There is a broad sentiment among American Catholics against the death penalty. It is a point of unusually strong consensus, even among those who normally disagree. In 2015, four Catholic publications with often-divergent viewpoints issued a joint editorial calling for an end to capital punishment.
But Catholic thinkers do not unanimously agree that a total renunciation of the death penalty is appropriate, or even possible.
Cardinal Joseph Bernadin, in his famous "Consistent Ethic of Life" speech delivered at Fordham University in 1983, explicitly recognized the legitimate authority of the state to resort to capital punishment. Cardinal Avery Dulles, writing in 2001, observed that "the Catholic magisterium does not, and never has, advocated unqualified abolition of the death penalty."
While there is real scope for debate about when and how sparingly capital punishment should be used, Dulles concluded that "the death penalty is not in itself a violation of the right to life."
His conclusion was informed by the constant teaching of the Church that judicial executions are licit, even if regrettable and to be avoided whenever possible.
In the City of God, St. Augustine wrote that the state administers justice under divine concession. "Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment, "Thou shalt not kill"… for the representatives of the State's authority to put criminals to death, according to law or the rule of rational justice."
While the trend of recent papal statements has been towards a relegation of the death penalty to, at most, a theoretical possibility, scholars have urged caution about going too far.
Dr. Chad Pecknold, associate professor of systematic theology at the Catholic University of America, told CNA that it was important distinguish between changing circumstances and a change in what the Church has always taught.
"The Church has always held that the death penalty is a just option available to the state, even if we do not welcome its use. St. Augustine says that the death penalty is just, but the Church should plead for mercy."
Pecknold stressed that relationship between mercy and justice is a live concern. In seeking mercy, he said, we must implicitly recognize the validity of justice.
"Mercy isn't calling something that is just 'unjust.' Mercy relieves the punishment properly due to the guilty. As the Catechism recognizes, there can be circumstances in which the death penalty is a legitimate service to justice. This is qualified by a preferential option for other means, whenever they can serve the same ends."
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These alternative means have not been always and everywhere available. "The common and constant teaching of the Church can be applied to different circumstances. Alternatives available to us in modern western countries simply have not been present at other times, or may not be now in other places."
There is a crucial difference between applying a consistent teaching to changed circumstances and appearing to suggest humanity has evolved beyond a previously valid doctrine, Pecknold said.
"The death penalty is not, and has never been a positive end in itself. It is a means towards serving justice. If we find we can now serve the same ends and express a preferential option for life, this is doubly good."
"But we should not fall into a false understanding that what was once 'good' is now 'bad.' The Church doesn't evolve out of a true teaching, nor does humanity progress beyond natural law."
"We should prize our increasing opportunities to serve mercy and justice together, but be wary of giving ourselves too much credit, we have not progressed to a new, higher level of justice."
Cardinal Dulles agreed. He considered the argument that Church sanctioning of capital punishment was an "outmoded" concession to past ages of "violence" and "barbarity," one which could yield to "the signs of the times" and "a new recognition of the dignity and inalienable rights of the human person." He dismissed this as "a tempting simplicity" which found "no echo" among Catholic theologians of the past.