Handbook of Catholic Social Teaching

Criminal Justice


1. What are the values involved in the debate over capital punishment?
"We should acknowledge that in the public debate over capital punishment we are dealing with values of the highest importance: respect for the sanctity of human life, the protection of human life, the preservation of order in society, and the achievement of justice through law." U.S. Bishops. Statement on Capital Punishment (1980) 3.

Reflections on the values involved in debating capital punishment.
a) How is each of the following involved in the debate over capital punishment?
--respect for the sanctity of human life
--the protection of human life
--the preservation of order in society
--the achievement of justice through law

2. How is punishment justified?
"The three justifications traditionally advanced for punishment in general are retribution, deterrence, and reform." U.S. Bishops, Statement on Capital Punishment (1980) 4.

Reflections on the justifications for punishment.
a) What is meant by retribution as a justification for punishment? Give an example.
b) What is meant by deterrence as a justification for punishment? Give an example.
c) What is meant by reform as a justification for punishment? Give an example.

3. Can reform serve as a justification for capital punishment?
"Reform or rehabilitation of the criminal cannot serve as a justification for capital punishment, which necessarily deprives the criminal of the opportunity to develop a new way of life that conforms to the norms of society and that contributes to the common good." U.S. Bishops, Statement on Capital Punishment (1980) 5.

Reflections on reform as a justification for capital punishment.
a) Why is it impossible to use reform as a justification for capital punishment?
b) What methods of punishment would promote reform of the criminal?

4. Does deterrence serve as a justification for capital punishment?
"Empirical studies in this area have not given conclusive evidence that would justify the imposition of the death penalty on a few individuals as a means of preventing others from committing crimes. There are strong reasons to doubt that many crimes of violence are undertaken in a spirit of rational calculation which would be influenced by a remote threat of death. The small number of death sentences in relation to the number of murders also makes it seem unlikely that the threat will be carried out and so undercuts the effectiveness of the deterrent." U.S. Bishops. Statement on Capital Punishment (1980) 6.

Reflections on deterrence as a justification for capital punishment.
a) The bishops list three reasons for rejecting deterrence as a justification for capital punishment. State each in your own words.
b) The bishops assert that many crimes of violence are committed without thinking about the consequences. Do you agree? What does that have to do with capital punishment?
c) One of the bishops' arguments is the small number of death sentences in relation to the number of murders. Would greatly increasing the number of death sentences solve the problem? What other problems might it create?

5. Does retribution justify capital punishment?
"We grant that the need for retribution does indeed justify punishment. But we maintain that this need does not require nor does it justify taking the life of the criminal, even in cases of murder." U.S. Bishops. Statement on Capital Punishment (1980) 8.

Reflections on retribution as a justification for capital punishment.
a) Why do you think some people argue in favor of capital punishment on the basis of just retribution?
b) Why do you think the bishops reject the use of capital punishment as a form of retribution?
c) Which side do you agree with? Tell why you do not accept the opposing arguments.

6. Should criminals be allowed to go unpunished?
"It is morally unsatisfactory and socially destructive for criminals to go unpunished." U.S. Bishops. Statement on Capital Punishment (1980) 8.

Reflections on the punishment of criminals.
a) Why is it wrong to let criminals go unpunished?

7. How should we determine the forms of punishment?
"The forms and limits of punishment must be determined by moral objectives which go beyond the mere inflicting of injury on the guilty We believe that the forms of punishment must be determined with a view to the protection of society and its members and to the reformation of the criminal and his reintegration into society (which may not be possible in certain cases)." U.S. Bishops, Statement on Capital Punishment (1980) 8.

Reflections on the forms of punishment.
a) What are the two criteria to be used in determining the forms of punishment?
b) Tell why you think both criteria should be used in determining the forms of punishment.
c) What are some of the reasons why it may not be possible in certain cases to reform the criminal?

8. What difficulties are inherent in capital punishment?
"With respect to the difficulties inherent in capital punishment, we note fIrst that infliction of the death penalty extinguishes possibilities for reform and rehabilitation for the person executed as well as the opportunity for the criminal to make some creative compensation for the evil he or she has done Second, the imposition of capital punishment involves the possibility of mistake Third, the legal imposition of capital punishment in our society involves long and unavoidable delays. Fourth, we believe that the actual carrying out of the death penalty brings with it great and avoidable anguish for the criminal, for his family and loved ones, and for those who are called on to perform or to witness the execution. Fifth, in the present situation of dispute over the justifiability of the death penalty and at a time when executions have been rare, executions attract enormous publicity, much of it unhealthy, and stir considerable acrimony in public discussion. Sixth, there is widespread belief that many convicted criminals are sentenced to death in an unfair and discriminatory manner." U.S. Bishops, Statement on Capital Punishment (1980) 14-19.

Reflections on difficulties inherent in capital punishment.
a) What is the first difficulty inherent in capital punishment? Is it an insurmountable difficulty?
b) What is the second difficulty inherent in capital punishment? Is it an insurmountable difficulty?
c) What is the third difficulty inherent in capital punishment? Is it an insurmountable difficulty?
d) What is the fourth difficulty inherent in capital punishment? Is it an insurmountable difficulty?
e) What is the fifth difficulty inherent in capital punishment? Is it as applicable now as it was in 1980?
f) What is the sixth difficulty inherent in capital punishment? Do you agree that there is discrimination in the application of the death penalty?

9. Has Catholic teaching allowed for capital punishment?
"Catholic teaching has accepted the principle that the state has the right to take the life of a person guilty of an extremely serious crime, and that the state may take appropriate measures to protect itself and its citizens from grave harm. We recognize that many citizens may believe that capital punishment should be maintained as an integral part of our society's response to the evils of crime, nor is this position incompatible with the Catholic tradition." U.S. Bishops, Statement on Capital Punishment (1980) 4, 22.

Reflections on Catholic teaching on capital punishment.
a) Is capital punishment contrary to traditional Catholic teaching?
b) What has been the basis for the Catholic acceptance of capital punishment?

10. Why, then, does the Church advocate the abolition or the death penalty?
"We maintain that abolition of the death penalty would promote values that are important to us as citizens and as Christians. First, 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. Second, abolition of capital punishment is also a manifestation of our belief in the unique worth and dignity of each person from the moment of conception, a creature made in the image and likeness of God. Third, abolition of the death penalty is further testimony to our conviction, a conviction which we share with the Judaic and Islamic traditions, that God is indeed the Lord of life. Fourth, we believe that abolition of the death penalty is most consonant with the example of Jesus, who both taught and practiced the forgiveness of injustice." U.S. Bishops. Statement on Capital Punishment (1980) 10-13.

Reflections on the Church's stand against the death penalty.
a) What do you think of the objection that we ought to be able to find a more humane and more hopeful and effective response to violent crime?
b) What do you think of the objection that capital punishment contradicts our belief in the unique worth and dignity of each person?
c) What do you think of the objection that God is the Lord of life and that we ought not to be taking lives?
d) What do you think of the objection that the death penalty is not in line with the example of Jesus, who taught and practiced the forgiveness of injustice?