Is the Death Penalty Justified?

The Roman Catholic Church recently made changes to CCC 2267. In it two claims were made:

  1. “…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.”
  2. “…non-lethal means are sufficient…and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.”

The RCC further clarifies that in modern society, there is practically no reason to ever use it. In short, it should never be used. While the death penalty is justified according to the first claim, it is no longer needed. But this conclusion depends on whether the second claim is correct.

Genesis 9:6 (NIV) states:

“Whoever sheds human blood, by humans shall their blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made mankind.

Here we affirm that the death penalty for murder is specifically justified by God himself. Look carefully at the reason given. It is because man is made in the image of God. In Christian terms, the dignity of a person is derived from every human being made in the image of God. Murder violates the dignity of another person more completely than anything else and taking the life of murderer is just: it upholds the dignity of life. The RCC has inverted this by claiming that the dignity of a person is a reason not to punish them with death. This is logically contradictory. The RCC is, quite simply, wrong in asserting the second claim.

So if the death penalty is justified, is it a requirement? No. We need look no further than the case of David and Bathsheba. David was sentenced to death for murdering Bathsheba’s husband, but because he repented God stayed his hand. Thus, at minimum, the death penalty can (and possibly should) be rescinded if the murderer repents.

The RCC is wrong when it says that human dignity is the reason to oppose the death penalty. Indeed, it is the reason for the death penalty. Yet we do not need to ignore mercy, especially in the face of repentance. So the RCC is at least right on one thing: we don’t necessarily have to take the lives of others.

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