The precise question at issue in this essay is the moral standing of capital punishment. Taking the teachings of the largest Christian denomination (Catholic) as a starting point, some say that the presentation of capital punishment in the Catechism of 1992 (#2266) differs surely in restrictiveness from the teaching of the Catechism of 1566. And that the revised Catechism of 1997 is even more restrictive. Leet's examine these ane other aspects of the morality of capital punishment.
The Catechism (1997) #2267 says, in part, "... 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...."
"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 ... the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent" (CCC # 2267).
Thus, classic elements of the conventional Catholic teaching remain: 1) the Church does not deny the State the "right" to recourse to the death penalty (i.e., it is not morally forbidden as intrinsically evil); but 2) the Church's official teachers clearly teach that this recourse is tightly circumscribed, indeed so tightly circumscribed as to be "practically non-existent."
Capital punishment ironically stands at the beginning of Christianity. The Lord Jesus, Founder of Christianity, was Himself a victim of capital punishment, as were most of the Apostles and a great many of the early martyrs.
The canonical Scriptures were rarely invoked to question capital punishment. Indeed, the Old Testament commanded it at times: the so-called lex talionis (Ex 21:23), and, the categorical command of Gn 9:6: "If anyone sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed"; precisely for the reason stated: "For in the image of God has man been made" (Gn 9:6). The penalties for murder and manslaughter were legislated as norms "for you and all your descendants, wherever you live" (Nm 35:16-29).
This is seen as Old Testament justice but that justice is sometimes tempered with mercy, prudence and even stated exceptions that are not so well remembered and rarely cited. For example, no one was to kill the murderer Cain: "If anyone kills Cain, Cain shall be avenged sevenfold" (Gn 4:15); and again, the great cry in Ezekiel: "Answer them: As I live says the Lord God, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man's conversion, that he may live. Turn, turn from your evil ways!" (Ez 33:11).
Few took the latter two citations as a restriction on the community's right to execute a justly condemned criminal. The same proved true of the Lord's reversal of the "eye for an eye" (life for life) (Mt 5:38): "But I say to you, offer no...