The Death Penalty: Inadmissible and Doctrinally Continuous

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By Jonathan C. McMonigal, Holy Apostles College and Seminary

Part I: Introduction

In the wake of the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, the Catholic Church ruled the death penalty to be inadmissible. Although heavily qualified under the pontificate of St. John Paul II, capital punishment was only ruled out under the current pontificate of Francis. Traditionalist Catholics have been thrown into an uproar, as many claim this recent teaching to be a doctrinal corruption, a rupture with tradition. Certain traditionalist intellectuals have even called into question the orthodoxy of the reigning pontiff. The apparent contradiction is between a contemporary Vatican rejection of the death penalty and a historic Vatican sanction of it. This latest episode in doctrinal tension only serves to further strain the unity of the Post-Conciliar Church. If this moral issue is not soon bridged, then schism could be on the horizon.  

Contrary to a doctrinal corruption, the recent disapproval of the death penalty is a doctrinal development in continuity with tradition. A historical analysis of Catholic thought on the death penalty establishes a logical foundation for the Vatican ruling. Although the Old Testament sanctions capital punishment according to justice, the New Testament stays the hand according to mercy. The early Church Fathers continue the commentary on the death penalty, as some approve while others disavow the practice. The Middle Ages continue this muddled approach up until the Holy Inquisition, where debate is settled in pursuit of the preservation of Christendom through executing heretics. Through the Reformation and into Modernity, the Church held this strong endorsement, only for it to be finally reversed after Vatican II. The historical survey evidences no universal consensus, so that the Catholic tradition is at the very least open on the issue. Thus the ruling of Pope Francis is a necessary clarification for the understanding of the faithful. The Catholic Church doctrinally developed the inadmissibility of the death penalty according to the sources of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium.

Part II: Holy Scripture

The primeval account of the Fall of Man attests to the original cause of the death penalty. God plants our first parents within the Garden of Eden, and he charges Adam and Eve to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They tragically disobey God unto destruction, for as the Apostle states: “…the wages of sin is death… (Rom 6:23 NABRE).”[1] Now the Catechism of the Catholic Church defines death as when: “…the soul is separated from the body…”[2] With the rejection of God, man became alienated from the source of life itself.

The dramatic surprise is that Adam and Eve receive mercy with justice. God chooses to exile them rather than immediately executing them. God even clothes the shame of their nakedness with “garments of skin”, an implication that God took the life of an animal in their stead (Gen 3:21). This affinity for mercy is echoed by God when he later rhetorically asks: “Do I find pleasure in the death of the wicked…? Do I not rejoice when they turn from their evil way and live? (Ezekiel 18:23).” The justice of God is warmed by mercy unto the hope of repentance.  

The first murder of Abel at the hands of Cain is an explicit opportunity for merciful justice. God is horrified by this crime, as the Lord exclaims to Cain: “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground! (Gen 4:10).” The punishment God gives to Cain is not the strict justice of execution but the mysterious mercy of exile. As Pope St. John Paul II relates: “God, who preferred the correction rather than the death of a sinner, did not desire that a homicide be punished by the exaction of another act of homicide.”[3] God cares even for those who violate life.

God officially establishes the death penalty after the Flood of Noah. Now God enacts the retributive law of capital punishment to deter further bloodshed. As God decrees to Noah: “Anyone who sheds the blood of a human being, by a human being shall that one’s blood be shed; For in the image of God have human beings been made (Gen 9:6).” The dignity of man is in his reflection of God, for as the Catechism relates: “the human person is ‘the only creature on earth that God has willed for its own sake.’”[4] Justice is necessary in order to uphold the dignity of man in God.

In the Mosaic covenant, God reiterates the death penalty for murder. As it is written: “Whoever takes the life of any human being shall be put to death (Lev 24:17)…” Capital punishment preserved proportional judgment, so that equity is achieved in the community. As Fr. Kevin Mullen notes, the law was “an advance for its time in that it introduced the element of rationality to the instinctual law of revenge by confining it to no more than the original injury…”[5] God raised mankind out of societal anarchy with this law as a just deterrent to crime.

Although God held Israel to such a high standard of justice, he continued to display great exercises of mercy. Now the archetypical expression of mercy is the woman caught in adultery. Our Lord Jesus Christ prevents her execution by stating: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her (Jn 8:7).” The woman is spared as Jesus calls her to a new life of repentance. As Fr. Denis O’Callaghan notes, the morality of Christ goes beyond a “cold retribution”, or even a “primitive system of rough justice”.[6] Instead our Lord reveals the shocking redemption of the Gospel, for as it is written: “mercy triumphs over judgment (Jas 2:13).” Every person is meant to see themselves in the woman, able to be pardoned rather than punished by God.  

Part III: Holy Tradition

At the advent of the Catholic Church, the Church Fathers held to a spectrum of opinions on the death penalty. The context of the debate was martyrdom, as the New Catholic Encyclopedia records: “The earliest Christian experience at the height of the Roman Empire was chiefly that of victim.”[7] This lived experience made execution controversial. As legal scholar Howard Bromberg notes: “The best way to reconcile the disparate views of Christians on the death penalty is to acknowledge that Christian Tradition has been consistent in opposing the infliction of death, except in cases of social necessity, which were widespread until modern times.”[8] Thus the Fathers support the death penalty in principle but not always in practice.

Clement of Alexandria serves as the first unabashed endorsement of the death penalty. He states: “So that, when one fails into any incurable evil — when taken possession of, for example, by wrong or covetousness — it will be for his good if he is put to death.”[9] This is obviously according to strict justice. St. Augustine at least permitted it, saying: “As violence is used towards him who rebels and resists, so mercy is due to the vanquished or the captive, especially in the case in which future troubling of the peace is not to be feared.”[10] St. Ambrose likewise writes to a Christian judge on the issue, stating: “…you will be excused if you do it, and praised if you do it not…”[11] Clement stands alone as the only unqualified support for the death penalty.

In contrast, other Church Fathers heavily discourage the death penalty. Athenagorus of Athens writes in his apology that: “…we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly…”[12] The sanctity of life makes even a just execution unpalatable. Tertullian of Carthage rhetorically asks: “But how will a Christian man war, nay, how will he serve even in peace, without a sword, which the Lord has taken away?”[13] Lactantius of Africa even goes so far as uphold pacifism, saying: “…there ought to be no exception at all; that it is always unlawful to put a man to death”.[14] These Church Fathers embody the spirit of martyrdom, so that the notion of a Christian justification for the death penalty is unthinkable for them.

The Church of the martyrs would develop into the Church of empires. St. Thomas Aquinas epitomizes the Medieval view, stating: “Therefore if a man be dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin, it is praiseworthy and advantageous that he be killed in order to safeguard the common good, since “a little leaven corrupteth the whole lump” (1 Corinthians 5:6).”[15] Medieval Christendom used the sword to defend souls, but it would move into offensive ventures. As the New Catholic Encyclopedia relates, Pope Lucius III “opened the way for the use of capital punishment as the standard remedy for dealing with recalcitrant heretics…”[16] The Church continued to cooperate with the State on executing heretics up into modernity. Ancient apprehension to the death penalty gave way to Medieval acceptance.

Part IV: Holy Magisterium

In response to critics both Protestant and Liberal, the Catholic Church upheld the justice of capital punishment. The Catechism of Trent taught plainly that: “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.”[17] Holy Church defended the principle of the act. Pope Pius XII continued to teach that: “In this case it is reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned person of the enjoyment of life in expiation of his crime when, by his crime, he has already disposed himself of his right to live.”[18] The death penalty was defended as good per se, a necessary exercise of justice.

Now the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council taught that “…the Church has always had the duty of scrutinizing the signs of the times and of interpreting them in the light of the Gospel.”[19] In light of this, Pope St. John Paul II in the encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” discouraged capital punishment. He said that the State “…ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society.”[20] Legal scholar Howard Bromberg notes that: “John Paul’s teaching on capital punishment is a direct response to the horrors of the Twentieth Century…”[21] Two world wars, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb, all of these atrocities compelled the Pope to defend the sanctity of life, even that of guilty lives.

The successive pontificate of Benedict XVI would only develop the teaching further. The pontiff explicitly called for the abolition of the death penalty. He stated the following in the Apostolic Exhortation entitled Africae Munus: “…I draw the attention of society’s leaders to the need to make every effort to eliminate the death penalty and to reform the penal system in a way that ensures respect for the prisoners’ human dignity.”[22] Pope Benedict XVI states that the goal is “restorative justice” instead of retaliatory justice.[23] In this way, the Catholic Church can uphold a consistent life ethic, the “unequivocal celebration and reverence for the sacrality of life.”[24]

With the pontificate of Francis, the Catholic Church officially closed the door on the death penalty. The Catechism was revised to state:  “…the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person…”[25] In a letter to the bishops, Pope Francis explains that this revision is “a coherent development of Catholic doctrine.”[26] The letter referenced Pope St. John Paul II, who commented: “Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform.”[27] The hope of reformation is graced to the criminal to protect the dignity of life. As Pope Francis states in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, saying: “If I do not deny that dignity to the worst of criminals, I will not deny it to anyone.”[28] The sanctity of life is upheld by preserving the inviolable dignity of man. The justice of capital punishment remains good, but the mercy of redemption stands greater.

Part V: Conclusion

Drawing on the rich sources of Scripture, Tradition, and Magisterium, the Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is inadmissible. The doctrine as of now developed over millennia, but the seeds of truth were present from the very beginning. The dignity of man demands that each life be held as precious in worth, even to a defensive shedding of blood. God laid down according to justice the death penalty, but he also poured out mercy on those he wished to do so. The love of God for man necessitates the redemption of man, so that justice is ordered to the highest good of love through mercy.

Although Israel implemented the death penalty for all sorts of crimes, the advent of Christ brought forth a universal call to mercy. The condemned could find forgiveness in the Lord, and they could be spared from what they deserved in light of love. As the early Church took form, the Church Fathers reflected with diversity on the relationship between a justice unto death and a mercy unto life. During Medieval Christendom, justice took priority over mercy for the sake of political order, and as time went by reservations gave way to license. The Holy Inquisition is the apex of ecclesiastical involvement in the death penalty.

Pope St. John Paul II clarified that mercy should again triumph over justice in terms of the death penalty. Pope Francis merely finished the job by making explicit what was once only implied. Man doesn’t deserve to be saved from death, and this is displayed in the mercy of the cross. The opportunity to protect human life is an opportunity to share the love of God. As God poured out mercy unto all of mankind at Calvary, man is to share that same mercy in a court of law. Each criminal becomes a subject of redemption rather than an object of wrath. The death penalty becomes inadmissible within the context of this divine mercy.

Bibliography

Ambrose. Letters. At Eternal Word Television Network, www.ewtn.com.

Athenagoras. A Plea for the Christians. Trans. B.P. Pratten, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

Augustine. Letters. Trans. J.G. Cunningham, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1, ed. by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

Bromberg, Howard. “Pope John Paul II, Vatican II, and Capital Punishment.” Ave Maria L. Rev. 6, no. 1 (2007): 109-154.

Campion, D. R., Dillon, E. J., and Megivern, J. “Capital Punishment.” New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 3. (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003), 84-89.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. At The Holy See, w2.vatican.va.

Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests. Trans. John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan. South Bend, IN: Marian Publications, 1972.

Clement of Alexandria. The Stromata. Trans. William Wilson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Letter to the Bishops Regarding the New Revision of Number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty (8 February 2018).

Mathias, Matthew D. “The Sacralization of the Individual: Human Rights and the Abolition of the Death Penalty.” American Journal of Sociology 118, no. 5 (2013): 1246-1283.

Mullen, Kevin. “Violence and the Death Penalty.” The Furrow 31, no. 8 (1980): 505-517.

O’Callaghan, Denis. “Debating the Death Penalty.” The Furrow 43, no. 11 (1992): 610-616.

Pope Benedict XVI, On the Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace Africae munus (19 November 2011).

Pope Francis. Encyclical on Fraternity and Social Friendship Fratelli tutti (3 October 2020).

Pope John Paul II. Encyclical on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life Evangelium vitae (25 March 1995).

Pope Pius XII. The Moral Limits of Medical Research and Treatment. At Eternal Word Television Network, www.ewtn.com.

Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes (7 Decemeber 1965).

Tertullian. On Idolatry. Trans. S. Thelwall, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

The New American Bible, Revised Edition. Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2011. At United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.usccb.org.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologica. 2nd ed. Trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province. At New Advent, www.newadvent.org


[1] The New American Bible, Revised Edition (Washington, DC: Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, 2011), at United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.usccb.org.

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1016, at The Holy See, w2.vatican.va.

[3] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life Evangelium vitae, (25 March 1995), §9.

[4] CCC, 1703.

[5] Kevin Mullen, “Violence and the Death Penalty,” The Furrow 31, no. 8 (1980): 506.

[6] Denis O’Callaghan, “Debating the Death Penalty,” The Furrow 43, no. 11 (1992): 614.

[7] D. R. Campion, E. J. Dillon, and J. Megivern, “Capital Punishment,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 3. (Detroit, MI: Gale, 2003), 85.

[8] Howard Bromberg, “Pope John Paul II, Vatican II, and Capital Punishment,” Ave Maria L. Rev. 6, no. 1 (2007): 131.

[9] Clement of Alexandria, The Stromata, I, 27, trans. William Wilson, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2, ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[10] Augustine, Letters, 189, 6, trans. J.G. Cunningham, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 1, ed. by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1887.), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[11] Ambrose, Letters, 25, 3, at Eternal Word Television Network, www.ewtn.com.

[12] Athenagoras, A Plea for the Christians, 35, trans. B.P. Pratten, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[13] Tertullian, On Idolatry, 19, trans. S. Thelwall, Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 3. Ed. by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.), at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[14] Pope Francis, On Fraternity and Social Friendship Fratelli tutti, (3 October 2020), §265.

[15] Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, II-II, q. 64, a. 2, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.

[16] Campion, “Capital Punishment,” 86.

[17] Catechism of the Council of Trent for Parish Priests, trans. John A. McHugh and Charles J. Callan. (South Bend, IN: Marian Publications, 1972), 421.

[18] Pope Pius XII, The Moral Limits of Medical Research and Treatment, 33, at Eternal Word Television Network, www.ewtn.com.

[19] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et spes, (7 Decemeber 1965), §4.

[20] Evangelium vitae, §56.

[21] Bromberg, “Pope John Paul II, Vatican II, and Capital Punishment,” 111.

[22] Pope Benedict XVI, On the Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice, and Peace Africae munus, (19 November 2011), §83.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Matthew D. Mathias, “The Sacralization of the Individual: Human Rights and the Abolition of the Death Penalty,” American Journal of Sociology 118, no. 5 (2013): 1254.

[25] CCC, 2267.

[26] Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Letter to the Bishops Regarding the New Revision of Number 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the Death Penalty, (8 February 2018), §7.

[27] Letter to the Bishops, §4.

[28] Fratelli Tutti, §269.

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