Three Purposes of Punishment

Subject: Death Penalty

Dear Father,

I have been a Catholic all of my life. I feel that I know most answers to our faith, however, during a recent conversation with an internet friend, a question came up that I know what I believe, however, was unable to give a qualified answer to. Exactly what is the Church's teaching regarding the Death Penalty. The person asking the question, questions the Death Penalty's relationship to "Thou Shalt Not Kill" as well as to "An Eye for an Eye....." I was able to explain what I felt an "Eye for an Eye... meant. My belief is basically that the Church does not accept the death penalty unless it is the only way to deter a person who has killed someone. Am I correct? Can you give me a better explanation to send to my friend? I would appreciate your answer.

I enjoy going to your web page and have read many of your articles.

Thank you,

Virginia Etcheverry


Dear Virginia,

You are correct. The teaching on capital punishment, however, does some complications.

The most basic question is: why punish any wrongdoer? The Catechism mentions three purposes:

The primary goal of punishment is "redressing the disorder." If the offender willingly accepts his punishment, it has an expiatory value. Finally it has a "medicinal purpose" in as much as it contributes to the correction of the guilty party. (#2266)

A second question: When can one legitimately take the life of another person? The Catechism explains why killing someone in self-defense is not a violation of the Fifth Commandment. (#2263)

A third area is whether the state has a right to execute someone (it does) and whether there are circumstances when it is justified in exercising that right. The Catechism, echoing papal teaching, states:

"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 an execution of the offender is an absolute necessity 'are very rare, if not practically non-existent.'" (#2267)

Which is basically what you wrote.

God's blessings for the New Year.

Fr. Phil Bloom

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