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Living the Gospel of Life -- Study Guide

Paragraph Twenty-two


"Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity," the Holy Father reminds us in The Gospel of Life. This section of the document calls rightly for a rejection of capital punishment.

It should be noted, however, that the paragraph also makes reference to the "cases where it may be justified." Rare as they may be, or even practically non-existent in our times, this indicates a significant difference between the Church's "no" to capital punishment and its "no" to abortion and euthanasia. The prohibition on the intention killing of the innocent is an absolute; the prohibition on capital punishment is not absolute.

In his encyclical The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul II makes a clear distinction between a practical "no" to the death penalty and an absolute "no" to abortion. In regard to the state punishing wrongdoers, he writes, "the nature and extent of the punishment must be carefully evaluated and decided upon, and ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. Today however, as a result of steady improvements in the organization of the penal system, such cases are very rare, if not practically non-existent" (56).

Then he goes on to say, in distinction, "If such great care must be taken to respect every life, even that of criminals and unjust aggressors, the commandment "You shall not kill" has absolute value when it refers to the innocent person." (57) Simply put, "You shall not kill" applies even to the criminal, but with exceptions. "You shall not kill" applies absolutely to the innocent (born and unborn), without exceptions.

If you compare the statistics on capital punishment ( with those on abortion ( you find that more children are killed by abortion in America in a single week than criminals have been executed in our entire history. Every life is of equal, infinite value, but the nature and extent of these two issues are beyond comparison.


Discussion Questions

What is the teaching of the Church regarding capital punishment, and how does it differ from the teaching on abortion?

Can one still be pro-life and support the death penalty in certain instances?

Further Reading

Click here to learn more about the Church's stand on Capital Punishment.

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