The Preferential Option for Life: Why do some Catholics support torture and the death penalty?

AFTER THE WAR. President George W. Bush and Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, March 2004. The pope told Bush he was deeply concerned about the "grave unrest" in Iraq (CNS photo/Reuters).

Among pro-life Catholics there is an elementary principle of moral reasoning we may call the "preferential option for life": when you are hunting and hear a rustle in the bush, you don't blast the bush to find out whether the corpse that falls out is a hunter or a deer. You find out first or you don't shoot.

And so, in pettifogging debates in which pro-choice partisans attempt the hoary old chestnut "Who even knows when life begins anyway?" pro-life Catholics very sensibly reply: "When in doubt, don't kill or harm."


But weirdly, when the topic is not the unborn, many allegedly pro-life people often forget their wisdom. Result: on many issues ranging from war to torture to refugees to the death penalty, it is extremely common to run into people who are anti-abortion, but not pro-life.

And so self-identified pro-life people, in a solid majority, favored the launch of the Iraq War, despite the fact that it failed to meet a single criterion of Just War teaching, was sternly denounced by Pope John Paul II, warned of by the world's bishops, and dismissed as folly by then-Cardinal Ratzinger, who famously remarked that the "concept of a 'preventive war' does not appear in the Catechism of the Catholic Church" and who warned that it would result in catastrophe—as the destruction of the Chaldean Church, the deaths of at least 100,000 people and the transformation of Iraq into chaos eloquently attests.

Relatedly, self-identified pro-life Christians supported, in greater percentages than the general U.S. population, the use of torture against prisoners. Indeed, along with Evangelicals, self-identified pro-life Catholics may constitute the single most enthusiastic supporters of torture in American public life. This is despite the fact that the church describes torture as gravely and intrinsically immoral—exactly the same terms in which she describes abortion.

Similarly, the death penalty is sometimes treated as an issue in which the church's guidance to inflict the punishment only if absolutely necessary is rejected on the theory that God "commands" rather than reluctantly permits the death penalty. Some even go so far as to declare the church, not merely entitled to an opinion from which they dissent, but actually "wrong" and work to execute as many victims as possible.

Finally, there is the strange spectacle of some Catholics opposing pre-natal help for low income women (thus increasing the likelihood of abortion for poor families who fear they cannot afford another child) and the even stranger spectacle of self-identified pro-life people brandishing guns and screaming for desperately poor refugee children from Central America to be sent back to the extreme dangers of rape, sex slavery and murder.

What is interesting in all these cases is that those who argue against the church's guidance tend to throw overboard the preferential option for life. Take torture. Those who support it tend to ask things like, “Does waterboarding rise to the level of torture?" "Why do you care about these thugs when a million and a half babies are aborted every year?" "Why do we get to kill people in war, but not torture them?" Note that all the energy, all the drive of these arguments is 180 degrees opposed to the preferential option for life. Asking if waterboarding rises to the level of torture is like a married man asking how far he can go with his secretary before it is "technically adultery." In plain English, it means "How much brutality do we get to inflict on a prisoner before it's technically a sin?" To ask the question already reveals the problem. But the most telling argument (and a very common one) is the notion that since war means we get to kill, it should a fortiori mean we get to commit the lesser evil of torture.

But the church's teaching is not that we get to kill in war, but that we may sometimes have to kill because we have no other way to stop an aggressor. It's the equivalent of a doctor having to amputate, not of a James Bondian "license to kill." Even in war, if we can avoid killing we are to do so—even at the risk that a prisoner might try to kill us, or escape and bring intelligence back to his side. That is why soldiers who kill prisoners are not heroes but war criminals. In short, as the preferential option for life reminds us, prisoners remain in the image and likeness of God and therefore the church commands us to treat them humanely.

Protecting the Innocent and the Sinful

The neglect of the preferential option for life was on display in an analogous manner in the debate over the Iraq War. One common trope on the blogosphere was that "the Pope never said it would be immoral to go to Iraq" as though the burden of proof is on those who oppose killing and not on those who advocate it. Indeed, some actually argued that the Iraq War was justified precisely because preventive war was not in the Catechism. According to this theory, since the Catechism was "silent" on preventive war, then the church didn't forbid it.

This is like saying because the Catechism doesn't specifically name “suction aspiration” as abortion, it therefore permits it. Once again, the obvious and common sense conclusion of the preferential option for life is that all the drive and energy of the church must be toward the goal of life and peace. Indeed, to get the real tenor of Pope Benedict's thought, one need only read his remark that, while there is room in the church's tradition for the tragic necessity of killing when we have no other choice "we should be asking ourselves if it is still licit to admit the very existence of a 'just war.’"

Or again, with the death penalty, the church's preferential option for life is very clear: don't execute prisoners unless it is absolutely necessary to protect innocents from being harmed. Indeed, the church is calling for abolition of the death penalty wherever possible. Following the preferential option for life, the church's approach to the death penalty is emphatically minimalist and even abolitionist.

But many American enthusiasts for the death penalty (who self-identify as pro-life in large percentages) are maximalists. Genesis 9:6 is read as a command, not a concession. Indeed, as the frying-pan-waving celebrations accompanying executions make clear, the death penalty is often about vengeance utterly foreign to "love your enemies."

And likewise, with defenseless children arriving unaccompanied at our borders and desperately in need of food, water, clothing, medicine, and shelter due to horrific conditions in their native lands, our duty is clear: Treat them as we would Jesus Christ since, "inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to Me" (Matthew 25:31-48).

In every case (not merely abortion), the church blesses life and treats exceptions to the fifth commandment as tragic, last-ditch necessities and support for life as self-evidently good. For Catholics to recover the meaning of what it truly means to be pro-life, we must be more than merely anti-abortion. We must see the salvation of human life and human souls—the preferential option for life both innocent and sinful—as it truly is: the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. Now is the hour to embrace the church's full teaching and be the light in a darkening world.

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J Cabaniss
4 years 4 months ago
On addressing Mr. Shea's comments on the death penalty I'll start by noting that his style is more sneer than argument. For example, to sustain his assertion that "Genesis 9:6 is read as a command and not a concession" he associates those in the first group with "frying-pan-waving celebrations".That is not actually much of an argument that Gn 9:6 should be interpreted as he prefers. It would have been more convincing had he cited one of the great lights of the church on how that passage should be understood. Cardinal Bellarmine, for example, who wrote:
For God says, “Whosoever shall shed man’s blood, his blood shall be shed.” These words cannot utter a prophecy, since a prophecy of this sort would often be false, but a decree and a precept. (De Laicis, ch13)
So, according to a Doctor of the Church, Gn 9:6 (the passage Bellarmine cited) is in fact a decree. Who knew they had frying pans in the 17th century?
Wendell Montgomery
4 years 4 months ago
While I generally agree with Mr. Shea, I think he's not giving a fair shake to the other side of the argument, particularly with respect to enhanced interrogation. The principle to respect life, the preference for it, does not mean that force or violence can't be employed in certain circumstances. Mr. Shea notes that one doesn't shoot at rustling bushes until one knows there's prey - in other words, the preference for life is not a moral principle in and of itself, but a matter of prudence that urges caution when undertaking certain kinds of actions. Summed up, preference for life suggests that Catholics should pause to consider consequences before undertaking some grave act. But it does not argue against action itself - it merely forestalls it. It is procedural, not substantive. Thus, with respect to EITs, it's useful to know that the CIA, White House, DoD, DOJ, State, and others, debated the use of EITs extensively before they were applied. All positions, both for and against the use of EITs, were debated thoroughly. The cautionary "preference for life" was absolutely respected. Ultimately, the powers-that-be decided that EITs were necessary to protect life. You might disagree, fairly, that the EITs did not do that. But to suggest that the process, the respect for the lives of the three terrorists who underwent the most serious forms of EITs, was not considered, I think is not true and to suggest otherwise contradicts all the evidence. Mr. Shea can rightfully disagree about whether the EITs were necessary to protect life. That can absolutely be debated. But suggesting that those who don't agree with him are somehow ignoring the preference for life doesn't ring true. Again, I'd limit my criticism to EITs in particular. I'm certainly more convinced of his opinion with respect to the death penalty, guns, and pre-natal / post-natal care.
Matthew Talbot
4 years 4 months ago
The fact that "[a]ll positions, both for and against the use of EITs, were debated thoroughly" does not lessen the evil nature of the decision to torture prisoners, any more than it would for any other immoral act.
Tim O'Leary
4 years 4 months ago
Mr. Shea would have had a stronger argument if he had considered the more difficult cases than the no-brainers he raises above. Of course, there should be a preferential option for life, although I think that statement is much weaker than "thou shalt not kill." Should America have gone to war with Hitler's Germany (they didn't attack us, although they declared war on us first) or even after Pearl Harbor (should we have forgiven the Japanese and asked them not to do it again)? Was it unjust to oppose by force slavery in the South? So, how should ISIS be opposed? How should serial criminals be treated (imprisonment is considered torture by some)? Is regular police interrogation torture? Is self-defense even allowed, with all the uncertainty of outcomes? My point is that dealing with the very difficult situation of justice and the moral responsibility not to stand idly by while others are being massacred requires much more careful arguments. It requires much more care for the victims of murderers and tyrants. Absolute pacificism is also wrong. It is not a preferential option for life to wash one's hands.
John Fitzgerald
4 years 4 months ago
This comment is addressed primarily to the editors. Mr. Shea raises a great issue. However, any real insight on the issue would probably come from the field of psychology. Humans regularly maintain logically incoherent positions. One has to delve into the mind to reach some understanding, even if only rudimentary. It would be nice if the editors could publish people who could both raise a question then help address it.
Michael Barberi
4 years 4 months ago
The subject of a just war theory in the Catholic tradition is debatable, where there is no definitive right answer. It is well known that the Catholic Church teaches that it is never morally right to unjustly kill an innocent person. However, consider this: During a war if the enemy was standing behind a line of innocent persons and firing at the opposing soldiers, the Church insists that the opposing soldiers cannot fire into this line of innocents, causing their death, in order to kill the enemy. However, the Church insists that it is morally permissible to fire artillery into positions where the enemy and some innocent people are located, even though it is known that many innocent people will be killed. Also, consider the following: The U.S. is defending a town in France during WW II. There is only one bridge where the Germans will be crossing into the town. It is known that if 1,000 Germans, and their fire power, cross the bridge, they will easily kill the 50 American soldiers defending the town and many of the towns people. The Americans decide to wire the bridge with explosives and when the 1,000 Germans and their tanks are on the bridge, they will blow up the bridge. Just as the Americans are about to do this, an innocent person and his family, who did not know about this, is crossing the bridge. If the Americans blow up the bridge, the innocent person and his family will be killed along with the Germans. If they don't blow up the bridge, the 50 American soldiers and many of the towns people will surely be killed by the Germans. Is it morally permissible to blow up the bridge? I posit these examples, not to debate them or to propose an answer. I posit them to point out that just war theories, and other moral teachings, are not so definitive and unambiguous as the absolute moral truth as the Church seems to assert. There are circumstances, ends and intentions, that should and can admit to exceptions. However, many moral teachings of the Catholic Church, mostly involving sexual ethics, that are taught as moral absolutes where under no circumstances, ends or intentions can there be exceptions. That is the real moral dilemma and the impasse in fundamental theological ethics between what the magisterium teaches about certain ethical issues and the legitimate arguments of other theological scholars.
Julianne Wiley
4 years 4 months ago
"American enthusiasts for the death penalty ....self-identify as pro-life in large percentages..." Mark, can you cite your evidence for this? I ask because I remember a few years ago Dr. Jack Willke surveyed pro-life people on a number of related issues, and found that pro-life people were more anti-death-penalty than the American public at large. I wonder if or when this changed?
Jay Guillette
4 years 4 months ago
I'll admit to having changed my opinion about Iraq as a Just war, but that straw frying pan argument concerning Gn9:6 is what? I'd just add the Rabbi Ishmael or Ishmael ben Elisha (90-135 AD) translated this passage not as 'whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man'... but as 'whosoever shed the blood of man in man'...(adam ha adam) and the Rabbi goes on to define man-in-man as fetus. See Sanhedrin57b So can we debate the death penalty for abortionists, or is that too much?
Jay Guillette
4 years 4 months ago
I'll admit to having changed my opinion about Iraq as a Just war, but that straw frying pan argument concerning Gn9:6 is what? I'd just add the Rabbi Ishmael or Ishmael ben Elisha (90-135 AD) translated this passage not as 'whosoever sheds the blood of man, by man'... but as 'whosoever shed the blood of man in man'...(adam ha adam) and the Rabbi goes on to define man-in-man as fetus. See Sanhedrin57bSo can we debate the death penalty for abortionists, or is that too much?
Patrick Monagle
4 years 3 months ago
The Just War Theory is the source that all Catholics must look to when deciding whether a war is justified. For the first 200 years, Catholics did not serve in war under any circumstances. Saint Augustine realized that while God never advocates for war, God does permit it in some circumstances. Saint Augustine’s Just War Theory states that war must: (1) Be done so by a legitimate authority, (2) War is used in order to punish crime or uphold peace, and (3) War is used to establish/re-establish justice. Current Just War Theory in the Catholic Church builds off of Augustine’s, but divides war into two parts, before war, and during war. With regards to before war requirements, modern teachings are closely related to Augustine. During war requirements adds an extra level of morality in war in order to ensure that war is being carried out in the most moral way possible. During war, both sides must discriminate between combatants and civilians, focus on proportional damage to the enemy, and torture in anyway is forbidden. These rules go against Machiavelli and his “ends justify the means” approach. While no Catholic should ever advocate the use of violence, the church permits war in order to prevent greater damage. The Just War Theory serves as a moral compass to those who must fight in order to protect others. - VUpm
Olivia P
4 years 3 months ago
This post brings up the issue of being pro-life in relation to supporting acts of violence such as the death penalty or torture. These two issues may seem unrelated, but they conjure the same question: is it acceptable to ever kill anyone? Pro-life supporters would answer that it is never acceptable to kill an unborn child. But according to just war theory, war is a reality of our world. Innocents should be protected, even if it comes at the cost of another's life. This is the issue that needs to be addressed. We need to distinguish whether there is a difference between being pro-life and supporting actions of war. If there is, as Shea suggests, people must reevaluate their views with the Church's help. If not, they risk being hypocritical by believing in things that morally contradict each other.
Zachary Karbasian
4 years 3 months ago
To be pro-life has many aspects to it, not just abortion, but the death penalty and torture. This article puts “self-identified” pro-life people on blast for accepting and favoring certain things such as the Iraq war and torture against prisoners. This really puts perspective on what it means to truly be pro-life. Ahead of anything, the Church has always put human life ahead of everything. The point about “that we get to kill in war, but that we may sometimes have to kill because we have no other way to stop an aggressor.” is spot on because war is commonly seen as a way to “allowed” to kill. I am a believer in torture to terrorists for the safety of our nation as many amercians are, so icannot identify as truly “pro-life” .War should always be a last ditch effort and be in accordance with the Just War Theory


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