Q: I am confused on the death penalty. In the Catechism (2266) it says:
“traditional teaching....has acknowledged as well-founded the right and
duty of legitimate public authority to punish malefactors by means of
penalties commensurate with the gravity of the crime, not
excluding....the death penalty.” Of course, I understand, it is a very
rare option, says Pope John Paul II. But the window of
absolute necessity, though small, is open, right?

A: Paragraph 2226 of the Catechism teaches that “in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety,” punishment by the state “has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.” Paragraph 2227 goes on to add that, given the full determination of the guilty party’s identity and responsibility, “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.”

At least, in principle the death penalty is not absolutely excluded by the Church. The late Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, points out that punishment by the state has four aims: rehabilitation; defense against the criminal; deterrence, in order to dissuade others from criminal activity; and retribution. Having laid out these four aims, Dulles then very persuasively comments as follows: “(The death penalty) does not rehabilitate the criminal but may be an occasion for bringing about salutary repentance. It is an effective but rarely necessary means of defending society against the criminal. Its retributive value is impaired by lack of clarity about the role of the State. In general, then, capital punishment has some limited value but its necessity is open to doubt.” (Avery Dulles, SJ, Church and Society New York: Fordham University Press, 2008, pp. 339-342).

Dulles ends noting that “the Pope and the bishops, using their prudential judgment, have concluded that in contemporary society, at least in countries like our own, the death penalty ought not to be invoked because, on balance, it does more harm than good.” His final sentence reads as follows: “I personally support this position as a responsible prudential judgment in the current situation.” It would be hard to find a more persuasive Christian position than that.