since its initial stance, the church has not wavered in its opposition to the death penalty. In opposing executions, the United Methodist Church has repeatedly recognized that the death penalty has no demonstrated deterrent effect and that it is, therefore, in place only for retribution. The church recognizes that such vengeance is inconsistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ and feels that “When another life is taken through capital punishment, the life of the victim is further devalued.” (Book of Resolutions) The Church calls on its members to take overt action to bring an end to capital punishment and guarantees the Church’s support for such efforts.
In 2014, the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church passed a resolution reviewing their stance on the death penalty, including a call to support and uphold the families of victims as well as to seek alternative ways to achieve healing and restorative justice for all those who suffer because of violent crimes.
GROUPS AND RESOURCES
Presbyterians, guided by Scripture, believe that God has deep concern for those who are held captive or imprisoned. Throughout the Hebrew texts and New Testament, the prophets, and later, Jesus, call attention to those who are languishing in prisons and jails—encouraging followers to visit them, to advocate for them, and to share in their suffering. Presbyterian General Assemblies have demonstrated concern for the imprisoned and those who have been sentenced to death by enacting policy statements over the past forty years, beginning in 1959 and continuing in 1977, 1978, and 1985.
In 1985, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) reaffirmed these earlier positions, declaring, “its continuing opposition to capital punishment.” The 212th General Assembly (2000) also reaffirmed the position of the prior assemblies; called for an immediate moratorium on all executions in all jurisdictions that impose capital punishment; and directed the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly to communicate the call for an immediate moratorium and continuing opposition to the death penalty to the President of the United States, representatives in Congress, as well as to governors and legislators of the 37 states with persons awaiting execution.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) has long opposed the death penalty and calls Christians to work for, “A system of criminal rehabilitation, based on restorative justice and an end to the death penalty.” from A Social Creed For The 21st Century, 2008
GROUPS AND RESOURCES
The National Association of Evangelicals in October, 2015, released a statement changing its 40- year position: “Because of the fallibility of human systems, documented wrongful convictions, and our desire that God’s grace, Christian hope, and life in Christ be advanced, a growing number of evangelicals now call for government entities to shift their resources away from pursuing the death penalty and to opt for life in prison without parole as the ultimate sanction. They argue that such a move would allow time for the exoneration of the wrongfully convicted, avoid the tragic error of wrongful execution, and advance a higher sense of justice…Despite differing views on capital punishment, evangelicals are united in calling for reform to our criminal justice system. Such reform should improve public safety, provide restitution to victims, rehabilitate and restore offenders, and eliminate racial and socio-economic inequities in law enforcement, prosecution and sentencing of defendants.
The Reverend Gabriel Salguero of The National Latino Association of Evangelicals stated in 2015, ”As Christ followers, we are called to work toward justice for all. And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always even-handed. The death penalty is plagued by racial and economic disparities and risks executing an innocent person. Human beings are fallible and there is no room for fallibility in matters of life and death.”
GROUPS AND RESOURCES
The Christian Church ”…believes the death penalty to be contrary to God’s passion for justice. Criminal action is a reflection of human brokenness and sin. Many of our responses to criminal action continue the cycle of brokenness and sin in our society. God created life and thus, it is holy. The intentional taking of life denies God’s intent for humanity. We believe this to be the case with the death penalty.
2003 Resolution On The Death Penalty
Central Conference of Rabbis
“Preventing and punishing criminal conduct are among the primary obligations of government at all levels. In recent years, the criminal justice system in the United States has increasingly come under attack for fighting crime at the expense of the civil rights of minorities…There is an increasing perception that we have two criminal justice systems, one for affluent whites and one for racial minorities and the poor, separate and unequal.”
Resolution On Race And The Criminal Justice System
Evangelical Lutheran Church
“God entrusts the state with power to take human life when failure to do so constitutes a clear danger to society. However, this does not mean that governments must punish crime by death. We increasingly question whether the death penalty has been and can be administered justly.”
A Social Statement On The Death Penalty, 1991
“That as the The Episcopal Church continues its opposition to the death penalty, parishes and dioceses be urged to study the death penalty and explore the reasons for our opposition: the inequity as applied to minorities, the poor and those who cannot afford adequate legal representation, the contribution to continued violence, and the violation of our Baptismal Covenant.”
General Convention 2001
United Church of Christ (UCC)
The United Church of Christ has historically opposed capital punishment. This position was first formalized in 1969, and the UCC believes that murder is wrong, whether committed by individuals or the state. Currently, UCC churches are working for abolition of the death penalty.
“Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed. It is an offense against the inviolability of life and the dignity of the human person, one which contradicts God’s plan for man and society and his merciful justice, and impedes the penalty from fulfilling any just objective. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”
General Assembly, 2000