Can You Be Pro-Life While Supporting the Death Penalty?

JoAnna Wahlund - Death Penalty


A few weeks ago I was reading the inestimable Simcha Fisher’s excellent National Catholic Register article titled, “Who Is to Blame for Kermit Gosnell?” Since I’m a glutton for punishment, I read the comments as well. Commenter Rob said, as part of a larger comment,

“What’s disturbing to me, as a non-Catholic, is the fact so many people claim to be pro-life and oppose abortion but, in stark contrast, defend capital punishment. In my opinion, being pro-life means we oppose the taking of life especially by the state.”

I read many pro-life blogs, and I’ve often heard this sentiment or variants of it expressed. Sometimes it’s used by abortion advocates to try and expose the alleged hypocrisy of pro-lifers, and in the same vein, sometimes it’s used by pro-lifers to claim that you’re not REALLY pro-life unless you also oppose capital punishment. Neither viewpoint is accurate, nor do they acknowledge the key differences in play when it comes to opposing abortion versus opposing the death penalty.

For example, my position on capital punishment does not fit most of the popular stereotypes. I generally oppose the death penalty, but I believe the State does have the right to administer it. I believe that the death penalty is overused in our country and is, in many cases, not necessary, but I don’t want to see it banned or outlawed. My reasoning is as follows:

  1. Abortion is always an objective intrinsic evil. Capital punishment is not an objective intrinsic evil.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraph 2267, states,

“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, non-lethal 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 to 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 definitely 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.’”

Now, compare the passage above with the Church’s teaching on abortion in paragraphs 2270-71 (all emphases mine):

“Human life must be respected and protected absolutely from the moment of conception. From the first moment of his existence, a human being must be recognized as having the rights of a person – among which is the inviolable right of every innocent being to life. […] Since the first century the Church has affirmed the moral evil of every procured abortion. This teaching has not changed and remains unchangeable. Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law…”

Note that the language used to describe the death penalty does NOT claim that it is a moral evil or contrary to the moral law. In fact, the Catechism acknowledges that legitimate authority does have recourse to the death penalty if circumstances warrant – a teaching that could not exist if the death penalty were an intrinsic evil (because, as the Church also teaches, we may never do evil so that good may result).

It’s unacceptable for Catholics to support abortion because direct abortion is always an intrinsic moral evil. However, support of the death penalty is a matter of prudential judgment since capital punishment is not intrinsically evil.

  1. Victims of abortion are always innocent. All criminals on death row have been convicted of a crime.

When I’m asked (usually by someone identifying as pro-choice) if I oppose the death penalty as well as abortion, I respond, “I absolutely believe that unborn children should receive due process of law prior to their executions – legal representation, trial by jury, and multiple appeals – just as convicted criminals do.”

While partially tongue-in-cheek, my reply also serious. After all, if abortion analogous to the death penalty, then shouldn’t each human being sentenced to death – whether by the courts or his/her mother – get the same rights prior to being killed?

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as many as ten convicted criminals (out of approximately 1,000) who have been executed since 1976 may have been innocent (but there’s no conclusive proof either way). The last time I checked, 10 dead inmates < 52,000,000 innocent children killed by abortion since 1973. Of course, it’s a travesty and a tragedy if an innocent person is killed by the death penalty – but the chances of an innocent child being killed in an abortion are 100%., as opposed to the .01% of convicted criminals who were possibly innocent at the time of their executions.

  1. The death penalty is needed for the instances when criminals remain a threat to society.

Richard McNair is currently being held at the supermax prison in Colorado. He escaped from jail in Minot, ND in 1987 by using lip balm to slip out of handcuffs. He escaped from a Bismarck, ND jail in 1992 by crawling through a ventilator duct. He escaped from a Louisiana jail in 2006 by hiding under bags of mail. So far, the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” has managed to hold him, but will that always be true? What if there wasn’t a prison that could hold him? Or what about inmates who manage to order hits from prison – even those in top security prisons?

The death penalty also has some use as a bargaining tool. For example, Jared Lee Loughner recently pled guilty to several counts of murder, among other charges, in order to avoid the death penalty. In other cases, convicted criminals have traded information (such as where bodies of missing victims are buried) in exchange for life in prison (in lieu of capital punishment). Outlawing the death penalty would take this option away from prosecutors.

I absolutely agree with the Church’s teaching that criminals should be given ample opportunity to repent, and that the death penalty is largely unnecessary for the protection of society. I don’t believe that Kermit Gosnell should receive the death penalty because I don’t believe he’s a danger to anyone but unborn children and anesthetized women — none of whom he is likely to encounter in a prison setting. Additionally, I want to give him the chance to repent of his crimes, assuming he’s able to emerge from the mountain of pro-abortion propaganda he’s been buried under for his entire professional career.

In some cases, life in prison isn’t sufficient to ensure the safety of the public at large, or even the safety of other inmates who reside in the same prison. Put in its simplest terms, one can be pro-life and oppose the direct killing of innocent human beings while still having rational and logical reasons for supporting judicious use of capital punishment– not due to a thirst for vengeance or a dismissal of human rights and dignity, but out of concern for the preservation of the safety of society and/or the desire for legitimate justice.

© 2013. JoAnna Wahlund. All Rights Reserved.

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24 thoughts on “Can You Be Pro-Life While Supporting the Death Penalty?”

  1. Birgit Atherton Jones

    Finally! Someone who can express what I, myself, believe about the death penalty. I agree with what you have written 100%!

    What we, American Catholics, tend for forget is that the Church and her laws are binding to the entire world – not just our country. There are situations in other lands, that might warrant more exercise of the death penalty in order to save society from violent criminals. Not all countries have the same types of system in place and some have law enforcement that is virtually non-existent.

  2. Killing a murderer is not justice, it’s hypocritical vengence. How can we say it’s wrong to kill someone, yet when “we” deem it righteous, now it’s OK? Capital punishment doesn’t bring back the dead and it doesn’t deter future murder. In the face of contradictory scripture, I look to the most tangible earthly example of God’s will, and ask WWJD? He would certainly never kill anyone, regardless of their crime. Neither would he complain about the “cost” of mercy. I would rather go bankrupt and starve, than reject the gift of reason and the universal logic of love. If you killed my child, I might feel differently. But if that caused me to advocate another death, I’d be wrong. The attempts to intellectually justify killing represent self deception and moral bankruptcy of the highest level. It’s just one step removed from the Rawandan genocide, lynching black people, the mass murder of Jews, burning witches, the Inquisition, and every other barbaric act of history, revealing what lurks just below the surface of our primitive nature.

  3. What no one ever talks about is the cost to the victims’ families by keeping convicted killers alive in prison. If the families are tax payers they are effectively being forced to pay their hard-earned money in order to feed, clothe, shelter, and even medicate the murderers of their loved ones. That is not justice. The death penalty is not just about protecting society from future harm. It is about justice for the victims, their families, and society in general. I wonder where the Church stands on forcing a victim’s family to feed, clothe, and shelter the murderer for the rest of his or her life.

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  5. I am not so sure about my view on whether or not the death penalty should be legal (even though I used to be pro death penalty) but I hate it when “progressives” fight for the right of criminals who commit abominable crimes to not be executed yet at the same time they also support a woman’s “right” to tell her doctor to snuff out the life of an unborn child even past the 5th month of pregnancy. Surely there is a difference between guilty adults and innocent unborn children?! Regardless of what anyone believes about the death penalty, I would recommend that they never try to point out the alleged “hypocritical” views that many pro lifers have toward execution since killing the guilty is not the same as killing the innocent.

    1. If a person is really pro life in the deepest depths of your soul,then all life is sacred. You as a human being,do not have the right to decide who is worthy of life,and who is not. THAT IS GODS JOB<and He needs no help from mere mortals.If all you are is anti abortion,and pro death penalty,and for that matter,pro "sport" hunting,which is killing for its own sake,then you are pro birth,not pro life. It is all or nothing,or hypocricy

    2. “If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

      Matthew 18:6

      Sound like Jesus would oppose the death penalty?

    3. anglicanusepapa

      For heaven’s sake, I hope you don’t call yourself a Catholic! God in His Sacred Scripture (the Catholic Church has always declared the Bible to be the Inspired and Inerrant Word of God) has already told us the death penalty is just “Whoever sheds man’s blood (murders an innocent) by man shall his blood be shed” (will be justly executed). The Church has never (and never can/will) declared the death penalty (dogmatically or doctrinally) immoral. In recent times popes have said that they are personally against the death penalty (the American bishops have overstepped their bounds on this subject) but that Catholics can, in good conscience, disagree with this. And as far as animals go: they cannot be “murdered” as they do not have souls created in the image of God. God gave them to man for food and to help in man’s labour. You seem a little imbalanced.

  6. I was just reading this part of the CCC the other day and noted that one of the reasons the CCC opposes the death penalty is so that a perpetrator will have “the possibility of redeeming himself”. One of the good arguments *for* a serious death penalty is that it can force the sinner to admit and repent of his sins. At the Nuremburg trials, death sentences were carried out the following day. At least one high-profile Nazi, and probably many more, were moved by their impending execution to ask a priest for confession and last rites.

    The problem with the death penalty in America is that it is absolutely unserious. When a man like Wesley Cook (“Mumia”) can sit on death row for 30 years after being convicted of a brutal murder, write books, become a celebrity, who around him is telling him that he’s done something wrong and it matters? On the contrary, half the country (you know which half) is telling him that he’s the victim of a great injustice. This process doesn’t heal souls, it destroys them. And what of the executioners? I think that in the olden days, when they would hang a man after his conviction of an evil crime, the guy tying the noose knew about the crime and could console himself with the knowledge that he was doing a task necessary for justice. But now when it gets to execution day, you have a victim who thinks he has done nothing wrong, an executioner who can’t have any visceral sense that the execution is necessary or deserved, and the whole process is made very “clinical” with these high-tech, sci-fi execution machines they have, and hidden from the public. This seems like a system designed to destroy souls.

    My opinion is that we should go back to speedy public executions by hanging or firing squad, in the interest of justice and the protection of souls (including the criminal’s). If we can’t stomach that, we should abolish the death penalty altogether.

    1. Due process was served through a fair by the defendants peers. It is not necessary for justice to be done to give a CONVICTED criminal countless retrials (that is what all the contesting of a verdict really is) and allowing him to enjoy his stay at taxpayer expense.

  7. it seems to me that knowing exactly when you will die gives a person ample opportunity to repent and in addition, more motivation to repent than most of us will receive.

  8. Siegfried Paul

    I had a dicussion: “Who decides which TV-PROGRAM should be be watched in a prison cell, if the incarceration is not a solitary one?” – I have to explain, however: “How could Stephen be stoned to death?” Those who condemned him didn’t have a right to condemn Jesus. I thought at the moment once more: only the MEDICAL DOCTOR LUKE says, that Jesus promises that the criminal who is crucified with Jesus will be in paradise with him – . – It seems clear: the possibility to condemn Stephen must be explained by the fact that Paul is a ROMAN CITIZEN.

  9. If the culprit is an immediate threat to life of others, there may be a justification for capital punishment. But such cases are few and far between. Death penalty must be abolished as it is a barbarian law. Everything must be done to give severe punishment and to reform the culprit. The Popes and the Church are now wholly in favour of abolition.

    1. Three Popes out of 266 have nurtured a regression not a development. E.g. of a past regression was the reintroduction of torture by Pope Innocent IV in 1253 after Pope Nicholas I had condemned it in the 9th century. The current anti death campaign is a regession of the opposite type: seemingly loving rather than cruel…but seemingly only.
      Wherever there are gangs, ccc 2267 falls into pieces logically.
      Take Catholic Luxembourg, high in ski area, high income, no gangs. Ccc 2267 makes perfect sense there. If you have a murder at all, it will be one person who can be contained by a life sentence. Now go to the large Catholic countries which are replete with gangs, Ccc 2267 is absurd in their respect: where there are gangs and life sentences, there are continued intra prison crimes, ordered shankings in the US and worse in Mexico….and there are “ordered from prison” murders out in society ( the NY Times once gave a ten year figure in California as 300 murders ordered from prison). Ergo the lack of the death penalty is against life values in those countries that are large and gang affected. Moreover God actually inspired both Genesis 9:5-6 and Rom.13:4 which repeats Gen.9:5-
      6 after Christ ascends. God gives a death penalty in both to Gentiles and Jews. Read Evangelium Vitae….you will find neither passage cited except that John Paul repeatedly cited a fragment of he Genesis passage but never showed the reader the death
      penalty part. John Paul was Polish. Western Europe never considered Poles highly civilized. Non religious western modern Europe led the anti death penalty idea as Cardinal Avery Dulles noted. John Paul partly wanted to impress western Europe personally and in terms of eccelesial guilt over past Church killings during the Inquisition. Those burnings were extremism but so is John Paul’s anti death penalty campaign which required him to never quote Romans 13:4. He did the same thing by the way on wifely obedience by making it vanish by never quoting 5 passages that require it but he instead used Ephesians only to slant his case against it. The result is that the catechism has nothing on wives obeying though the NT mentions it six times.

  10. Micha is spot on. The catechism writer in ccc 2267 apparently looked at several prisons in Europe (or a perfect Platonic one in his imagination) and concluded that life sentences are protecting society ( guards and other inmates be damned). Both Jeffrey Dahmer and Fr. Geoghan were murdered in prison by lifers in states that had abolished the death penalty ( the ideal state of the last two Popes). When an unrepentant lifer murders in prison, the state can only stop him by solitary and solitary is only temporary due to expense and recurring demand. The expense comes from daily multiple workers needed to clean cells of thrown feces by unrepentant malcontents.
    Rather than look, as the catechism writer did apparently, at Luxembourg prison reality ( the most affluent Catholic country on earth), let’s travel to the second biggest Catholic population on earth…Mexico which has no death penalty and fifty murders per day since last Fall which means life sentences are not protecting a soul in Mexico. A human rights commission of the Mexican government concluded that 60% of Mexico’s prisons are partly controlled by the inmates. Mexico by the way is not listed as a poor country at the UN but as middle class. In one case, inmates left the prison with guard weapons and trucks, did a mass killing at a farm of 17 enemies, and returned to the prison which serves as a fort for many zeta gang members which protects them from the Sinaloa cartel. In another case, five gang members entered a prison dressed as army men and took rival gang members from the prison to be killed. You can watch on youtube a video of gang members entering a prison, guards leaving their post, after showing where the cell key is, and the gang members machine gunning a large cell of rival gang members. This is the second largest Catholic population on earth. Numbers one and two in highest murder rates in the world are El Salvador and Honduras ( 79% and 97% Catholic)…neither has a death penalty. Catholic countries with no death penalty are six of the worst twenty countries on earth…Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, and Dominican Republic are the others. They have no death penalty and Brazil is number one as the country with the highest number of Catholics…then Mexico. So the two largest Catholic countries both have no death penalty and do have many murders. The catechism writers failed in this area because they seemed to have done no research on the largest Catholic countries when they implied that life sentences protect. A lifer can order other gang members out on the street to kill citizens who testified….which happened to a young black boy in Newark who was ordered killed from prison years ago.
    Ccc 2267 was written by a sheltered Cardinal who also did not research the non Euro reality of prisons and Catholic countries in the Americas ( where most Catholics are).

  11. I believe that the death penalty is overused in our country…
    –JoAnna Wahlund

    I disagree because I don’t blank-out from my mind the existence of the lives of prison guards and their families.

    Their lives are diminished by the stress of the prison guard’s job, the damaging effects on the guard’s personality and mental health, and the secondary effects on the guard’s family when the guard comes home carrying that stress. Prison guards suffer from a lower life expectancy. Prison guard families are much more likely on average than others to succumb to break-up due to divorce. Family members are more likely to develop behavior problems as youth, develop social pathologies and turn to crime themselves.

    Therefore the test in paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church of “rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm” cannot be met by imprisonment.

    As a result, because no practical, implementable alternative to imprisonment as a recourse to the death penalty is available, the death penalty remains the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    That the last paragraph of paragraph 2267 Ms. Wahlund quoted begins with “Today, in fact,” suggests that the claim that follows is a wish, not truly a fact – othewise, why the advance assertion that it is “a fact”?

    I do not understand why the Church seems to privilege the life of a guilty murderer who by his imprisonment continues to do harm to others over the lives multiple innocent prison guards and their families.

    P.S. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of Church ministries dedicated to ministering to prisoners. Yet I have never heard of one that is dedicated to ministering to the spiritual needs of prison guards and their families.

    1. It seems that you misunderstand the Church’s view. If you read the Cathechism, you can get the impression that the death penalty is only permissible if there is no way to prevent a dangerous killer from escaping from his prison cell. If there are other ways to insure that, then the state shall limit it self to those methods. You can choose to disagree with this teaching but that will not change the fact that it is exactly what the church teaches.

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  14. First, assume that the person is tried, convicted beyond a reasonable doubt, exhausted his/her appeals and sentenced to life in prison for murder, serial rape, etc. Second, assume the resources and assets of the planet to support people are not limitless.
    Now, the average cost in CA. to incarcerate someone is at least $47,000 in the general population; more in solitary. Would it not be better to use those limited resources to feed the starving, house the homeless, care for the medical needs of people who have harmed no one? Egregious criminals do forfeit some rights and the poor and homeless should not pay the price for other’s crimes.
    This is not a theological argument but one based upon justice and resource. What do you think?

    1. Phil,

      “First, assume that the person is tried, convicted beyond a reasonable doubt, exhausted his/her appeals”

      Are we also assuming that they were adequately represented, and that the Police, Prosecution, et al. followed the law at all times leading up to and during the trial?

      “sentenced to life in prison for murder, serial rape, etc. ”

      When talking about the death penalty, I’m not sure you can use a grouping of “murder, serial rape, etc.” and expect the reader to know what “etc.” entails. Once you start using offenses other than murder (or treason), I don’t think there’s a consensus on what qualifies as a capital crime.

      “Would it not be better to use those limited resources to feed the starving, house the homeless, care for the medical needs of people who have harmed no one? […] This is not a theological argument but one based upon justice and resource. What do you think?”

      I do like me some utilitarian calculus. Though, lets be careful before it creeps into the amount of money spent trying so save extremely premature babies vs. feeding the starving ones already born. You’re arguing for killing people to save money, in the context of a justice system that routinely puts people into prison for non-violent drug offenses, and a fantasy land where savings in the cost of housing inmates would be transferred to the poor. Mayhaps there are other options that should be exhausted before we go down that route, eh?

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