Voting and the Death Penalty

© Copyright 2002 Grace D. MacKinnon

Grace MacKinnon is a syndicated columnist and public speaker on Catholic doctrine. Readers are welcome to submit questions about the Catholic faith to: Grace MacKinnon, 1234 Russell Drive #103, Brownsville, Texas 78520. Questions also may be sent by e-mail to: You may visit Grace online at

It is not a contradiction if a pro-life candidate supports the death penalty. Let us not be confused or misled. The death penalty is not the crucial issue in this election. Protecting innocent human life is! There is no comparison between the taking of innocent life and executing guilty criminals. Abortion is never justifiable, whereas the death penalty can be justified when certain conditions have been met.

In Catholic tradition, there is a long history of recourse to the death penalty for valid reasons. The Church does teach today, however, that it is to be used only when this is the singular practical way to effectively defend the lives of human beings against an aggressor. If other means are sufficient to protect the safety of persons, then public authority should limit itself to such means. The Church also teaches today that cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender are very rare, if not practically non-existent (CCC# 2267). Thus, as Catholics, we are opposed to capital punishment, except in rare cases and under certain conditions.

We know of course that not all candidates running for public office are Catholic. Therefore, we are going to see that some of them who are pro-life and not Catholic may happen to support the death penalty. In addition, there may also be Catholic candidates who support the death penalty in principle although perhaps not in its application. By that we mean that they may not feel it is morally wrong to execute a guilty felon if it became the necessary thing to do. And they are not wrong in that. Thus, even a Catholic politician could in good conscience be in favor of capital punishment and still be considered pro-life.

Our Holy Father John Paul II has called for an end to the death penalty. On January 27, 1999, in St. Louis, Missouri, he stated that, “A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.” For more than twenty-five years, the Catholic Bishops of the United States have also called for an end to the death penalty in our country.

So, yes, we oppose the death penalty in principle in that we hold all life to be sacred, but we realize also that in some circumstances it may be deemed necessary. But Catholic teaching can never weigh opposition to capital punishment the same way it does to abortion. The thousands of innocent pre-born babies killed every year by abortion constitute a much greater evil than the number of executions of convicted murderers by the state, not only because of the sheer number of deaths but because of the gravity of abortion itself. Abortion, unlike capital punishment, is an intrinsic evil and can never be justified.

Nationwide, there have been over 41 million babies killed by abortion since 1973. The 805 executions of convicted felons since 1976 does not compare with the holocaust of abortion. Therefore, opposition to abortion must be a priority for all Catholics (politicians and voters) who support the Church's teaching about the sacredness of all human life.

Voting for a candidate who will fight against abortion, even when he supports use of the death penalty, is not wrong. Instead, it is doing something good to save as many babies as possible while working toward the ultimate goal of protecting all human life. There is no doubt that politics is very complicated. There are many difficult decisions to make and the lines are not always clearly drawn.

No candidate is going to be perfect. Even in voting for one who does not fully represent our beliefs, we are not compromising our ultimate goal, which must be the protection of all human life, especially pre-born children. Voting for a certain candidate does not mean that we endorse his positions on every issue. We have a duty to use our vote to advance the common good. Whether we do right or wrong in the way we vote depends on our objective, intentions, and the circumstances. If we use our political power to prevent evil, then we are doing good. This is not choosing to do evil hoping that good will come from it, but doing good that good may come from it.

The pro-life voting guide points the pro-life community toward pro-life candidates and makes the candidates' positions on life issues crystal clear.

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