Acton Institute Powerblog

Bishops Against Death Penalty

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The US Bishops have issued a statement calling for an end to the use of the death penalty, part of their larger campaign to end the death penalty.

I’m sympathetic to the thrust of the statement and to many of its claims. The statement makes its case firmly, yet invites dialogue and debate. It adverts to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, accurately reflecting the Church’s teaching on the matter. It makes compelling arguments against the death penalty on theological and pragmatic grounds, stopping short of claiming that Catholic theology absolutely forbids it.

Still, some of the statement’s language is problematic, reflecting, at the least, carelessness, and possibly, bad reasoning. I’d guess that the root of the problem is a willingness to take up the slogans of secular politics rather than to draw more rigorously on the sources of Christian theology. It reminds me of the USCCB’s old statements on the economy, when terms such as “social justice” were used without clear reference to the Church’s social teaching as opposed to the parlance of American politics.

Here’s one example from the death penalty statement:

It is time for our nation to abandon the illusion that we can protect life by taking life.

I mean no disrespect to the authors of the statement, but that sentence does not qualify as sound theological reflection on political matters. To accept its claim is to undermine any possible justification for self-defense, just warfare, etc. It is perfectly consistent with Christian moral theology to assert the contrary: Sometimes the protection of life requires the taking of life.

Kevin Schmiesing Kevin Schmiesing, Ph.D., is a research fellow for the research department at the Acton Institute. He is a frequent writer on Catholic social thought and economics, is the author of American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895-1955 (Edwin Mellen Press, 2002) and is most recently the author of Within the Market Strife: American Catholic Economic Thought from Rerum Novarum to Vatican II (Lexington Books, 2004). Dr. Schmiesing holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Pennsylvania, and a B.A. in history from Franciscan University ofSteubenville. Author of Within the Market Strife and American Catholic Intellectuals, 1895—1955 (2002), he serves as Book Review Editor for the Journal of Markets & Morality. He is also executive director of


  • I believe that God instituted the death penalty and that it is therefore valid. However, I very seldom hear death penalty proponents speak of God’s civil law on any other criminal justice matter, such as the requirement of two eyewitnesses for the death penalty, or the death penalty for false witness in capital cases. My objection to the death penalty is that it is not just if the rest of God’s civil law is ignored. We need to disciple the nations and work to enact all of God’s law.

  • Jerry Droney

    God did institute the death penalty with two eyewitnesses. I have to believe the jury would make the proper decision, however I also believe death by injection and 15 to 20 years on death row is too easy. Life in a 6 by 9′ cell however is also an alternative death on this earth. The appeal process needs to be changed, shortened to two or three years.