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A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment


The views expressed by this author do not necessarily represent those of Clarifying Catholicism. We welcome thoughtful comments below or responses through our Contact Us page. Furthermore, this specific article does not wish to persuade Catholics to abandon normative teaching, rather it is a speculative Theological opinion that wishes to contribute to a precious theology that is still developing.

The Radical Catholic: Ananias, Saphira and the Baptism of Cornelius the  Centurion

By Aidan McIntosh, The Catholic University of America

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,

    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased.

I will put my Spirit upon him,

    and he shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 

He will not wrangle or cry aloud,

    nor will any one hear his voice in the streets; 

he will not break a bruised reed

    or quench a smoldering wick,

till he brings justice to victory; 

    and in his name will the Gentiles hope.”

MT 12:18-21

For the past few decades, the Roman Catholic Church, as represented by her clergy and laity, has been forced to defend her ancient principles and magisterium in the realm of politics in opposition to secular liberalism’s increasing and widespread influence across the west. Social policy issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, polygamy, and the rights of women are common areas for attack and subsequent apologetics; overall, the Church has held fast to her traditional doctrines and has not significantly caved in, refusing to ordain women into the diacionate or priesthood, nor recognizing same-sex marriages while being fiercly opposed to lax abortion laws. 

The Church is still a conservative institution and has survived through countless governments and regimes much more hostile to her ideals than what we see now in Western civilization. That being said, the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) changed how we approach several teachings. Perhaps the biggest change regarding a controversial social issue is the doctrine surrounding the death penalty, or capital punishment. 

Two years ago, Pope Francis approved changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church that essentially transformed Church doctrine on capital punishment in CCC 2267. The revised doctrine teaches:

Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.

CCC 2267

Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.

Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person”, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Pope Francis’s revision is not out-of-line with his predecessors since Vatican II. Pope John Paul II amplified capital punishment as one of the biggest moral issues of his pontificate. His 1995 encyclical Evangelium vitae marked a significant development in Catholic thought on capital punishment and served as the basis for CCC 2267 in the Second Edition of the Catechism, which taught that the death penalty was a legitimate mean of the state if it was absolutely necessary for the defense of human life, but was unnecessary in most cases. 

Evangelium vitae translates to “Gospel of Life”. One of John Paul II’s numerous works, it connects the essential principles and themes of the Gospel to the sanctity of life in regards to issues like abortion, capital punishment, and euthanasia. It is a fundamental part of his “new evangelization”, which has seen further developments from Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. In a 1999 Papal Mass, John Paul II further explained that the Gospel is a message of hope, appealing the faithful to be unconditionally pro-life with this constant theme of hope in regards to the sanctity of life. 

Pope emeritus Benedict XVI had a staunchly conservative pontificate, but he still continued with his predecessor’s calls to end the death penalty. On November 30th, 2011, he petitioned a group of pilgrims meeting in Rome to discuss this issue, among others, to advocate for the abolition of capital punishment in governments across the world. 

First, it’s worth noting the perspectives of Karol Wojtyła and Joseph Ratzinger before their pontificates that likely influenced their perspectives on capital punishment, as they have for other issues. Well before their pontificates, World War II defined their formative years before their ordinations to the priesthood. 

Karol grew up in Poland not too long before World War II. He was well-rounded, balancing his Catholic faith, his love for sports, and his patriotism. His faith led to compassion and love from a young age, and he reportedly expressed great sympathy and admiration for Poland’s Jewish community even before the plague of Nazism hit his country in 1939. Even before he felt called to the priesthood, he was adamant about expressing the love that is confined in the Gospel to everyone he met, and this carried over throughout the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II despite the hopelessness surrounding him. 

As he was able-bodied and young, he was forced to work during the Nazi occupation to avoid being deported to a work camp. It was after his father died that he seriously considered his vocation to the priesthood, and he took courses at an underground seminary in his native Krakow. He had helped protect Jews from the Nazis throughout the occupation, later earning him acclaim from the Israeli government after his death. Karol was blessed to have never been sent to a concentration camp, and as a man of sincere faith and love for the Gospel, he wanted to help whoever he could during the occupation, and this courage led to his priesthood and, later, his pontificate. 

Ratzinger was raised in Germany and saw the horrors and unholiness of the Nazi regime firsthand. He was forced into the Hitler Youth despite his personal objection to the regime, while his family faced persecution and censorship for their faith-fueled hatred for Nazism. One of his cousins had Down Syndrome and was killed by the Nazis following an abduction as part of their horrific eugenics program. He was ordained a priest six years after the collapse of Nazism across Europe, and his close encounters with the barbarians masqueraded as leaders led him towards a more liberal Catholic theology early in his presbyteriate (this would change before his consecration as a cardinal). 

The sanctity of human life is not a new doctrine by any means, and it has always been a fundamental part of Christian theology, but World War II’s unprecedented bloodshed forced all political, religious, and social leaders to clarify a new and stronger approach to this principle that all life is sacred with intrinsic dignity. The Catholic Church was not exempt from this pressure, and her teachings on life did not change, but the discipline and praxis in which life is celebrated underwent certain doctrinal changes, especially on capital punishment. Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis have all exercised prudential judgement on capital punishment as an evolution of this doctrine. With this perspective, their teachings on capital punishment are certainly understandable. 

As an American Catholic who enjoys seeing what other faithful American Catholics, whether clergy or laity, have to say on contemporary issues, it is inevitable to see the outrage among other Catholics addressed at governments for exercising the death penalty. The federal execution of Daniel Lewis Lee on July 14th brought this discourse back to the front lines, as it was the first time in 17 years that the federal government executed someone. 

With the new papal teaching on capital punishment amplifying public pressure to abolish the death penalty, it is inevitable to see fellow Catholics supporting this abolition and appealing to all Catholics and other Christians to support such an action. The USCCB has been staunch in its advocacy, as has the Catholic media, and it seems now that there is little-to-no room for discourse that defends the right of the state to end someone’s life through capital punishment. 

Even more widespread is the new orthodox principle that only allows one to be pro-life if they oppose the destruction of life in all cases, holding that even if you drastically oppose abortion and euthanasia but support the possession and exercise of capital punishment, you cannot be genuinely pro-life. This is one of the most common lines of attack from pro-choice advocates as well because of the egregiously false assumption that opponents of abortion have no respect for the dignity of life for those after they have been born. 

Opponents of the death penalty offer a plethora of arguments, both religious and secular, for ending capital punishment as one aspect of criminal justice reform. However, based on the traditional teachings from the Church’s magisterium and the foundations of natural law, I support the right of the state to yield capital punishment with great prudence and piety as the final extension of the state’s judicial powers. Roman Catholics should not be swayed by the illusion that being unconditionally pro-life means objecting to the death penalty and that it is always an act of injustice and immorality to end one’s life for the common good. There must be room in any discourse on catechetical teachings for the traditional teachings of the Church through her fathers, magisterium, and their interpretations of Scripture. 

First, in light of the revised teachings two years ago, can one object to these revised teachings in the Catechism and still be in full, canonical communion with the Bishop of Rome? The Pope, as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, is the final interpreter of Scripture, vested with the power of speaking ex cathedra with the Keys of Saint Peter from his throne, as well as the spiritual head of Christendom. With this new teaching as part of fundamental Catholic doctrine in the Catechism, does one who disagrees with the teaching fall out of grace and into schism?

According to Cardinal Ratzinger, before his ascension to the Papacy, the answer is no. In 2004, as the Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, he outlined this exact issue in Worthiness to Receive Holy Communion: General Principles, a letter to Cardinal McCarrick. Cardinal Ratzinger explains that there can be no diversity of opinion and dissent on the Church’s teachings on the grave sins of abortion and euthanasia. These two sins are intrinsically evil and there can be no justification for those who support their legality and practice. If one opposes the Church’s teachings on these two issues, they cannot be in communion with Rome. 

Abortion and euthanasia are pro-life issues and their discourse primarily centers on the sanctity of life. The debate around capital punishment, as the government is ending a life, also falls under the sanctity of life more than retribution nowadays. Cardinal Ratzinger addresses the magisterium’s dogma on abortion and euthanasia to be infallible, but he explicitly groups the declarations and causations of warfare and the legality of the death penalty together as separate moral and spiritual issues:

 “Not all moral issues have the same moral weight as abortion and euthanasia. For example, if a Catholic were to be at odds with the Holy Father on the application of capital punishment or on the decision to wage war, he would not for that reason be considered unworthy to present himself to receive Holy Communion. While the Church exhorts civil authorities to seek peace, not war, and to exercise discretion and mercy in imposing punishment on criminals, it may still be permissible to take up arms to repel an aggressor or to have recourse to capital punishment. There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.”

This reflects Pope John Paul II’s teachings in his writings and in his revisions of the Catechism in its Second Edition. John Paul II taught that while the death penalty is not good and should not be applied frequently, if at all, it is still a tool of a state’s judicial system that can sometimes find itself permissible upon extreme discretion. Compare this with the revised Catechetical teachings in CCC 2267, which teaches that capital punishment is always inadmissible in today’s times. Is one anathema if they think that upon great prudence, the state can yield and use capital punishment? 

The answer is still no, as the Catechism does not teach the death penalty to be intrinsically evil while it does attack the dignity of the human person. It explicitly states that capital punishment was once an admissible extension of the strong arm of the law, but is no longer. Was abortion ever permissible or necessary and was the Church ever supportive of it? Apply the same standard to euthanasia. The Church’s teachings on the nature of certain actions and sins like abortion cannot be changed or disagreed with; the Church’s interpretations of praxis and discipline can be subject to some diversity of opinion. Therefore, Catholics can be in communion and in a state of grace while disagreeing with the recent teachings that capital punishment is always inadmissible. 

While Pope Francis’s revised teachings have some papal precedence since Vatican II, the issue of capital punishment has been one that the Church has taken a clear stance on that remained a sound doctrine for much of her history. It defied both camps: those who unilaterally oppose capital punishment, best expressed by the Church’s teachings nowadays, and those who unilaterally support capital punishment with few, if any, limitations on when a state can and should exercise its power to take one’s life. 

The Baltimore Catechism, which was the standard Catholic Catechism used in the United States as an education tool for adult catechists, explained the necessity of the Fifth Commandment, which forbids killing, while outlining the three exemptions to when it is permissible to kill:

“A. Human life may be lawfully taken:

   1. In self-defense, when we are unjustly attacked and have no other means of saving our own lives;

   2. In a just war, when the safety or rights of the nation require it;

   3. By the lawful execution of a criminal, fairly tried and found guilty of a crime punishable by death when the preservation of law and order and the good of the community require such execution.”

The Roman Catechism, designated as the universal catechism during the Council of Trent to address Protestant heresies, officially taught that the execution of criminals was lawful:

“Another kind of lawful slaying belongs to the civil authorities, to whom is entrusted power of life and death, by the legal and judicious exercise of which they punish the guilty and protect the innocent. The just use of this power, far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this Commandment which prohibits murder. The end of the Commandment is the preservation and security of human life. Now the punishments inflicted by the civil authority, which is the legitimate avenger of crime, naturally tend to this end, since they give security to life by repressing outrage and violence. Hence these words of David: In the morning I put to death all the wicked of the land, that I might cut off all the workers of iniquity from the city of the Lord.”

Between 1566 and 1992, this was the Church’s doctrine. Was this a new, man-made doctrine written under the influence and order of Pope St. Pius V? Certainly not, as this discretion on capital punishment has been affirmed by many Church fathers and Popes throughout her history. This is not to say that the consensus has been unanimous; as said before, every faithful Catholic believes in the intrinsic dignity of the human person made in the image of God, but the disagreement is on how to interpret man’s grave sins and the destruction of other life. 

Saint Augustine of Hippo, who influenced virtually all Christian theology and philosophy after his death, viewed capital punishment and just war as exercises of God investing authority and power in the state to slay. In City of God, Book 1, Ch. 21, he lauds the state as “the justest and most reasonable source of power”, and he focuses on those who declare wars or who carry out the execution of criminals by law as “instruments” whose actions rest on the “authority of God”. The catechetical doctrines on just war will likely never change, and rightfully so, but these principles of slaying by the “authority of God” should be looked at in contemporary times when addressing the death penalty. 

It must be noted that Augustine refuses to go into specifics on the death penalty. He simply affirms that those who impose the death penalty, like those who kill in war, do not break the Fifth Commandment. On questions of innocence and prudence that judicial officials address when deciding to sanction a criminal with death, we cannot look very deeply into City of God, but the principle that killing on the authority of God – however vague that may be – influenced Christian dogmatics, in contrast to current teachings. 

Saint Thomas Aquinas, who Augustine profoundly influenced, took to the question of capital punishment as he addressed murder and its lawfulness. Like he did with every question, he approached common objections and answered them, coming to a nuanced and definitive conclusion. In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas asserts that it is “praiseworthy and advantageous” for a man that is dangerous and corrosive to a community to be put to death, citing 1 Corinthians 5:6, where St. Paul teaches, “Have you never been told that a little leaven is enough to leaven the whole batch?”. 

Using the objections, which are still standard arguments nowadays against the death penalty, Aquinas clarifies that murder of sinners is still forbidden when the murder can slay the evil and not exclude the good. One example would be mass penal killings for an act of treason, per say, that would punish the guilty but also the innocent. He explains that God’s divine justice allows some sinners time to repent while slaying others according to His will, and that our human justice – conformed by natural law to His divine law – follows this, albeit with imperfections. 

The most important Thomistic doctrine found in this question is that of the human dignity of sinners, which is at the forefront of the debate over the death penalty. Is killing intrinsically evil, even on a man who has sinned greatly? No, according to Thomistic thought. Sin causes a man to lose his human dignity because of his departure from reason through sin; man, departed from reason, is naturally free but only exists for himself while being a slave to beasts, yet, he is worse and more dangerous than beasts. Therefore, it may be good to kill a sinner, in accordance with the common good. 

Aquinas’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 5 goes into greater detail about the effects of one man’s sin and sin’s ability to defile and corrupt a whole community. In it, he connects the verse with Romans 1:32: “Who, having known the justice of God, did not understand that they who do such things, are worthy of death; and not only they that do them, but they also that consent to them that do them”. St. Paul does not explicitly promote capital punishment, or the extrajudicial slaying of sinners, when he talks about removing the fornicators from the Christian community in Corinth. However, the removal of those in grave sin to prevent the rest of the community from falling astray into death can be applied, in principle, to the concept of capital punishment, and Aquinas uses St. Paul’s wisdom here and in Rom. 1:32 to support the slaying of sinners. Prudence, while he doesn’t clarify it, is a key part of killing the life of a criminal, however. 

Aquinas established that it is permissible for a sinful man to be sanctioned if defense of the common good is at stake. He doesn’t vest this authority to kill into the hands of a private individual, while pursuing man’s natural inclination to act in the common good, but in the hands of those responsible for the welfare of a community, which is what we have seen throughout virtually all judicial systems since the medieval era. 

St. Thomas Aquinas was many things, but he wasn’t an explicit legal philosopher. In the Summa, he addresses the death penalty in its extrajudicial and judicial forms not in terms of what specifically justifies the execution, but he addresses it as a theological and philosophical issue whereby the justification and reasoning for the slaying of a life, in the hands of the state, is a rational process, combining rational thought with Christian ethics. He clearly supports the right of the state to sanction the dangerously unlawful with death, but his judgement advises great prudence and explicit ends to which the penalty can be carried out. The gray area is to be filled with Christian rationality. 

Contrasting this view, which takes the Augustinian view in greater and more systematic detail, with Pope John Paul II’s views, it seems like both theologians exercise different tones and primal attitudes towards the state sanctioning of death, but John Paul II reduces the gray area in discretionary slaying by arguing that the improved penal systems make the practice rarely admissible. St. Thomas Aquinas was hardly bloodthirsty, but his support of capital punishment was based off reason and natural law, with great prudence. His stance essentially defined the catechetical views of the Catholic Church until recently, as many Popes proclaimed – and exercised – capital punishment as a necessary tool for the state. 

As said before, the revised catechism represents a divergence in teaching by proclaiming the death penalty as uniliterally bad and inadmissable. The development of doctrine in Church dogmatics is not bad, and revisions in catechetical teachings – as exemplified in the Council of Trent – are of great importance in many cases. Is the new teaching a genuine development, or is it a corrupted development of doctrine? We can look to patristics and to the modern era to see how the development of dogma should be, if at all, modified. 

St. Vincent of Lerins, a 5th century monk, established a guidance on orthodox Christian theology in his well-acclaimed Commonitory, which in his words distinguished the “Truth of the Catholic Faith from the Falsehood of Heretical Pravity”. In Chapter 23, he argues that there can be progress in the Church of Christ, provided that it does not fall into heresy and the doctrine undergoes a transformation while still retaining its truth and meaning. Clearly, he guides the universal Christian doctrine to be “consolidated by years, enlarged by time, refined by age, and yet, withal, to continue uncorrupt and unadulterate, complete and perfect in all the measurement of its parts, and, so to speak, in all its proper members and senses, admitting no change, no waste of its distinctive property, no variation in its limits”. 

 In the 19th century, St. John Henry Newman wrote a beautiful analysis that profoundly influenced the First and Second Vatican Councils and their dogmatic interpretations with his essay An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. One primary distinction that he made in the study of dogmatics that has been of tremendous use in the Church since its publication is the contrast between genuine developments of doctrine and corruptions of doctrine. To determine the validity and truth of Pope Francis’s revised teachings on capital punishment, we can look to St. Newman’s wisdom. 

Newman systematically lays down what makes a development of doctrine genuine. In Chapter 5, he argues that genuine development shows a preservation of type, a continuity of principles, the power of assimilation, the logical sequence, the anticipation of its future, the conserative action on its past, and lastly, its chronic vigour. All of these notes are relevant, but his sixth note regarding the conservative action is of utmost importance when assessing Pope Francis’s revisions on the death penalty. Aligned with the words of St. Vincent, Newman writes that true development of doctrine “illustrates, not obscures, corroborates, not corrects, the body of thought from which it proceeds; and this is its characteristic as contrasted with a corruption”. 

From the writings of St. Vincent and St. John Henry Newman, we can reasonably distinguish true developments of doctrine in the Catholic faith and those that are corrupted. Progress in doctrine is not something antithetical to orthodoxy, but it will expand and never contradict the doctrine established through the deposit of faith. 

Let’s take another look at the revised CCC 2267 in light of the traditional guidance on doctrinal development. The catechism now teaches that the death penalty “was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good”. It also now teaches that “Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes”. The development of doctrine is already controversial among the more traditional faithful; the usage of “was long considered” and “today, however” amplifies these critiques. 

The death penalty is now inadmissable unilaterally and runs contrary to the Gospel. New Christian understanding has changed the circumstances in which the death penalty can be admissable, which is now, to say, none. The disconnect between Pope Francis’s thoughts on doctrinal development and the guiding principles of development held in sacred truth by the Church is clear. The “new Christian understanding” is legitimate, of course, but it seems like Francis is creating corroborative doctrines, instead of transforming or expanding on the traditional doctrine that holds capital punishment to be legitimate. 

Was the universal doctrine of the Catholic faith incorrect and corrupted, itself as a body of thought, for many years, only to be recently corrected with this vague “new understanding” of the dignity of the person? Pope Francis, nor his predecessors, would agree with that statement, because it was… considered appropriate. 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith revised CCC 2267, but left other doctrines that cover punishment, order, and justice alone, which complicates the newly-revised doctrine and undermines its legitimacy and continuity. CCC 2266 still teaches that legitimate public authority yields the “right and duty” to punish criminals according to the magnitude of the offense; said punishment aims at redressing the disorder with a medicinal quality inherent to its nature. The last part clarifies that punishment must go as far as possible to correct the guilty party. 

This is not new teaching, but its provisions regarding medicinal justice align more with the teachings of Aquinas, Augustine, and other Church fathers and do not exclude the right of the state to put people to death. The Catechism is not a constitution and a legal code for any country, of course, but its provisions can outline when it is acceptable and when it is unacceptable for punishments as extreme as the death penalty. Yes, CCC 2266 teaches that whatever the punishment is, it needs to go as far as possible in its medicinal qualities, but this does not exclude the possibility of the death penalty; it simply limits it with great prudence, which is aligned with traditional teachings outlined earlier. Human justice can reach its finite limits with mercy and toleration towards those who will not change, and with those whose supposed benefits of rehabilitation do not outweigh the risks of their continued presence. 

The abolition of the death penalty and the assertion of CCC 2266’s principles and truths aren’t mutually exclusive, but if the CDF wanted to expand and transform the conservative teachings of capital punishment, it would have made more sense to modify CCC 2266, which lays a precedence for the state’s legitimate right to yield the death penalty. 

The changing circumstances supposedly make the death penalty inadmissable, according to Pope Francis and many other anti-death penalty activists. Reportedly, the penal system is significantly better at deterrence and preventing heinous criminals from continuing to commit terrible crimes. Pope Francis says that there is a new understanding of human dignity that makes the death penalty invalid. The Church has always taught that life is sacred and has worked, in dogmatic teachings and in provincial government, to protect and preserve life whenever possible. The concept of just war and capital punishment have been exceptions, as Augustine pioneered. 

Life is still sacred, but when one ends an innocent life, they deprive themselves of their dignity, damaging their soul, falling out of grace as well as, in legal systems, sacrificing many of their legal rights. Humans are made in the image of God; to destroy a life with full intent is to destroy a creation of God, deliberately offending God. Jesus commands us to be humble and faithful, working as a community of the faithful, but He does not command us to disobey civil society or to tolerate grievous sin. Romans 1:32 and 1 Corinthians 5:6 show St. Paul expressing this well, as does our Lord in Matthew 5:29, telling us to root out sin from our lives, which is applied to our individual, personal lives and our lives in a community. 

By sanctioning a person with death as the final and most extreme punishment, are we putting ourselves in the position of God, the final and most holy judge of them all? Such a common objection to capital punishment is one of mercy and respect for the soul of the sentenced person: if they continue to live, they have greater time to repent with a contrite heart and to seek justice. 

The value of prudential judgement comes into play here when outweighing the pros and the cons of keeping the person alive. If they continue to remain alive, albeit imprisoned, will they genuinely repent and amend their ways, contritely confessing to God their horrors, and remain excluded from society, or will they refuse to root out their evil? In his Summa Contra Gentiles, St. Thomas Aquinas addresses this:

The fact that the evil ones, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement.

They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so obstinate that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from malice, it is possible to make a quite probable judgment that they would never come away from evil.”

In medieval times, the death penalty was seen differently than how we see it in our liberal democracies nowadays. For one, it was more commonly used and there was a much wider range of crimes punishable by death than there are today. We can look to the Counter-Reformation to see the execution of heretics; we don’t do that today. Piety in the Catholic faith was a larger part of the death penalty. If a just and legitimate authority sentenced a person to death, the execution was met with great prayer from clergy in the nearby town, and the one sentenced to death was allowed – later required – to confess his/her sins and ask for prayers, petitioning the crowd, before their death. People in the medieval era saw death as an escape from the sinful chains of the mortal word, and while this mindset didn’t make suicide or murder widespread, it made the idea of sentencing a person to death more acceptable, both to judges and to criminals. This isn’t to say that the medieval judges were all bloodthirsty beasts with no understanding of human dignity and sanctity, which the current discourse on the “new understanding” of human life implies. 

This line of thinking that makes early death more acceptable is taboo today in the West, and rightfully so. I think of St. Paul’s writings in Philippians 1:19-26 where he admits that it would be better to leave his life now to be united with Jesus in heaven, but it is his sacrifice as an apostle for the Lord to continue in his sufferings, preaching and doing of apostolic works. However, while our culture views death differently, it cannot be said that medieval Catholic theologians and the Church did not recognize the sanctity of human life, nor did we not work to preserve it in all just cases. The exceptions that constitute a lawful killing have been established from Genesis 9:6, and because human justice is conformed to divine justice, we can act on the authority of God. 

Most governments today are secular, and thus, there can be an argument that the governments and their leaders have abandoned God. The implication here is that it is unclear and improbable that our leaders are acting on the authority of God. This question alone can promulgate a dissertation on the philosophy of God and its significance for temporal authorities. That’s not what this essay is about, however. There are numerous references in the Old and the New Testament that show God as the author of temporal authorities in institutions. Perhaps the clearest example of the unconditional command to submit to civil authorities is found in 1 Peter 2:13-17: 

“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right. For it is God’s will that by doing right you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God. Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” 

1 Peter 2:13-17

Does St. Peter make a distinction here between whether or not the emperor acknowledges the source of his authority? Surely not. Does Pontius Pilate, in John 19:11, acknowledge the source of his authority before Jesus alerts him that he has no authority outside that vested by God? I will not compare Jesus’s willingness to die for our salvation through an unjust death sentence with the death sentence for any ordinary criminal, which many pro-death penalty advocates have used and continue to use in their arguments. However, Jesus is clear that Pilate has the authority to sentence Him to death. 

It is clear that the Catholic Church, in her magisterium, has supported capital punishment throughout much of her history. Assessing the traditional, patristic guidelines for developmental doctrine, it appears that the recent catechetical changes to Christian doctrine on the death penalty seem misguided and corrosive – whether innocently, in good spirit, or maliciously, as today’s sedevancists wish to jump at. The error in doctrinal developmental is one aspect of my opposition to these revised teachings and my defense of the death penalty, but it is not the sole source of my objection. When assessing new teachings and the development of doctrines, or simply contrasting contemporary issues with the Catholic faith, it is of great importance to bring in the three Theological Virtues as well as the four Cardinal Virtues. 

The three Theological Virtues of the Church are faith, hope, and charity. These virtues prepare man to face God and enter into a relationship with Him through the Holy Trinity. Theological and Cardinal Virtues are relevant to doctrinal issues regarding capital punishment as they guide our teachings and our relationships with civil society. Faith occurs when we invest our spirits in God through His Word, both written and revealed, and perfected through the two subsequent virtues. Hope deals with our hope and our desire to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, rejecting selfishness while accepting the beatitudes of Christ which gives us our joy and our purpose. Charity gives order and glorification to the other virtues, adamantly expressing the love and passion of Christ, and it serves as both the source and the goal of Christian moral activity. 

Those who object to the death penalty can argue that slaying a person, even if they have greatly sinned, can run contrary to these theological virtues, for these virtues direct the soul to heaven through a deep relationship with God through His Son, Jesus Christ. The death penalty inevitably cuts a life short, and therefore limits the ability of man to amend his life and to exercise these virtues. However, if a person is put to death by just authority, he has already sacrificed his position in the social contract and damaged his relationship with God so severely that these virtues should not be the primary focus when delivering temporal judgement. The grace that incurs from faith and amplifies hope and charity is rooted out when man intentionally rejects God by killing one His dignified creatures. 

While not specifically targeting the virtue as the Church prescribes, some attack capital punishment for establishing that there is no hope for the criminal to reconcile himself. The aforementioned quote from St. Thomas Aquinas on ethics, comparing the pros and the cons of keeping a criminal alive, can be useful in this conversation. Later developments in the secular concept of the social contract can also suffice, and seeing how modern judicial systems across the democratic world base many of their ethics in the social contract, it is reasonable to do so. A man’s hope for salvation and entrance into the arms of Jesus can be cut short by his own doing. Sins, even those of serious malice, can be forgiven and washed away, but the punishment delivered justly by public authorities does not seek to replace God’s judgement, nor does it manifest itself in that way. A man sins against God, foremost, and his community, second. While human justice follows the ends of divine justice, they diverge on important issues and the state – ordained by God – exists to counter the State of Nature

A special note must be made on the virtue of hope in light of anti-death penalty advocacy. Pope Francis and many other objectors to capital punishment claim that the death penalty runs contrary to the Gospel because the Gospel is, fundamentally, hope. Of course the Gospel is the pinnacle of hope – a chance to enter into the Eternal Kingdom by our salvation that forgives us of our sins – and the example of the prodigal son is a perfect example of the hope of the Gospel. As previously stated, capital punishment does not contradict the salvation and the hope for eternal life, and if we treated executions like we did in the medieval era, with the outpouring of prayers and intercessions, these perspectives from Pope Francis and others would make less sense. When the death penalty is used rarely, as it should, it cannot be seen as opposing this virtue of hope.

Now, how is it charitable to kill a person, even if that person is sinful and has killed another person, or God forbid, multiple people? Does it suffice to call the death penalty an example of “tough love” as we can do with other punishments? It should be clear that the destruction of life is never an act of love for God, for king, for neighbor, or for self. Yet, civil authorities came into being to protect the community and the civil society from the infringement of their natural rights that came about from lawlessness. Compare this to the Just War theory, where starting a war is not intrinsically good as the destruction of life ensues, but long-term peace and resolution is theoretically achieved. War is not charitable by any means, but it is inaccurate to say that it contradicts the virtue of charity when the circumstances bringing about such a conflict make the virtue of charity non-existent. Civil authority’s punishments can be seen as a justified war against the state of nature. 

Cardinal virtues are foundational virtues that allow other virtues, like the theological, to develop. They are called cardinal because of their massive importance for our morality and our ethical lives. The Church defines the four cardinal virtues as prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence puts “right reason in action”, guiding all other virtues by the way of directing our conscience towards the common good in all situations. Justice consists of the firm and perpetual will to give to brother and to God what is right (that is to say, due). Fortitude is a virtue that allows us to be consistent in our principles, not just of thought, but also of action; fortitude lets us resist temptations and rely on the Lord as our Rock. Temperance masters the will through balance and honor, resisting the urgent temptations, but allowing decision-making and the will to be more nuanced. These virtues lead us to truth in action and word throughout our lives; this applies to the lives of individual laypeople as well as clerics and judges when making significant decisions, hence their importance when assessing the appropriateness of capital punishment.

The sanctioning of death is prudent only if the decision is approached and executed with great prudence. An executioner who puts hundreds of people under the guillotine for shoplifting would not be expressing prudence in their decision to impose capital punishment. A king who refuses to admit a group of terrorists, responsible for the destruction of hundreds of lives and risking the prosperity of the nation and her community, to the death penalty would also not be putting “right reason in action”. The Church holds prudence as the primary cardinal virtue because it allows other virtues to form in the right order and substance, and it is needed to make correct and virtuous decisions; when your decision could cause a life to end and the community to be impacted, it is more important to have prudence. The older Church teaching that upholds the death penalty’s existence as a tool for the state in the most extreme of circumstances aligns with this virtue and hence does not contradict other fundamental principles of her teaching. Prudence and justice are closely related, and this helps when assessing these virtues’ relationships with capital punishment. The death penalty, when used with great prudence in extreme situations, is an act of justice, aligning with CCC 2266 as a punishment with a medicinal quality. Certain crimes and sins warrant the most extreme of punishments – the loss of life – because of their nature and the nature of the criminal, and this extreme end of penance is not excluded by the Catholic concepts of justice. Self-defense is considered prudent because it is an extreme act that preserves life. Just war, while more controversial, is also considered prudent because it is not simply creating a conflict without justification, but it is often used to preserve life and cause peace in the long run (I say often because this is not always the case; see Afghanistan). 

Fortitude and temperance are important for civil society, but in the case of capital punishment, they tend to be less relevant than the other two cardinal virtues. This virtue balances two extremes: brashness and cowardice. The Church’s older teachings on capital punishment align with fortitude’s defense against brashness, because she did not want it to be used in arbitrary circumstances without proper time for prayer and judgement. Those who oppose the death penalty often base their objections around noble causes – the preservation of life – and therefore it is not as appropriate to say that the existence of capital punishment balances against cowardice, but the unilateral extreme that comes from its abolition would eventually cause the state to fall into weakness and a form of cowardice against the state of nature. Temperance applies more to pleasures and instincts, but with capital punishment, it can be applied to balancing the bloodthirsty instinct that leads to unjust slayings with the instinct to protect all life – what is incorrectly deemed to be the new orthodox pro-life ethic. 

If the right of the state to end somebody’s life contradicted any of the Seven Virtues, I would object to not only its usage, but its existence as a judicial tool of the state. We find sins like abortion and euthanasia intrinsically evil and deprived of any good, unable to achieve prudence or any notion of righteousness, because of their incompatibility with these virtues that the Church still teaches as foundational for a just Christian life and a just society. Thus, the death penalty does not contradict with natural law, the Seven Virtues, nor the older sound doctrine espoused by the Church’s magisterium under the deposit of faith. 

The pro-life movement has been championing the end to the death penalty in recent years as part of the “consistent life ethic”. This consistent life ethic has rightly led to the Church’s iron defense against the use of abortion, euthanasia, suicide, and contraception, as all lead to the destruction of life. It’s understandable why people who espouse this consistent ethic apply the ethic, supporting the preservation of life, to capital punishment, but there are differences that justify the state slaying a life versus the other destruction of life. While both capital punishment and abortion lead to the destruction of life, there is a staunch difference in the practice and rationality. Abortion is unilaterally grave, while the death penalty is just and noble when protecting the common good in the most extreme circumstances that all other judicial tools of the state could not effectively cause. The destruction of unborn life is abhorrent; destroying a life after a person has taken the lives of others and voluntarily surrendered their place in the social contract and rejected God’s grace is different because the criminal has acted in a way where punishment is warranted. It is never permissible to get an abortion because the baby can never warrant punishment incurring death; murdering many people makes the death penalty necessary in some cases. While the destruction of life through capital punishment is regrettable, it can have noble causes; abortion, contraception, and euthanasia cannot have noble causes. 

Many other Christians who reject the Church also object to the death penalty. If one doesn’t look at the Church Fathers or what the Council of Trent said about this specific teaching, then I might as well have made no arguments in this entire essay. It’s important to note that while the Church Fathers and their writings are often wise and brilliant, they are not infallible, hence why there are differences between Thomist-Augustinian theology and the Catechism’s full teachings today. Scripture is infinite in wisdom and should always be looked at thoroughly when addressing doctrinal issues. Unfortunately, Scripture does not lead to clear examples and endorsements to capital punishment; yet, there are no verses that object to the prudent use of the sanction in human hands. As established before, all human authority in governing bodies and institutions is ordained by God, which does not make authority infallible and without error (just look at Pontius Pilate, who had right authority but wrong action). Death is used commonly throughout the Scriptures, but it needs to be clarified that in both the Old and the New Testament, but more so in the New, ‘death’ refers to spiritual death and the descent of the soul into hell in contrast to the loss of life in the physical body. 

St. Paul makes a few references throughout his writings, and his wisdom in The Acts of the Apostles, that appear to legitimize the death penalty. Across Christian pro-death penalty advocates, Romans 13 is universally used: 

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.”

Romans 13:3-5

First, it has to be clarified that Romans 13 is often used inappropriately to justify the political agendas of any regime. The most recent example was when Attorney General Jeff Sessions cited the chapter to justify the government’s separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border two years ago; thankfully, this was universally condemned across American Christians, Jews, and Muslims. Romans 13 re-establishes that civil authorities are legitimate and that it is just to give them respect and obedience; Paul does not endorse corrupt actions, but endorses the nature of the authority. 

Romans was written by St. Paul to early Christians living in the Imperial Capital of the Roman Empire, during a time when the Emperor Nero was delighting in his widespread execution of the Church. St. Paul and St. Peter would face the same fate as their brothers in the same city not too long later. The Church was hiding from the Emperor’s unjust and corrupt actions. As Jesus hid from authorities for most of His life, this is not surprising, but Jesus did not discredit their authority and legitimacy, refusing to tear them down; connect this with the writings of St. Paul here. Romans 13:4 gives legitimacy to the use of the death penalty in the state. It cannot be appropriately used to justify mass executions because “the law is the law” and “the state is the state”. It can be used to show that the death penalty was legitimate at the time. St. Paul’s teaching that the authority does not “bear the sword in vain” aligns well with the Church’s older teachings on the state yielding capital punishment as an extreme medicine to disorder. Paul never clarifies when to use the death penalty, because the Church were not the ones in authority (very much the opposite), but he asserts its legitimacy. 

What about Romans 1:32, discussed previously with Aquinas? This is cited commonly in pro-death penalty arguments, but it lacks the clarity and the legitimacy of capital punishment. This is one example of the concept of “death” in the New Testament referring to spiritual death versus corporeal death. Those who willfully reject God’s grace deserve death; this is true, but it is much more likely that Paul refers to the loss of eternal life instead of the loss of life through killing. Additionally, this is used in the context of the Old Testament and describes the Old Covenant of the law, which he later contrasts with the New Covenant with Christ. This does not condemn the death penalty by any means, but it is not appropriately used when justifying its usage on any sinner. 

Let’s look at Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, where our Lord transformed many of the norms of the Old Covenant, and of the Gentiles, into the New Covenant:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well”

MT 5:58-40

It seems that Christ condemns retributive justice. Certainly, it would appear that a state sanctioning one who has committed evil acts would be “resisting” the one who is evil, contradicting His commandment to love your enemy. Additionally, Jesus forgives the adulteress of her grave sins in John 8:3-11 and does not sentence her to death – which was a more common judicial medicine for that crime back then. So would death penalty contradict the Gospel in this way?

If anything, these verses don’t necessarily outlaw retributive justice, but they, like His beatitudes and His other commandments in Matthew 5, introduced a new system and code of ethics and morality for proper and sound Christian living. Jesus did not come to destroy the law, but to fulfill the law, and this is what He does here. The law of the Old Covenant was ordained to draw men from extreme depravity; in this case, to prevent man from imposing retribution beyond the gravity of the offense at hand. To apply this new teaching to judicial systems and the behaviors of the state is to stretch the teaching at hand. Christ knew the evil that His disciples would face in regards to the Roman and Jewish authorities, and perhaps He did not want His disciples to lead governments and civil institutions. To perfect the disciples, He emphasizes humility, love, and justice. This does not exclude the possibility of governments – who He clearly establishes as the legitimate authority – executing people for great crimes, for the most extreme of crimes can – but not always – warrant the retributive slaying. 

Are judges who impose death sentences sinning in doing so? In cases of unjust sentences, of course. But that is not always the case. John 8:3-11 is one example of forgiveness and, on the topic of justice, transforms the system of justice among Christian ethicists, imposing higher standards of morality and tolerance for sin that did not exist so bountifully in the Old Covenant. I object to the extrajudicial and judicial killings of fornicators and sodomites, as should all Catholics. Jesus does not prohibit the retributive killings for all crimes, unilaterally. Christ re-establishes the truth that all life is sacred and has dignity, including the lives of those who transgress against us. The line in the Our Father where we pray to God to forgive us of our sins, “as we forgive those who trespass against us”, connects beautifully with His Sermon. Rather than prohibiting the death penalty at all times, He seeks to perfect us in all ways. Another argument can be made that Jesus refers to His disciples to not seek extrajudicial retribution, contradicting the State of Nature where homicides outside the law are common and prudence and temperance have not yet manifested in the minds and souls of man. 

The truth is that the issue of capital punishment is of great controversy in Christianity, and this has been the case since the Apostolic era. I cite Augustine and Aquinas, but it also needs to be said that other Church Fathers personally opposed executions and retribution. The Fathers were not a monolith, and this standard we apply to the Founding Fathers and the Framers of the Constitution’s opinions should also be applied to the early Catholic faith. The destruction of another life is sad in all cases. It is not intrinsically good. Thank God that Christ came to bring us sinners into life with Him, and that as the Body of Christ, we have transformed cultural and political norms for the past 2,000 years to have higher and greater standards of justice, truth, and morality. But this improvement in how justice is organized on the governmental level does not make the death penalty void in all cases. It must be used in extreme prudence and out of great necessity, with evidence that the destruction of one criminal’s life outweighs the benefits of his rehabilitation and acceptance into our society. The divine mercy does not exclude human justice, and it would certainly be beautiful if our culture could revert to the days of praying for those sentenced to death, and if our justice system was better oriented towards the magisterium of the Church. 

How we define what prudence means in the context of the judicial system is a question of political philosophy and, while theology can come in, it is not specifically a religious issue. The justice system of the United States has repeatedly failed in prudence, and the American opposition to the death penalty makes sense in this context. False accusations, while always terrible, are even more outrageous when the falsely accused are executed, which does happen in this country. Extrajudicial lynchings were widespread after the Civil War, especially in the South, and once lynchings became less common, the judicial killings of African-Americans south of the Mason-Dixie were common judicial tools used in racist and inhumane ways. The death penalty is rarely carried out nowadays, but its usage does not align with the Church’s standards between 1992 and 2018.

 In this sense, I agree with anti-death penalty advocates that many of these executions are insensible, but I still wish for the state to hold the right to sentence people to death, based on long-standing doctrine that does not contradict the Church’s principles, nor the Bible. Even if the sanction is not a deterrent for extreme crime, it can still be used in a medicinal purpose for the most extreme crimes and depravity. The CDF’s revisions do not represent a legitimate development of doctrine, despite their honest and good intentions. The ultramontanism seen by so many fellow Catholics that treat these revisions are infallible and unquestionable truths is not great for our Church. These revisions do not, in any way, delegitimize Francis’s pontificate, nor the legitimacy of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, contrary to what the sedevancists believe, but if doctrine should be developed and progressed, we must look at what the Church Fathers carefully guided Christ’s Mystical Body towards regarding the truths and authoritative teaching.

3 comments on “A Catholic Defense of Capital Punishment

  1. Pingback: SATVRDAY EDITION – Big Pulpit

  2. Samuel Johnson, Anglican, had a couple of things to say about capital punishment than are far more applicable and succinct than the pious blathering that passes for theology in some Catholic circles today. Many or our worthies who claim to have the wisdom to change historical teaching to accommodate the assumed sensitivities of the current age would do well to consider them.

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  3. This is the kind of eye-rolling, tortured reasoning justifying conscientious object from the right – but never from the left. And yet, we wonder why no one under 65 takes organized religions all that seriously.

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